Ultimate Guide to Understanding Worship Chords

Understanding Worship Chords

Worship music, like all music, is based upon melody, chords and rhythm. Worship chords form the vertical bed of sound on which the melody rides. As a musician, you need to be able to play and understand the chords that are used to create music. This ultimate guide will help you understand what worship chords are, how they are used and how to apply this knowledge to songwriting, singing and playing the guitar and piano.

What is a chord?

What types of chords are there?

What are the essential worship chords to know?

What is a chord inversion?

How are chords notated?

What are chord progressions?

What worship chord progressions should I know?

How do I apply this to singing and playing the guitar or piano?

What Is a Chord?

A chord is when two or more notes sound at the same time. The simplest chord would be a diad: two notes sounding at the same time. But typically in worship music, when we talk about worship chords we are referring to triads or some variation on triads.

Understanding 3rds

Triads are two stacked 3rds, so to understand triads you first need to understand 3rds. You can think of a 3rd in various ways. If you understand scales, a third is when we skip a note in a scale. So in the the C scale an example of a 3rd would be from C to E, because we skipped D - or from D to F, because we skipped E.

3rds in a C scale

Example 1: 3rds in a C scale

Another way to think about a 3rd is to picture the distance on a piano or guitar. The term for the distance between two consecutive keys on a piano or frets on a guitar is a "half step". A minor 3rd (m3) is the distance of three half steps or three consecutive keys on the piano or three frets on the guitar. A major 3rd (M3) is the distance of 4 half steps or 4 consecutive keys on the piano or 4 frets on the guitar. To play a 3rd as a chord on guitar, though, one would need to play the notes on different strings.

3rds on the piano

Example 2: 3rds on the piano

3rds on a guitar

Example 3: 3rds on a guitar

As was mentioned earlier, a triad is when we stack two 3rds on top of each other. The most common triads are the major and minor chords which we will explain in more detail in the next section.

What Types of Chords Are There?

You can build many possible types of worship chords by stacking 3rds, but the two most common chords in modern worship music are the major and minor chords.

Major and Minor Chords

Major and minor chords occur when we combine a minor 3rd with a major 3rd. If the major third is on the bottom we call it a major chord.

Major chord

Example 4: C major chord

C Major chord on the piano

Example 5: C major chord on the piano

If the minor third is on the bottom we call it a minor chord.

C minor chord

Example 6: C minor chord

C minor chord on the piano

Example 7: C minor chord on the piano

The bottom note in a triad is called the root, the middle is the 3rd and the top is the 5th.

Root, 3rd and 5th

Example 8: Root, 3rd and 5th

You can form two other triads from stacked major and minor 3rds: diminished chords, which are two stacked minor thirds, and augmented chords, which are two stacked major 3rds. Diminished and augmented chords are vary rare in modern worship music.

Suspended Chords

Suspended chords (sus chords) occur when we take the middle note of the triad and "suspend" it up one scale step. So for instance a C major suspended chord looks like this:

C and Csus chords

Example 9: C and Csus chords

C and Csus chords on the piano

Example 10: C and Csus chords on the piano

A suspended chord will sometimes be called a suspended 4 chord (sus4) to designate that the suspension is a 4th above the root.

5 Chords

A chord without the 3rd is called a 5 chord or a C(no3). These are usually played as power chords on the guitar.

C5 chord

Example 11: C5 chord

C5 chord on the piano

Example 12: C5 chord on the piano

Extended Chords

Extended chords occur when we continue to stack 3rds on top of one another. If we add another 3rd on top of a triad we end up with a seventh (7th) chord. Seventh chords are the most common extensions.

Cmaj7 chord

Example 13: Cmaj7 chord

If we add another 3rd we have a 9th. The addition of a 9th without the 7th is also common and is sometime called an added 9th chord (add9) with the 9th often played next to the root note. An added 9th without the 3rd is sometimes called a suspended 2 (sus2) or simply a 2 chord.

Cmaj9 chord, Cadd9 and C2

Example 14: Cmaj9 chord, Cadd9 and C2

The addition of 3rds can continue to create an 11th chord and 13th chord. These chords are not common except in jazz music and some forms of gospel music.

