Jump to Questions

Sit down with a worship leader or team mentor and go through eachof these terms. Try to see if you can apply all of them to the songs you play at your church. For more info on each of these terms and others, go to www.musictheory.net.

If you are on a worship team or want to be on a worship team, you may have heard about music theory at some point. Music is made up of many little components that, when put together, make something impressive. Looking at every little thing in music isn’t necessary, however, so we are going to briefly describe a few music theory terms that will be helpful in the context of participating on a worship team. You don’t have to understand each of these terms inside and out, just be aware of what they mean.


In music, the beat is the constant rhythmical pulse throughout the song. When you tap your foot to the music, you are tapping along to the beat. Every worship song that we play will have a steady beat. Most songs we play have four beats (4/4 timing), meaning we count 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2…. Sometimes we will play songs with three beats (3/4 timing) or six beats (6/8 timing) as in 1-2-3-1-2-3 or 1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6, etc. The beat can change from song to song, so make sure you listen for it.


Pitch is sometimes referred to as a note or tone, and is actually a much bigger concept within which these other terms fit. Whenever we pluck a string on guitar, press down on a piano key, or sing a lyric, the sound we get is a pitch. We distinguish different pitches by how low or high they sound. Simply put, if the note sounds deeper, it is a lower pitch. If the note sounds higher, it is a higher pitch. Notes are named pitches (such as an A, B, C#, etc.), and tones describe the quality of the pitch (screechy, smooth, rich, etc.).


A chord is usually a group of three notes played together at the same time. Notes in chords can also be repeated (like having two A’s, one C#, and two E’s to make an A major chord). Most of our worship songs have about four to six different chords in the same key. The chord progression refers to the order in which the chords appear in a section of a song.


Rhythm is the duration of each chord/note within the beat of the song, or how long you hold out each chord/note. Rhythm works within the beat. Each individual musician will have to execute the correct rhythm in order for the team to be in sync. If one person is holding out chords for only three beats instead of four, for example, then they are playing the wrong rhythm.


Tempo is how fast or how slow the beat of the song is. The tempo of the song will be important to get right because it can change the entire mood of the song. It is one of the main jobs of the drummer to set the tempo and keep it consistent.


The dynamics determine how loud or soft each section of the song is. A song is not just always one volume; usually the verse of the song will be softer and the bridge or chorus will be louder. Think of it as mountains and valleys. Mountains are when the dynamics are loud and valleys are when the dynamics are soft. Dynamics are important because they add intensity and interest to the music.


There are twelve different major key signatures that we can play in: C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, Ab, A, Bb, B. There are also twelve different minor keys: A, Bb, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#. In each key there are a different set of chords. For example, the key of A has the chords A-D-E-F#m, and the key of Cb has the chords Cb-Fb-Gb-Abm. These chords are based off the notes in the scale of that key (the terms “scale” and “key” are oftentimes interchangeable). When you know the key of a song, you know which scale (for lead instruments) and likewise, which chords you will need to practice.


Simply put, intonation determines if the pitch you are playing is in tune or out of tune. If you have good intonation, you are in tune, if you have poor intonation, you are not in tune. If you are not sure what is in or out of tune, sit down at an electric keyboard (acoustic pianos can go out of tune over time and need to be re-tuned) or grab a tuner. Vocalists need to be very aware of their intonation, as well as any instruments that require tuning. Keyboard players are off the hook!


Whoever is vocally leading the song is singing melody. Melody is the main vocal line that needs to stand out in each song and that is what the congregation will sing along with. The vocal melody should be the most prominent thing people can hear in the band. This is why it is important to stick to the melody of the song when you are leading the song rather than branching into harmony or complicated vocal trills.


Whoever is singing a part that is different from the melody is singing a harmony. The main job of harmony is to backup and support the melody line. Another way to think of harmony is a parallel melody. The notes are different than the melody but it supports the rise and fall of the melody, although it doesn’t have to match this pattern exactly. In fact, the harmony should never get in the way of the melody, and only be present when the melody is present and well represented. Using an A major chord, the A would be the melody, and C# and E would be the harmonies.


An interval is the distance between two notes in a key. You find the distance between the notes by counting starting from the bottom note. So for instance, the distance between A and C is a third, because we count 1 – A, 2 – B, 3 – C. This is especially helpful for harmonies – which sound the best at a 3rd or 6th. For example, if the melody goes from the notes “C-D-E”, the harmony at the interval of up a 3rd would be “E-F-G”, and the interval of a 6th would be “A-B-C”. Also,  it is important to note that the musical alphabet only goes from A-G and then repeats, so you only have seven letters you will need to work with.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this article? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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