Basics of Music Theory: What Key am I Playing In? | Worship Guitar Magazine
Alclair Summer 2017 – HLB

For Worship Leaders

Basics of Music Theory: What Key am I Playing In?

Alclair Summer 2017 – HLB

The basics. These are the foundations of music that many people never get a chance to learn. When I was growing up, I remember our school never had music theory classes. This confused me, because my church always had music programs to teach kids musical instruments and musical theory. Since I was 6 I had workbooks and all that good stuff trying to teach music theory. But for many who were either not in band, or didn’t have a church crazy enough to have music theory classes alongside Sunday School, some of the most basic elements of musical theory have never been a part of the worship training repertoire . This is the first in a series of articles that takes a look at the basics and attempts to explain music theory in an easily digestible way. Bear with me, it is not easy, but I am going to give it a shot. If you have never hear some of the following, it may be a bit foreign, but it may be useful someday.

First, some terms. Almost all of our Western music is built on primary chords. This is distinctly different than Eastern music (which is why Chinese music, for example, sounds so distinct to us). The primary chords are the I (one), IV (four), and V (five) chords. They are also referred to as the Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant chords respectively. For our purposes, the one, four, and five terminology is what we will use with the Roman Numerals above. Another term is the term “step.” Music (at least as we conceive it) is built on a series of tones we place into a matrix of rules constructed over thousands of years because they constitute what we perceive as pleasing sounds. There are infinite amounts of tones in-between what music theory suggests is correct. But music theory exists because it has structured music in a way that makes it intelligible, reproducible, teachable, and above all, pleasing to the human ear. These “steps” constitute what we call pleasing sounds for various reasons. They are separated into whole and half steps. And when we play music we use a combination of these whole and half steps to produce pleasing music. If we hit the wrong combination, it sounds, well…wrong. One last thing just to complicate things.

I have always been a visual learner, so a keyboard helps me.  I have placed an arrow at what we call “middle C” (which I will explain why it called c in a bit).

Starting at middle c, each successive key to the right constitutes a half-step. Middle c is considered 1, the black key to the right is a half, then the next white key is a half etc. Two halves, of course, make a whole. Now in music, the combination of steps that sounds pleasing to us is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. That is 7 notes. We call it a scale (technically a major scale, but we will avoid this differentiation for the basics). For reasons unknown to me, the musical theory guys of old decided to assign letters to these 7 notes. The first 7 letters of the alphabet a,b,c,d,e,f,g. When you get to the 8th, you begin to repeat the whole process again (this has to do with doubling the frequency and such…don’t worry about it here just know it repeats and the 8th note that is repeated is called an octave). You can see this reflected in the layout of a piano. Whatever note you start on for a scale is the key you are in.  In the key of c (which is why I started at middle c above) you only play the white keys. Therefore, if you count, the keys are laid out in the whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half layout, before the pattern is repeated. This is why the keyboard pattern repeats itself.

So musical tones are separated into steps that are representative of wave lengths. These are then combined in the whole step half step patter to produce a series of notes that sound pleasing to us. This is a key, and it represented most basically with a scale (The whole step-half-step pattern).

Now onto the I, IV, V chords. If you start at C (arrowed above) and count with C as 1, the keys would look like this.

  • C=I
  • D=II
  • E=III
  • F=IV
  • G=V
  • A=VI
  • B=VII

Remember back in the second paragraph I said music was built on primary chords and they are the I, IV, and V chords? In this key, the I chord is C, the IV is F, and the V is G. These constitute the primary chords for this key, which is determined by which note is the root of the I chord…therefore C in this case.

But when you change the key (the I chord), the pattern stays the same, but is overlaid in a different place on the keyboard. Starting on B this time, and again counting up with the whole-half pattern, we are forced to include the black keys. These keys are either considered sharps or flats of their corresponding letters. For example: the key to the right of the F key, is considered F sharp (F#). Remember the first pattern of the scale is a whole step so the second note must be a black key. If we start on a B, the whole-half pattern reveals the 7 letter scale as this:

  • B=1
  • C#=2
  • D#=3
  • E=4
  • F#=5
  • G#=6
  • A#=7

Therefore, the I, IV, V chords are B, E, and F#.

So how do you use this to determine the key in which you are playing? You must memorize the available keys and what notes are in each key. It seems like a lot at first, but once practiced becomes very easy to do. Then, you can determine by listening to the notes you play, vs the notes everyone else is playing in, to determine if you are in sync.

A visual tool that many musicians have used is called the Circle of Fifths. It looks like this:

It is essentially a visual representation of what you would find if you graphed out the keys on a piano using the whole-half step pattern. It is represented in 5ths because of the correlation between sharps and flats that are added as you move up  every 5th step.

Start by assessing the music, and feeling around for the note or chord. I always start with a G chord because so much worship music used to be in G back in the day it is habit. But if it sounds out of place, I work it through a scale by playing A chord, B chord etc. When I find the one that fits, I assume that may be the root chord and I play the presumed IV and V to test the theory. If that doesn’t work, at least I know I have one of the three. And from there I can determine what key I am in. For example; if I play a G chord and it works I only have 3 options from that point. It is either the root (I) chord and that is my key. If it is the IV chords I know (from experience and memorizing the keys) that it is the key of D. If it is the V chord it is the key of C. This process can be used for any chord as long as you know your keys.

Hopefully that was even remotely helpful. It is a lot to attempt to discuss in an article, and I tried to cover all the basics I could think of. If I did not, please let me know in the comments below. Also, be looking out for the next article where I will attempt to discuss rhythm. It should be a bit easier to digest, but who knows.

Alclair Trade (MLB)
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