Basic Music Theory for Worship Teams

I have to tell you, I’m a bit of a nerd for music theory. I love it. Or more accurately, I love what it enables you to do as a musician. Over the years I’ve taught a fair few people the basics of music theory and I think I’ve found a process that works. However, that’s usually on a one-to-one basis. I’ve tried to balance the line between comprehensive and simplistic the best I can, in a hope that someone will learn from the information below. Be prepared. It’s a big post, and I’m fully expecting that those who are interested will read this much more than once. If you aren’t interested in learning about music theory, this post really isn’t for you. Sorry to get your hopes up! I hope you find this useful:

“What key is this song in?”

That question. Possibly the question I am most frequently asked when in rehearsals. In fairness, it’s not unreasonable. Talking about this question can be both extremely simple and quite complex, so I’m going to talk about it in three parts. The first part will talk about why we find it so difficult in a modern worship context to understand what key a song is in, as well as provide a brief history as how this problem arose in the first place. The second part is the simple solution to working out what key a song is in. Skip to part two if you’re not interested in the history part. Part three builds a little more theory into the answer, which will help with more complex songs and hopefully, your general knowledge of music theory.

Part One – The Problem

In the 11th century, a monk called Guido Monaco (known as Guido of Arezzo) literally changed the way we look at music. After inventing an ingenious method of singing modes and scales (called the ‘sol-fa system’, which many vocalists will be familiar with), he devised a method of notating pitches on a stave. A single red line indicated an ‘f’, with the letter itself resting at the beginning of the line – the first ever clef. A few hundred years of development led to the first flat key signatures during the medieval period; finally evolving in the 17th century into the key signatures all classical musicians are familiar with today. These key signatures, perched on the stave at the beginning of any piece of music, instantly states the key of the song. So why is it that I’m asked this question so often?

For a number of reasons, stave notation is not quite so dominant in popular music as it is in classical music:

  • Pop songs are much shorter than classical pieces; condensed in order to accommodate the waning attention spans of a commercially all-important radio audience. The decrease in length greatly simplifies the task of memorising songs, so in many cases, stave notation is not quite so vital to the performer.
  • The performers themselves can also be of widely varying levels in terms of their theoretical knowledge; in fact, some of the world’s greatest known pop and rock stars have little to no knowledge of music theory and play entirely by ear. Notable examples include the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, a hugely influential ‘grunge’ band of the early 1990s, and Chris Martin of Coldplay, one of the biggest-selling bands of the last decade. As a result, they haven’t needed to rely on music notation to compose music in quite the same way.
  • A classical orchestra can use up to a hundred different instruments at any point. It would be impossible to communicate all the different parts and dynamics quickly. In contrast, a generic pop/rock band has between three and seven instruments with very different ranges and roles, making it much easier to arrange.
  • Pop songs are more simple and repetitive. The nature of a standard pop song’s arrangement is that it generally depends a lot more on the use of entire chords on a single instrument than in classical instrument. Therefore, notation can be simplified to basic ‘chord charts’ – charts that simply quickly state the chords and the point at which they are to be played rather than individual melody lines.

What about worship teams?

This brings us into a worship context. A worship team is almost always entirely reliant on volunteers, with musicians of varying standards and theoretical knowledge, playing shorter songs in comparatively small bands. Consequently, the need for traditional stave notation is not as essential as it once was. A chord chart can easily be all that’s required, but often doesn’t indicate the key of a song (although, increasingly we have begun to indicate the key of the song at the bottom of our chord charts at Kerith Community Church).

So assuming we only use chord charts in whatever context we are in, how do we quickly work out the key of a song? 

Part Two – The Solution

Most songs (particularly worship songs) only use diatonic chords; that is, chords from the key. There are seven chords in each major key, with chord one indicated the root of the key. These facts only apply to diatonic chords, but they are simple enough:

1. There are three major chords in any major key. Chord one (I), chord four (IV) and chord five (V).

2. As chord IV and V are next to each other in the alphabet, chord I is the chord furthest from any other major chords.

Example 1

The title song from the Kerith Worship CD, ‘Magnanimous‘, uses the following chords in the entire song (not all in the same order):

Em  C  G  D

1. The three major chords in the song are C, G and D.

2. C and D are next to each other in the alphabet.

3. Therefore, the song is in the key of G.

Example 2

Another Kerith Worship song, ‘This is Love‘, uses a few more chords, but the principle is the same:

Am Bb  C  C/E  Dm  F

1. The three major chords in this song are Bb, C and F. Don’t be confused with the C/E chord – it is called a ‘slash chord’, and just a different way of playing a C chord; if in doubt, look at the left note and ignore the right note.

