The Importance of Understanding Music Theory


We’ve all been there.  It fills us with fear and stops us in our tracks.  It makes us wonder why we ever got into this job in the first place.  It is a question that we dread hearing.  “How do you play a Cdim7?”

Music theory seems to be one area that many worship leaders are not comfortable with.  Especially for volunteers, it can be a daunting subject.  Without having any formal musical training except for a few guitar or piano lessons, many worship leaders are at a loss when faced with questions of how to play certain chords, what key the music is in and how fast a song is supposed to go.

Why bother?

You know how to play the basic chords in every key and pretty much understand what those fractions at the beginning of a line of music mean, so why should you make an effort to learn and understand music theory?

To help your volunteers. Many volunteer musicians (especially in smaller churches) don’t have any formal musical training.  They need help knowing that 6/8 is different than 3/4.  They need help knowing how to play Asus or G5.  They need to be comfortable admitting that they don’t know these things and also need to be able to be confident in asking someone who does.

To help chart music. While it’s true that you might not be making your own arrangements of songs every week (or every month for that matter), you will be faced with charting music eventually.  If you belong to a church that uses hymns in worship (and I hope you do!) you will quickly realize that hymns straight out of the hymnal do not include the guitar chords.  They also are built on chords that shift on every beat which make them hard for inexperienced guitar players to play right out of the gate.  It’s your job to be able to pick out and label the chords in the hymn and determine which ones are the most important to keep in the hymn’s structure and which ones can be left out for simplification.  By understanding music theory, you will know that just because there’s an F# in the bass doesn’t mean the chord is an F# chord.  It could be a D chord with an F# on the bottom.

To become more confident at leading. With a great grasp of music theory your ear will start to develop a sense of when certain chords should be played at certain times.  You will know how to transpose a song quickly if you’re leading in a small group and you realize the music is too high or too low.  You will know how to create chord progressions on the fly that you can use as a music bed under a prayer time or an encouragement to the congregation.  You will know how to extend the end of a song without using predictable repetition.

There are many other advantages to understanding music theory.  A great place to start learning is  Attend music theory seminars at conferences.  See if you can get enrolled in a music theory class at a university.  Learn it.  Know it.  Love it.  You’ll be so glad you did.

Photo courtesy of verzek.

is the Associate Director of Worship & Media at St. Simons Community Church, where he mentors, oversees and helps lead Family and Student worship environments. He is also the content curator and editor here at The Worship Community and at

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