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)


16 thoughts on “Basic Music Theory for Worship Teams

  1. Dave,
    I’m the drummer and sometimes I have to help with this stuff, it’s been hard, you wouldn’t belive how much this helped me!
    My wife leads worship, but she never knows what key is best for her in a determined song, how can I apply this to help her?

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