2. Bb and C are next to other in the alphabet (ignore flats and sharps when looking at the letters).

3. Therefore, the song is in the key of F.

A common misconception is that you can work out the key of a song by simply looking at the first chord used in the song. Whilst it is true that many songs establish the key of the song by using chord I as a starting chord, this is not always the case and is very risky!

Part Three – The Explanation

At its most basic, the key of a song tells us the scale that is being used; indicating both the starting point (or root note) and the series of tones and semitones that follow. For example, the C major scale is as follows:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

As you can see from the keyboard pictured below, between a the majority of the notes are black notes. These are the . As there is only a semitone between E & F and B & C, it is not possible to add a smaller interval between them, so there are no black notes.


Therefore, the formula for a major scale is as follows:

T  T  S  T  T  T  S

T = Tone

S = Semitone

When inserted into our C major scale, it looks like this:

C (T) D (T) E (S) F (T) G (T) A (T) B (S) C

Using our knowledge of tones and semitones, we can create a major scale from any starting note. The process is as follows:

1. Decide which key you need to work out.

2. Write out all the note letters in order.

3. Using the formula, add any sharps or flats.

Example 1

1. We’re going to work out which notes are in the G major scale.

2. G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G

3. G to A is a tone, as it should be.

A to B is a tone, as it should be.

B to C is a semitone, as it should be.

C to D is a tone, as it should be.

D to E is a tone, as it should be.

E to F is a semitone, but it should be a tone. Therefore, we sharpen it, or raise it a semitone to F#.

F# to G is a semitone, as it should be.

So our G major scale is G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G.

Example 2

1. We’re going to work out which notes are in the F major scale.

2. F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F

3. F to G is a tone, as it should be.

G to A is a tone, as it should be.

A to B is a tone, but according to the formula, it should be a semitone. Therefore, we flatten it, or lower it a semitone to Bb.

Bb to C is a tone, as it should be.

C to D is a tone, as it should be.

D to E is a tone, as it should be.

E to F is a semitone, as it should be.

So our F major scale is F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F.

Number Time

As well as describing scales by their letters, we can describe them by their degrees. The C major scale looks like this:

1   2  3  4   5  6   7   8

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

So, in the key of C, F is the 4th degree of the scale, B is the 7th and so on.


Once we know how to build scales, we can begin to build chords. A chord is a group of (usually) three or more different notes sounded together. The most commonly used of all chords is the triad, consisting of three notes (‘tri’ meaning three). There are many types of triads, but the most frequently used are the major and minor triads. The first note of the chord is called the root note – this is the note that gives the chord its name, and is usually (but not always) the lowest note of the chord. From there, we add the 3rd note and the 5th note from the root. For example, in the key of C:

If C is our root note, E would be our 3rd note and G would be our 5th. Therefore, our chord would contain the notes C, E and G.

If D is our root note, F would be our 3rd note and A would be our 5th. Therefore, our chord would contain the notes D, F and A.

The process continues until you have seven chords (look vertically):

G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G

E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  (notice that the notes are ‘stacked’ on top of each other)

1  2   3  4   5   6  7   1

As you can see, all major and minor triads have the same basis – Root, 3rd, 5th. But if you hear a major triad and then a minor triad, you would instantly hear that they sound very different. Whilst a major triad sounds happy, a minor triad has a much sadder tone to it. Why is that?

The 3rd

The fundamental difference between a major and minor triad is in the 3rd. Returning to our keyboard picture, let’s take the following chords:

G            E

E            C

C   and   A

If C is ‘1’, the number of semitones (or half steps) between C and E is 5.

If A is ‘1’, the number of semitones (or half steps) between A and C is 4.

That difference of a semitone is pivotal to the entire chord. Consequently, a 3rd that is five semitones from the root is called a ‘major 3rd interval’, while a 3rd that is only four semitones from the root is called a ‘minor 3rd interval’.

So in the key of C, the chord with A as its root is a minor chord. Therefore, we call it ‘A minor’ (or ‘Am’ for short). However, major chords are simply referred to by their letter (eg. C).

In the key of C, our chords are as follows:

C  Dm  Em   F   G  Am  Bm

1      2     3      4   5    6     7

(Note: Chord 7, Bm, is slightly more complicated, but we’ll worry about that another time)

This order of chords is actually the same for any key:

Major  Minor  Minor  Major  Major  Minor  Minor

Another way of writing this is by using Roman numerals; upper case indicates major chords and lower case indicates minor chords, but it is by no means the only way:

I          ii          iii          IV          V          vi          vii

1         2m     3m         4           5         6m        7m

Maj   min    min       Maj      Maj       min        min

The benefit of using this method is that we get used to seeing the chord number as well, so it is easy to write chord progressions that can be quickly moved to any key.


