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Music Theory In Worship

Written by Nathan Gifford on Friday, 01 March 2019. Posted in Music Theory In Worship, Blogs

Article Series to Equip the Worship Leader and Musician

Music Theory In Worship

As a worship leader for over 20 years, I've experienced that the majority of worship leaders and church musicians fall very short in the area of music theory. Many know just enough about music and their instrument to fill a spot on the team, and sadly most of them have zero motivation to be anything more than what they are today. Of course, it's not a sin to lack a solid understanding of music theory. However, it's not right to just hack through... to just "get the job done", etc.

Here is what, while in the realm of church worship teams in some capacity or another, you have either said or heard... more than once:

  1. What do you mean the song is in Bb? Just play it and I'll figure it out!
  2. What do you mean by "you come in on 3"? I don't really count when I play... I just feel it!
  3. No, I can only play the song in C. I only know these four chords. Learn other chords? No way! Why would I ever need to do that?! (oh yeah, I forgot, you'll just capo it.)
  4. I don't need a chart. I just play by ear man. Those occasional wrong notes are just me doing my thing... you know, making the song my own. (oh my...)

Clearly stated with a little sarcasm, but you get the idea. Church musicians often know little to no music theory. Maybe they've never had an opportunity to learn, or maybe they never took advantage of what they could have because they didn't see it as important. Either way, while I do believe that God gives us gifts and enables us to play our instrument and to sing, that does NOT mean that any of us have arrived. We are to give God our very best... and we should continually be striving to make our best even better! That doesn't mean just practicing your instrument (although that would be nice, too), but it also involves you doing all that you can to grow in your knowledge and understanding of music... your craft... your area of gifting. To be satisfied with where you currently are and think you have no need of learning anything beyond what you already know... that, in my opinion, is not being the best steward of what God has given you.

Psalm 33:3 (NIV) says "Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy." While there are a number of items to run with from just this one verse, for now, we will focus on the directive to "play skillfully". The Bible is crammed full of stories, examples and teachings that tell us to give our very best to God, and that He will not receive anything less. A half-hearted praise... an offering that costs you nothing (2 Samuel 24:24)... are items that none of us ever want to be accused of bringing to our Lord.

So you say... "I always give my best when I worship! I always play and sing my best for the Lord!" None of us are judges of that (although some try to be! Sorry... I'll stay on topic), but God is. He is not judging your worship based on how many wrong notes you hit... or how pitchy your singing may be... but He judges your heart. We all know this, but let me help you to get to the thought I'm trying to lead you towards...

Maybe you really are giving your best each Sunday as you lead in worship or play in your worship band. But is your current best all that God has for you or intends for you to do? My belief is that the answer... for all of us... is NO. We should always be striving for more... more in our relationship with God... and to be and do more for Him, which is of course connected to the gifts He has given to each one of us. He has placed within us gifts, talents, abilities... and one day we will answer to Him for what we did with the things that He placed in our hands.

Hey, I thought we were talking about music theory?! Yes, let's bring it back home. As I stated at the beginning, I've experienced this from about every level and side that you can imagine in my years of leading worship teams. In some cases, I've taught music theory classes to those in the band, choir, etc that were willing to learn more. I found most really didn't care. It has always been a pet peeve of mine. Why? Because what we do is so vital to the life of our churches and the atmosphere of every worship service, so we need to do all that we can to make sure that what we bring to the table is nothing less than the very best that we could possibly bring.

So, the starting point... the foundation of all that we do as a worship musician falls to music theory. Before you get angry, I'm not saying that music theory goes above prayer, our callings, the anointing of the Holy Spirit or anything else. Obviously, the core of everything we do in the worship leading realm is a spiritual one, and without it, nothing we do will amount to more than a musical concert. But beyond that aspect, there is the reality that we can't do our jobs well if we are not well equipped.

This article is simply an intro to a series of articles on this topic of music theory, intended to help you gain more of an understanding than you currently have. Some topics will be ones you already are solid on, while some may be completely foreign to you. Digest all that you can and hopefully they will help you in your ongoing quest to be all that God has intended you to be as a worship musician. We will essentially hit topics at a broad level, then dive in deeper where needed. There will certainly be room for you to go deeper on your own, utilizing other outside resources to learn more on the topics where we hopefully can shine a light on the need for further learning.

Be sure to give your comments and feedback... and please let us know of any particular areas of theory that you'd love to learn more about. Questions that you ask may very well lead to some of the articles that follow in this series. Okay, let's get to work... :)

NOTE: The articles in this series are accessible only to logged in members of this website. Click "Join Now" (here or in the top of this site) and create a free membership account just to gain access to some of the resources available, or a paid membership to gain access to the best chord charts available for worship music anywhere!

NEXT -> Music Theory In Worship - Part 1: "What Key Is This Song In?"

About the Author

Nathan Gifford

Nathan Gifford

Nathan has been a worship leader for about 25 years, serving in multiple churches from a new church plant to a large urban congregation... serving mostly in the state of Indiana. He grew up as a PK in Indiana and was actively involved in worship music from the age of 12. Over the years Nathan was involved as a saxophonist in his church band and also played in many other groups and events. While in college at the Indiana University School of Music, Nathan began moving into worship leading. Then after graduating, he went right into full-time ministry as a music pastor. He began writing new worship songs that have continued to be a part of his ministry as well as many churches across the country. Nathan has recorded 9 projects, which are mostly live worship projects. He is currently a part of the worship ministry at Mill City Church in Fort Collins, CO.