Music Theory. Those two words either fill you with complete dread or tremendous gratefulness.
I used to hate theory. When I was younger, I just wanted to play “music.” I didn’t have time to waste on chord diagrams, treble clefs, and dotted eighth notes. I wanted to be creative – to play music as I felt it.
I didn’t realize how misled I was.
Music theory builds your creative intuition. Without it, you have no language to work from. It’s like being in a foreign country and not having the ability to communicate. The more you know the “rules,” the more understanding you’ll have when you want to break them.
But I can understand the intimidation. I studied music in college and took 16 credits of Theory I, Theory II, Theory III, and Theory IV. Most of you probably don’t want to sign up for that. So the question begs to be asked: “What do you need to know in order to succeed as a worship leader? What theory knowledge will help me lead my team and my church better?”
It’s a great question. Because doing a strict chord analysis of a Bach Invention is probably not on your bucket list of accomplishments. For those that want to travel that extra mile, it’s a fascinating learning experience. But if you’re looking for the essential theory skills for worship leaders, that’s what this is all about.
Understanding theory prepares you for those moments when the Holy Spirit moves. The more music theory intuition you build, the more prepared you are to support encounter with God moments. I remember when I tried to flow for the first time. It was rough. I didn’t know how to play many chords on the guitar and I only knew a handful of songs. But the more I learned, the better I was able to lead my band and create an atmosphere where the church could engage.
The reason we want to build intuition on our instruments is so we don’t have to think about it. Rather, we can focus on Jesus. We can watch him work. We can lead people. That’s what matters in that moment. Just as we’d prefer a surgeon and airline pilot to know their tools, a worship leader should know how to use music and theory to unify the church, help people engage, and make room for God.
How Knowing Theory Helps You
Let’s expound upon those three things:
1.Unify the Church – I don’t mean the unity of heart that the Holy Spirit does. I mean that a skilled musician and arranger can unify a large or small group of people towards the goal of corporate worship and corporate singing. Skilled worship leaders can bring together different types of people and make them feel part of what’s going on. Seasoned believers are challenged to press in deeper. New Christians are taught how to worship. Guest are made aware of what’s going on. It’s the skill of creating experiences that aren’t just personal encounters for the church to watch. It’s a corporate encounter.
2. Help People Engage – But a skilled Worship Pastor doesn’t just capture people’s attention. They don’t create a spectacle. A skilled Worship Leader places the focus on the church’s engagement. If people aren’t singing, something is wrong. If people aren’t responding, something is wrong. Worship is an action. This is what sets corporate worship apart as an important spiritual discipline in the life of a believer. It’s not a passive activity. It’s not a spectacle where the professionals impress everyone. It’s an action we all need to take together. It’s theological. It’s emotional. It’s spiritual. But more than anything, it’s a choice we make to declare the promises of God. The Holy Spirit calls us, draws us. But we must make the choice to worship. And that’s what great Worship Leaders help us do.
3. Make Room for God – The more skilled you are with music theory, the more you can place the focus on God and His work in corporate worship. It becomes less about the music and your execution of it. The purpose of music in corporate worship is to make room for God and His work. It’s a tool for the greater encounter of His presence.
And here are a few practical ways to do that:
- Know the Nashville Number System – Even if you don’t play an instrument, it’s a worthy investment of your time to know the Nashville number system. The number system represents all the chords in every major key. Every major key has three major chords and three minor chords (and a diminished chord which no one uses in worship, right?). Bare minimum, learn these numbers and how each chord feels when it is played.
- Understand Time Signatures – Most worship songs are in 4/4, 6/8, or 3/4 time. As a worship leader it’s important to understand these rhythms and be able to sing and lead over them. It also improves communication with your team when you know how any given song or chord progression is subdivided.
- Study The Band – While less music theory, per se, knowing the different instruments and how they function is essential. Of course, you don’t need to play an instrument or be a multi-instrumentalist to be an effective worship leader. But taking the time to understand the roles of the band and how each instrument is most effective will improve your ability to lead.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. What theory knowledge has helped you as a worship leader?
I’d love to hear from you.
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