A full explanation of worship chord extensions is beyond the scope of this article, but if you understand how to play major, minor and suspended chords, you can play 90% of all worship music. Also, it is important to know that, in most cases, you can play chords without the extensions and they will still work. So, if you don't know an extension, Dm11 for example, you can usually simply play the base triad, Dm in this case.

What Are the Essential Worship Chords to Know?

I, IV and V

The most important worship chords in any key are the I, IV and V chords. These numbers refer to the chords built off from a specific scale degree. In the key of C the I chord is C, the IV chord is F and the V chord is G. In a major key the I, IV and V chords will always be major chords.

I, IV and V chords

Example 15: I, IV and V chords

In fact many songs use only these three chords. So, if you want to know where to start learning worship chords, begin with these three chords in every key. Start with a simple key such as C on piano or G on guitar. Then by adding one more chord you can learn the next key on the list. Notice how, in the chart below, each successive key is only one chord different from the one before and the new chord is the V chord in the new key. When learning the V chord it is useful to also learn the suspended (sus) version , since the suspended version of the V chord is relatively common.

KeyI ChordIV ChordV Chord

Table 1: I, IV and V chords in every key

ii, iii and vi

The next most important chord is the vi chord, then the ii chord and finally the iii chord. Once you have mastered the above worship chords you can focus on these secondary chords.

ii, iii and vi chords

Example 16: ii, iii and vi chords

The following chart shows these chords in each key. Notice once again that as you move down the chart to the next key, you only have to learn one more chord: the iii chord.

Keyii Chordiii Chordvi Chord

Table 2: ii, iii and vi chords in every key

Musicians often play Minor chords as 7th chords even when the music doesn't designate a 7th. This is because it adds a little extra color to the sound. Because of this it is good to know your minor 7th chords in addition to your minor chords.

Diminished and Augmented Chords

Modern worship so rarely uses Diminished and augmented chords that there is really no need to learn them unless you are an advanced player.

Minor Keys

Worship songwriters rarely write in Minor keys. Never the less, once you have learned all the major keys and their respective minor chords you will already know all the chords you will need for minor worship songs.

Minor 7th Chords

One last somewhat advanced pointer for learning minor chords in a major key: on piano it is easier to think of minor seventh chords (which can replace any minor chord) as a major chord with a different bass note. Any minor seventh chord is the major chord two scale degrees higher with the root (chord name note) of the minor chord in the bass. In other words, the vi7 chord is simply a I chord (two scale degrees higher than vi) with the vi scale degree in the bass. For example, an Em7 is a G chord with an E in the bass.

G over E forms an Em7 chord

Example 17: G over E forms an Em7 chord

By thinking of seventh chords this way, every minor seventh chord is actually a variation on either I, IV or V.

ii7 = IV chord with ii in bass

iii7 = V chord with iii in bass

vi7 = I chord with vi in bass

You can also use this knowledge when playing guitar. If there is a bass player covering the bass note, a guitarist can play the major chord two scale degrees higher and the combined sound will produce the minor 7th chord.

What Is a Chord Inversion?

Chord inversions can add a lot of interest to your music. Essentially a chord inversion is when some note from the chord other than the name of the chord is in the bass (lowest sounding note).

Chord inversions

Example 18: Chord inversions

For example a C chord (which includes the notes C, E and G) with an E in the bass (as the lowest sounding note) is an inversion of a C chord because a "normal" (officially called root position) C chord would have a C in the bass.

Composers write inverted worship chords in modern music as "Slash Chords". They write the chord first, then a slash and then the bass note. So, in the above example, a C chord with an E in the bass would be written as a C/E chord.

Playing Chord Inversions

When playing a bass guitar, it is important to make sure you play the note to the right of the slash so that you sound the correct bass note.

As a piano player it is important to make sure your right hand plays the chord to the left of the slash and your left hand plays the note to the right of the slash. (Yes, that is correct - the left of the slash is for the right hand and the right of the slash is for the left hand. This may feel a little counter intuitive at first.)