Take the example of ‘Magnanimous’ used earlier. The majority of the song uses this chord progression:

Em C  G  D

Using the method we looked at earlier, we can tell that the song is in the key of G, as C and D are next to each other. Using the G major scale, we can work out all the chords in the key:

1. Write the scale:

G  A  B  C  D  E  F#

1. Use the following formula:

1     2m  3m  4    5    6m  7m

G     A     B    C    D      E     F#

1. Add the minor symbols to the lower case chords:

1     2m   3m    4   5   6m    7m

G   Am   Bm    C  D   Em   F#m

Here are all the chords from the key.

We can also tell that, using the Nashville number system, the chord progression is:

6m 4 1 5

We can use this information to easily transfer the chord progression into any other key. This is called ‘Transposition’.

In time, you will start to recognise chord progressions in certain keys. Many chord progressions are repeated in literally hundreds of songs.

To Conclude

This is by no means an exhaustive lesson in music theory – simply a whistle-stop tour of what I believe is all the essential information for the average worship team member to serve comfortably in most settings. To repeat my comments at the beginning, I’d expect that this wouldn’t suddenly enlighten you after simply one read. This stuff takes practice. My hope is that you can return to this post whenever you want to refresh or improve your understanding of music theory until it becomes second nature. Then you can progress way beyond this stuff to the really quirky stuff!! I’d love to hear any comments, revisions or thoughts on this – is this helpful?

(apologies for the poor formatting, I blame WordPress)


Why Children’s Workers Need To Man Up

Let’s start with something that I feel is little bit of an elephant in the room…

I’m a man. I love children. I hate that for many people (in my generation at least), that gives rise to all sorts of sordid connotations. Far too many times have people made sarcastic, hurtful jokes when I mention that I’m serving in the children’s ministry or that I thoroughly enjoy working with children. The problem is, I used to make the same kinds of comments once too! Is that why there are so few male children’s workers?

Time to man up

In the church I get to serve in, we have some phenomenal female children’s workers, creating a supportive, nurturing, loving environment for well over a hundred children each week. In fact more broadly, I’ve met many exceptional women who do outstanding work with children; until I was eleven, all of my teachers (bar one for around three months), were female. I’m hugely grateful for the quality of teaching I received. Women are nailing children’s work, but I strongly believe that men need to step up to the plate. Whilst there are some outstanding men in our church children’s work, there are simply not enough men supporting the growth and development of children in our society.

I guess I’m talking most to the males in my generation. The male students and those in their early-twenties who are somewhat understandably in hot pursuit of fame, fortune and/or success. I earn a living as a musician; I have to admit I sort of know what it feels like to want those things. But I have never been more convinced in the power and influence of one of the ‘grown-ups’ showing children how special they are – that they matter.  We’re called as Christians to serve the needy, and who could deny that children are in need of passionate, strong adult role models of both genders? Jesus even highlights the importance of children in Mark 10:13-16:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

A call to arms

This is a call to arms for men. Ok, those arms might be plastic swords and foam footballs – possibly even shaving cream and a silly hat (see pictures below) – but the children of this world need more positive male influences.  The Department for Education has ‘found overwhelming evidence that children’s life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life.’  Shouldn’t we be a part of this crucial stage in whatever way we can?!

Click here for an interesting video I found on the subject


Getting ‘gunged’ in our church kids work. Costume not my own


Hanging out with Meg while her mum worked next to us


Naomi (and her Dad) Skyped me so she could show me what she’d learnt on guitar. So cute!


Chilling with the Partingtons


I spent a few great months living with Meg’s family

All photos used with the parent’s permission.


Facebook/Twitter: Where is the Love?

Ok. Here it is: as a general rule, I don't think we use social networking as well as we could.

I find it increasingly depressing to open up Facebook, Twitter and various other social applications and see a wave of boasting, complaining and sniping washing over my news feed. Am I blameless? Absolutely not. But is this the way it should be? I don't think so.

I'm a Christian and strongly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired (from God) and intended to help us live our lives in the best, most fulfilling way possible. There's a passage in particular that I think can guide us in our use of social networking…or at the very least, can guide my future posts:

(You might not believe in God, but don't worry, although this next quote is from the Bible, it doesn't even mention the 'G' word. Just view it as wise words from old guys.)

