Music theory is often sadly overlooked. Like learning math or physics, it can be dry until you discover what it can enable you to do. A foundational grasp of music theory can have a profound impact on the way that we lead people in our musical act of worship to God, which is why it’s important for us as a team. This method of learning music theory is different to a more traditional, classical style due simply to the fact that it is tailor-made to the style of music in which we will primarily be focussed. Be prepared. Those who are interested will probably read this much more than once as there is a whole lot of information to take in!
“What key is this song in?”
…one of the most frequently asked questions when in rehearsals.
In fairness, it’s not unreasonable. Talking about this question can be both extremely simple and quite complex. First, we will discuss why it can be so difficult in a modern worship context to understand what key a song is in, as well as provide a brief history as to how this problem arose in the first place. This is followed by a very easy method to work out what key a song is in.
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 trained 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 state 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 contemporary 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 memorizing 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 on the use of entire chords on a single instrument than in classical music. 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 neatly to a contemporary 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. Assuming we only use chord charts in whatever context we are in, how do we quickly work out the key of a song?
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 indicating the root of the key. These chords are dictated by the major scale that forms the base of the key (more on this in part two). Some are major, and some are minor chords. Here are the two crucial rules to remember:
- There are three major chords in any major key. Chord 1 (the chord that indicates the key), chord 4 and chord 5.
- As chord four and five are next to each other in the alphabet, chord one is the chord furthest from any other major chords.
If the song ‘Our God’ by Chris Tomlin uses the following chords in almost the entire song (not all in the same order or necessarily this key):
| 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.
The song ‘Oceans’ by Hillsong United uses a slightly different chord progression:
| Bm / / A/C# | D | A | G |
1. The three major chords in this song are D, A and G. Don’t be confused with the A/C# chord – it is called a ‘slash chord’ or ‘inversion’, and just a different way of playing an A chord; if in doubt, look at the left note and ignore the right note for the moment.
2. G and A are next to other in the alphabet.
3. Therefore, the song is in the key of D.
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!
In part 2, we’ll take a more detailed look at why this is. You can take a free course on music theory, covering this in depth (with quizzes to help practice) by clicking here.