We are very excited to announce a new article series that is launching today, "Music Theory In Worship"! This link will get you to an introduction post, with a link at the bottom to the first part in the series, "What Key Is This Song In?" We'll be regularly posting new articles with the purpose of helping you to grow in your giftings and to learn new things that will make you more capable, adaptable and effective in your role as a worship leader and musician! And... it's FREE!

Also, please comment below with theory-related topics that you would love to learn more about!


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Looked this over.  I don't disagree with any of the theory you present, but I think it might be worth thinking about who this series is aimed at -- worship LEADERS, right? - and maybe think through the content in that context.  Specifically, this first lesson tells you how to figure out what key the song is in if you have notated music, but most of what gets handed around is chord charts.

I think the rule of thumb on this is more that it's the LAST chord (or the last note) that gives you a quick indication what key a song is in, not the first one... the last chord of the chorus or whatever part of the song you sing last.  Even that isn't foolproof, sometimes the arranger thinks it might be cool to end on the V chord or something, but it's more the LAST chord you look at than the first one...

And maybe more important in the context of a worship band is what key the song SHOULD be in than what song your existing notation is in.  As a woship leader of a band where the lead singer is a low alto, I've had to go with a "high note should be an A" rather than the "C to shining C" rule that generally applies to a roomful of untrained voices.  I find that thinking in terms of note NUMBERS is much clearer than trying to think in terms of note names... at this point, I can listen to a recording of a song and after a couple listens, I can figure out that the highest note in the song is, for instance, the '7' note of the scale.  So, okay, if we want the highest note of the song to be an 'A' note, then A is the 7 note in the key of Bb.  Okay, we don't even have a keyboard in our band, so I would immediately drop that down to A, a good guitar/bass key.

Of course, there are a lot of contemporary worship songs where the singer decides to go "up an octave" for the chorus to make it exciting, or the chorus is just higher than the verse and singing our song in A would mean that the whole verse part would be very low, so there are a number of songs where, if I put that chorus down an octave, it gets the whole song into a smaller, more singable range.  So I lower the chorus an octave, but now the high note of the song is somewhere else in the song, maybe now it's the '3' of the scale, meaning that to make the high note of the song an A, we'd sing it in F, which, since we're a guitar-based band, means we'll do it in E.

And, yeah, maybe your band is good enough that you can put a song in B and the band won't miss a lot of chords when playing it.  Ours isn't.  If a song doesn't work in C, G, D, A or E (the good guitar keys), that's another reason why we might decide not to use it, even if it's a really good song.

It's a complicated process, and if I can't figure out a way to do the song so that it's singable with a high note of A, we might just not do that song, even if it's at the top of the CCLI charts and the big hit on the Christian radio station right now.

Anyway,once I've figured out what key is right for OUR band (and congregation), THEN I can start thinking about song order.  In our church, we have songs sprinkled throughout the service, and the only place where we have two songs together is in our two-song opening set... but if we were doing a whole opening "worship set" (or if I was sequencing an album), I have a "rising keys" theory that I like to use.  If the opening song is in C, the next song would probably be in D or E; if the second song is in E, then the next one would be in G or A.  And so on.  Sometimes I'll do two songs in the same key with the goal of segueing from one right into another, or at least starting up the second one right after the first one finishes if they don't lend themselves to a direct segue... and, of course, tempo and lyrical message affect sequence as well.  And "relative minor" makes it tricky, too - if I have a song in Dm and a song in E, which one is really the "higher" key, given that a song in Dm is sorta in F.

The part of the article about "what chords you'll be playing" seems a little pointless, since in most contemporary worship bands, you'll be handed a chord chart that indicates what the chords are for the song, you're not expected to make up your own chords for the song.  For our band, I make a point of keeping the chords on the chart simple (and not trying to tell the bass player to play an E under this C chord), and then as the band learns the song, they can work out on their own where it might be appropriate to play a sus chord or a 7th or something.

However, given that a lot of bands play from downloaded chord charts, I do think it would be useful for the guitar and keyboard players who might be reading this to include a less on what it means when the chord chart says to play an 11th chord at this point or a diminished chord (ever since I figured out that any diminished chord shape on the guitar that includes an A note is an A dim, I've had no trouble working that out while playing.  If this whole thing is supposed to be aimed at worship LEADERS, then just include a lesson or two that start out saying "print out these pages and pass them on to any guitarists in your band who you think might need to learn this."

Anyway, as I usually do, I've probably gone on way too long.  I made two or three starts at this and finally decided I'd better just blast it out.  Hopefully helpful.

Thanks for the reply Charles! Let me hit your points here...

1) The target is BOTH worship leaders and musicians. It can't be a super specific target as everyone is in a different place. Some worship leaders don't even play an instrument, while some lead with one. Hopefully everyone can gleam something from the articles posted and those to come.

2) The article did not say that the first chord of a song is a good indicator of the key. It actually says that this is a MYTH and not a reliable piece of info, certainly not on its own. The ending chord is mentioned also as being a helpful piece of info, but still it can't even be said that MOST of the time this is the case. Songs regularly end on chords other than the root.

