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 element 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, but rather, 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 then 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.).
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.
In music, the time signature is a notational convention used in Western musical notation to specify how many beats are contained in each measure, and which note value is equivalent to a beat. The top number refers to how many beats per measure there are while the bottom number refers to the note value that represents one beat. So for instance, 4/4 timing would mean four quarter notes per bar (measure), 3/4 timing would mean three-quarter notes per bar, and 6/8 timing would mean six eighth notes per bar.
Notated Example in 4/4 Time
Notated Example in 3/4 Time
Notated Example in 6/8 Time
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.
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 harmony. The main job of harmony is to back up 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.
Melody and Harmony Notated Example
In this example, black notes represent the melody and blue notes represent the harmony.
An interval is the distance between two notes in a key. The distance between the notes can be found by counting starting from the bottom note. For instance, the distance between A and C is a third, because the counting would be: 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. Please refer to the “Melody and Harmony Noted Example” listed above for some ideas on what intervals would look like in musical notation.
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 only 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.
An inversion is the rearrangement of the top-to-bottom elements in an interval, a chord, or a melody. A three-note chord, or a triad, can be inverted twice from its original, or root, position. Inversions are helpful tools to use, particularly with different chord voicings on the guitar or the keyboard and are used frequently in worship music. To create an inversion in a chord, simply take the bottom note and bring it to the octave above as if you were “stacking” the new note on top of the chord. This is called a 1st Inversion. Do this again with the new root note and you’ve created a 2nd Inversion. When you do this a third time with the newly created root note from the 2nd Inversion, you end up at the original chord, but just one octave higher than before.
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 on 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.
Scale Degrees (Nashville Number System)
As mentioned, the terms “keys” and “scales” can be used interchangeably. When working with scales, it is important to know that each note in the scale relates to a certain “scale degree.” This simply means that for every note (scale degree) in that scale — one through seven — there is a chord that relates to that note and carries a certain major or minor characteristic. For example, the first, fourth, and fifth scale degree chords (or I, IV, V) are always major and the second, third and sixth scale degree chords (or II, III, VI) are always minor. The seventh scale degree is diminished, which are rarely used for the purposes of worship music.
Scale degrees help tremendously when transposing from one song to another and playing within structures and numerical values for notes rather than trying to remember exact notes and chords for each song you play. This leads to tremendous flexibility as a musician. It also helps with spontaneous moments in worship. For example, if your band knows that you are going to transition from the key of G to C and now vamp on a I, IV, V, VI pattern, you can actually signal the band as the leader and give hand motions for each of those things and the band will now know what to do by playing the chords related to those numerical values in that key. For more info on scale degrees and the Nashville Number system, check out our article Transitions In Worship Music and Nashville Number System Transposition Chart.
Article for this topic by Ashton Abbott.
- The beat is the constant rhythmical pulse throughout the song.
- Pitch is sometimes referred to as a note or tone, and is actually a much bigger concept within which these other terms fit.
- Rhythm is the duration of each chord/note within the beat of the song, or how long you hold out each chord/note and works within the beat.
- Tempo relates to how fast or slow the beat of the song is.
- The time signature is a notational convention to specify how many beats are contained in each measure, and which note value is equivalent to a beat.
- The dynamics determine how loud or soft each section of the song is.
- Intonation determines if the pitch you are playing is in tune or out of tune.
- Melody is the main vocal line that needs to stand out in each song and that is what the congregation will sing along with.
- A harmony is a parallel melody and plays a supporting role to the melody.
- An interval is the distance between two notes in a key.
- A chord is usually a group of three notes played together at the same time.
- An inversion is the rearrangement of the top-to-bottom elements in an interval, a chord, or a melody.
- Keys are synonymous with “scale” and have 12 major and 12 minor key signatures to work with in music.
- Scale degrees are numbers one through seven which correspond to notes in a scale and help with transposing between songs and playing within structures and numerical values.
Music is made up of many little components that, when put together, make something impressive.
See Also: Worship Teams
This is part of the Worship Training series.