music theory part 2

Music Theory for Worship Teams (Part 2)

In Part 1 of “Music Theory for Worship Teams”, we looked at the problem of recognizing the key of a song and an easy method to solve it. In part 2, we delve a bit deeper into the reasoning behind the method.

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 the majority of the notes are black notes, indicating semitone intervals between the notes, often described as ‘accidentals’. 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.

music theory part 2

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 figure 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 figure out which notes are in the G major scale.
2. G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G
3. Using the formula, add any sharps or flats:
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.

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

Example 2

1. We’re going to figure out which notes are in the F major scale.
2. F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F
3. Using the formula, add any sharps or flats:
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.
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    C

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

Chords

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 

(Notice that the notes are ‘stacked’ on top of each other.)

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 your keyboard picture on the previous page, let’s take the following chords: C, E and G (together) and A, C and E (together).

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 a diminished chord, but they are used so rarely in contemporary worship music that you can study that in your own time if interested).

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

Another way of writing this is by using numbers (the ‘m’ signifying a minor chord):

1      2m    3m      4      5       6m   7dim
Maj  min   min   Maj   Maj   min   dim

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.

Example

Take the example of ‘Our God’ used in part 1. 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#

2. Use the following formula:

1     2m  3m   4     5     6m   7m
G     A     B    C    D      E     F#

3. 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 known as ‘transposition’.

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

In Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive lesson in music theory, nor is it intended to be. Rather, it is simply a whistle stop tour of what currently seems to be essential information for the average worship team member to serve comfortably in most settings.

If you have never studied any music theory before reading this article, it is likely that you will have found this difficult. That’s ok! This stuff takes practice. The idea is that you can return to this article whenever you want to refresh or improve your understanding of music theory until it becomes second nature. Then you can progress way beyond this to the really quirky stuff!

You can take a free course on music theory, covering this much more slowly and in greater depth (with quizzes to help practice) by clicking here.

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