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)

As Christians, we are called to love God and love people – as human beings, this world can only survive with love in its various forms, so I don't think anyone is exempt from this. I think the issue is one of love; that inadvertently, we are acting without love or at least, with less than perhaps we ought to. Here's what I believe we can learn from this passage:

Love is patient…

…so don't post impatient statuses/comments/tweets.

Love is kind…

…so use these forms of communication to build up, encourage and inspire, not to dig at, snipe up, tear down or destroy.

Love does not envy…

…so don't post bitter statements when someone else does something that makes you jealous.

Love does not boast…

…so we shouldn't boast! This is one of the most frustrating things for me to see personally – we don't walk around shouting about our new phones, computers, cars, qualifications, results etc, so why do we do it online? I've been bad at this in the past and have been trying really hard over the last year or so not to do it. This isn't a clear-cut thing though; in fact it's the one that I am currently wrestling with the most. For example, I love travelling and posting pictures of beautiful places, but where is the line between sharing your joy and boasting? A difficult one for sure that I'm still a long way from figuring out!

Love is not arrogant…

…so don't be! Sort of linked to the boasting.

Love is not rude…

…so speak well both to people and about people.

Love does not insist on its own way…

…so, sort of obviously, don't insist on your own way!

Love is not irritable…

…so don't be irritable.

Love is not resentful…

…so don't be resentful!

Some of these seem sort of obvious, don't they? We don't need to air our dirty laundry or slate the people around us publicly and really, does any one actually care about that latest expensive product we've just bought? Imagine if we used the online world to share joy, encourage the people around us and speak well of others. Imagine if we tackled big issues in a respectful, honourable way and tackled private issues…in private! To me, that sounds like a great place.

I'm going to do my best to create that place; I'd love it if you tried to create it with me. This is also an open invite to call me on it when I mess it up – honestly, feel free. I know I will…and probably before the week is out! We'll see!!

One Year Blog Challenge

Day 365: Challenge Complete!!

I’ve made it.

365 days of blogging.

18,550 reads (about 18,200 more than I expected).

Written from England, Estonia, Albania and Italy.

Read by people in 109 countries (see this handy map below, courtesy of ‘WordPress Stats’):


When I started this challenge, I had no idea what to expect. Inspired by my American friend Lisa who had done the same thing, I started somewhat naively – I can safely say that this has been one of the hardest challenges I have ever taken. Every day has been overshadowed by the little blog-demons taunting me, knowing full well that I would have to find the time not only to write, but to attempt (often feebly) to say something of value.

It’s been a phenomenal journey and it’s been a real privilege to share my life with you every day for a year. I certainly won’t be blogging so regularly, but on the bright side, the quality of writing might be a little higher. Thank you so, so much for every single post that you’ve read, commented on or shared. I am so grateful for all the encouragement I’ve received over the course of this journey. Although monumentally tough (for me at least), I couldn’t recommend it more highly for those of you who would like a challenge. Why not give it a go yourself?!

Thanks again, it’s been lots of fun!

Dave :)

One Year Blog Challenge

Day 364: Youth Band Worship

I’m grateful that Revolution, the Kerith Community Church youth worship team, have given me a reason to write about them on this penultimate day of the challenge.

As usual, we gathered for our time together as a team before splitting into our three separate bands – the team I was with today met in the studio. Having talked through the upcoming set list, we attempted to practice the songs until it became apparent that any significant progression would be unlikely. The band just didn’t know the songs – my fault entirely for not sending out the set lists sooner, but rather than dwell on practising songs we didn’t know well enough, we spent time simply worshipping God together. For me, it was a pretty powerful experience.

Part of leading a youth worship team (for me, at least) is the perpetual concern that the young people are more interested in playing their instruments than worshipping God. There have been times in years gone by where that might very well been the case; but even if it was, those days are long gone now. It was so refreshing and exciting to hear the unashamed, uninhibited and unplugged worship of a passionate group of young people who lay their instruments to one side in order to get on and worship God without distraction. It was brilliant being able to spend time praying for each other and dwelling in the presence of God with no sense of awkwardness. For me, that’s pretty much the perfect scenario.

If you attend Kerith Community Church, I want to tell you in this last opportunity of the challenge (I’ve got something else in mind for tomorrow) just how inspirational these young people are. They are the real deal. Passionate, talented worshippers who want to give all they have to se Jesus glorified. If these are the guys who will be leading the church in worship in years to come, the future is in great hands. I want the last thing I say about Revolution in this blog challenge to be this:

I couldn’t be more proud of this wonderful team of young people. They are truly awesome.