3) I hear all the time and see people's confusion in determining a song key. Even if you're not going to do a song in the original key, it's very helpful to know what that original key is. If it's in E, for example, and a touch high, then you know you should look at dropping it to D or maybe C. You have to know where you are to effectively know where to go. :) The whole concept of what key you SHOULD sing a song in is very subjective. We'll address that separately as it's a whole different topic... although not as big of an issue as some make it out to be in my personal opinion.

4) I also won't ever do a song just because it's popular. Sometimes that actually makes me NOT want to do that song! Regardless of the song and its popularity, you have to do it in the way (and key) that works for you and your team. There's no right or wrong here... just what is best in your situation. You have to know what the team is capable of, definitely, and be sure that you're setting them up for a win.

5) Interesting on the rising key thought process. My initial thought though is that the key itself isn't going to give a higher or lower sound UNLESS the songs are back to back. The actual melody lines of that song will determine that. But when you have spacing in between the songs, it makes the concern of flow much less of an issue. Good point though.

6) The "what chords you'll be playing" thought is not pointless. Yes, you may have a chord chart in front of you. This concept of course REALLY comes into play when you are having to play something on the fly, or when you are learning a song by listening. Knowing what the most likely chords and progressions are is extremely helpful. Still, even if you have a chart, the more you know, the more comfortable you will be. You can have a chart in front of you, but if you don't actually understand what you're looking at, it makes it difficult to do anything but the bare minimum of covering a particular note or chord. Plus the more you know on the side of theory, the more comfortable you'll be as you understand what you're playing beyond just what you see on the page... which could even lead to being able to take your eyes OFF of the page a little more often. :) 

7) Yes, we'll be doing posts about different chords and structures. Much is to come! Thanks for the suggestions on that! Some lessons will be more geared to leader and some more to musicians, but hopefully each one will have something for everyone. Especially since many worship leaders do lead from an instrument, putting them in both the leader and the musician categories.

No worries on going long. I have the some problem, haha! But as you and I can recognize our problem, that's the first step in getting help, right? Kidding of course! :) Thanks for sharing!

What a great relief and delight it is to have a song left in a flat key instead of being transposed to an open chord key or capoed. Some charts are even written in sharps when flats are indicated. One of the worst was a chord chart that should have been in Eb but for some reason was oddly rendered in D#:

D#, Fm, Gm, G#, A#, Cm (and presumably Dm7b5, unused)

(Edit: 3 flats vs 9 sharps, double sharps and half steps conveniently reconciled to the next letter by not using B or E. Playing in flat keys is not showing off. It's just playing what is written.)

I felt chills. Why do arrangers assume guitarists are ignorant of basic musical concepts? Have we done this to ourselves? Is this an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect where some of us learn a few basic chords and incorrectly assume we have achieved mastery?

Yeah I hate seeing charts like that. Read my other comment below about a chart I saw yesterday. Song in the key of E, but instead of a B/D# as was played on the album, their chart had a Eb. That is so bad and wrong on multiple levels. Some people just don't know any better. That's part of why we're doing this article series... to help people fill these gaps.

Some people wonder why we make our own custom chord charts at WorshipReady and never just re-sell charts right from the publisher or artists. One, we wouldn't have the charts that work so well in OnSong and similar apps. Two, and more importantly, we wouldn't be able to guarantee the accuracy of the charts on our site! One person even was offended and took it as we were saying that we know better than even the person that wrote the song. In some cases though, we DO. :)

I'm writing this because it goes with this Music Theory article series discussion. Many artists/bands, even well-known ones, don't always really know what they are playing. Nothing against them, they could be great songwriters and musicians, but they don't help themselves or the fans of their music when they makes charts available that are really bad. I've had people close to me over the years that were in this boat, and when they had a new song, they'd send it to me with their chart so I could modify it. They knew it probably wasn't right. To them, with the amount of knowledge they had on theory, that is what the chords were. I'd send it back and say "THIS is actually what you are playing." :)

We just charted a song to put on WR where the band/publisher has a chart publicly available. It was the latest example of something that should not be seen by others. It may be what that band uses... and that's fine. Besides occasional wrong lyrics, typos, etc, here's one big example:

The song is in the key of E. Regularly, the song has a B/D#. On their chart, it is Eb. WHAT? First, the note Eb does not exist in the key of E. It would be D#. Yes, it sounds the same... enharmonic equivalents... but technically, it's wrong. Second, an Eb chord is not even close to the same as B/D#. One note out of three is the same. It's a completely different sound, and not what they were playing.

The guys in that band know how they play the song, but don't know how to correctly label it. This is not a slam on them (hence no song title or band name was mentioned), but they have a great song that they are making difficult for others to be able to take, learn and play in their churches. Correct theory does make a difference and IS important. Fortunately for people that want to use the song, there's now a new place to find the chart. :)

Many of us here on WTR are songwriters that truly desire to see the songs that God gives us go far beyond our own local churches. If that's you and you're not solid on your own charting, I'd suggest shooting your song to someone that is so they can make any tweaks for you. Be able to put a chart in someone's hands that accurately portrays what is on your CD so they can easily pick it up and use it!


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