One Year Blog Challenge

Day 362: My Current Playlist

There are two albums currently circulating my playlist at the moment. Enough that I can do nothing today but thoroughly, thoroughly recommend them:

Hillsong United’s latest album, ‘Zion’, is nothing short of spectacular. It dwarfs every other album around at the moment (including the one below, in my opinion) in terms of sheer lyrical genius, melody, gorgeous arrangements and sensational originality. It’s a worship album, but not like you’ve heard before – it’s closest relative is United’s previous album ‘Aftermath’…but this is a step up. Currently, I’m addicted to ‘Relentless’, ‘Oceans’ and ‘Love is War’ in particular, but the whole album is fantastic. GET IT!


Elevation Worship’s latest album, ‘Nothing is Wasted’ is good. There’s no doubt about that. I think the problem with it is that it’s a shadow of their previous album, ‘For The Honor’ and simply can’t compete with the outrageous quality of Hillsong United’s project. Having said that, I reiterate what I said – it’s good. I strongly recommend buying this if you’re not into the uber-synth heavy tracks on Zion (although it’s got plenty of things going on for more keyboard-centric music lovers). It’s worth buying. Just don’t buy it with Zion at the same time!


Let me know what you think!

One Year Blog Challenge

Day 361: Press Save

Today I finished my assignment far quicker than I planned, leaving a whole Monday afternoon wide open to play with the new keyboard sounds I bought a little while ago. From a composing point of view, there’s a whole new possibility of orchestral sounds that leaves me like a child in a sweet shop. Amazing!

After two hours of glorious solitude enjoying my own little musical world, the unthinkable happened. My laptop crashed. Two hours of composition lost – I hadn’t saved it.

To say I was a little disappointed is somewhat of an understatement.

As irritating as it was, I began to think about how it relates to life in general. There are times where life crashes – where that ‘up and to the right’ trajectory spirals downwards and suddenly, it feels like you’ve taken a few steps backwards. My thought for the day is this: it’s inevitable we will experience some sort of crash moments, but if we save regularly, the consequences won’t be felt in such a significant way. Let me explain what I mean.

When you experience a great moment, be sure to press the ‘save’ button in your head. Savour it. If someone wiser than you offers you a teaching moment, save it. When saved combined, the memories and lessons accumulated over the course of time ensure that those crashes become nothing more than minor inconveniences.

Don’t forget to press save!

One Year Blog Challenge

Day 360: The Inevitable Birthday Post

Let’s be honest. I’m doing a 365 days of blogging challenge…it was inevitable that one of those was going to be on my birthday!

I’m 24 today. 24 on the 24th February. That will never happen again. I’m so grateful to everyone in my world who has made a pretty standard day a particularly special one. I have never had a stronger and more varied group of friends and I don’t take it for granted. I’m grateful for friends all over the country and for those in other countries who always manage to bring a smile to my face. Thank you.

Having worked for the vast majority of the day (though admittedly, doing a fantastic job with people I love to pieces), I’m going to spent the rest of my 24th birthday relaxing before an early start and a monstrous week of assignments and post-holiday catch ups. I’m going to relax before the final push to the end of this challenge. We. Are. Nearly. There!!

Thank you again!

One Year Blog Challenge

Day 359: Refuel Time

Last night, I was extremely blessed by two of my favourite people in the world who took me out to dinner for my birthday (which is tomorrow, by the way!). I am so grateful for them both, but if I’m completely honest, I was a bit miserable. Having returned from a fantastic few days in Estonia and back to reality, for the first time in a while I felt totally lost. It happens every so often; I question my motives, my achievements, my direction, my choices. I wonder if I’m doing all that God has called me to do, or whether I’m just coasting. Last night, my two best friends took me out for dinner and listened patiently while I confessed my worries and concerns.

Today, determined to let the previous night’s conversations be a blip rather than a regular occurrence, I arrived at church an hour early and spent some time reading the Bible. I don’t do that anywhere near often enough, so today was me addressing that. We were gathering around 50 of our creative team members today to be filled with vision, inspiration and practical direction and were joined by Life Church’s Jock James for the day. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

It’s amazing how God guides you in the most incredible way when you make a conscious decision to fix your eyes on Him. I’ve been so concerned with my own worries that I was beginning to lose God in all of it – and yet, the moment I chose to put all of that aside, there He was, guiding me. Today I was spiritually refuelled…and I’m extremely grateful for it! I can’t wait for this next season!