As a guitar player, if you are playing with a bass, you can ignore the note to the right of the slash and just play the chord on the left of the slash. If you are playing alone, then ideally you want to get the bass note (to the right of the slash) as your lowest sounding note. This is an advanced technique which is outside the scope of this article, but if you master this technique you will become a much better player.

Composers notate other complex worship chords using Slash notation, but you always play them in the same way described above.

How Are Chords Notatated?

Although composers could write worship chords in standard notation, most worship bands now use chord sheets for their music. The chord sheet shows each chord as a chord symbol or number.

Chord Symbols

The most common method to use is the chord symbol. The simplest chord symbols consist of a letter. If the chord symbol is only a letter, then it represents a major chord. C = C major chord, for example. The letter can be followed by other symbols that alter the chord. Here is a chart showing some of the most common alterations.

7dominant 7th chordC7
maj7major 7th chordCmaj7
M7major 7th chordCM7
m7minor 7th chordCm7
sus7suspended chord with minor 7thCsus7
(no3)Chord missing the 3rdC(no3)
5Chord missing the 3rdC5

Table 3: Chord symbol alterations

Nashville Notation

Nashville notation uses numbers instead of letters. The numbers represent the chord built on that scale degree. Nashville notation is similar to the roman numerals we used earlier in this article. So, in the key of C a 1 would be a C chord, a 2 would be a Dm chord, a 3 would be an Em chord, etc. Use Table 1 and 2 above under What are the essential chords to know? to see what each number would represent in a specific key.

What Are Chord Progressions?

Chord progressions are successive chords in time. In other words, when one or more chord(s) follow one another in time, we have a chord progression.

Some chord progressions are stronger sounding than others. They tend to push the music forward. Other progressions tend to feel less strong and may feel like they hold the music back. These less strong "progressions" are called regressions.

In general, in major, a chord is said to progress if the root of the chord moves by a 2nd (one scale degree) up, 3rd (two scale degrees) down, 4th (3 scale degrees) up, 5th (four scale degrees) down, 6th (five scale degrees) up or 7th (six scale degrees) down. A chord is said to regress if it makes any other chord movement. Also, any movement from the I chord is considered to be a progression.

It is important to understand that a regression is not "bad". A regression simply does not have the same forward pull of a progression. It is up to the composer to decide whether they want the stronger pull of a progression or the ambiguous, held back feel of a regression. In fact, the falling 2nd regression has become relatively popular in current worship music. A string of falling 2nds does have a strong pull because of the clear falling pattern.

What Worship Chord Progressions Should I Know?

There are nearly an infinite number of ways to combine chords into progressions, but there are some standard progressions that happen more frequently. These are the most common worship chord progressions:
I vi IV V I
I IV V vi

I also suggest practicing the following progression because it uses all of the worship chords in a key except the vii diminished chord.
I IV iii vi ii V I

How Do I Apply This to Singing and Playing the Guitar or Piano?

The Vocalist

Back up vocalists need to be able to hear chords well enough to stay in the chord structure and harmonize with the other vocalists in the group. Being able to recognize worship chords by ear, sing chord arpeggios and learn to sing a 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th from the melody are all skills a good vocalists needs to have.

The Guitarist

The effective worship guitarist needs to have the ability to play all major and minor chords in every key. The good news is that by learning only a few keys - C, G, D, A - and then using a CAPO, you can play all keys. Learn your keys in this order: G, D, A, C and then over time learn to use barre chords to expand to other keys. You can play all of these keys without barre chords except the F in the key of C. Electric guitarists should also become very familiar with power chords since they are necessary for having a good sound when playing with distortion.

The Keyboard Player

The worship keyboardist or pianist, like the guitarist, needs to be able to play all major and minor chords in every key and ideally in all inversions. The good news is that, unless you are in a minor key, you can play all of the minor chords as variations of the major chords by playing them as m7 chords. Simply play the major chord a third (2 scale steps) higher and add the minor chord root in the bass.

Gain in-depth understanding of worship chords through our Music Theory Courses and learn how to hear and sing chords and harmony with our Ear Training Courses - These courses are core parts of our worship training programs:

Worship Leader Certificate and Diploma

Worship Performance Certificate and Diploma

Songwriting Certificate and Diploma

Jerry Wyrick

by Dr. Jerry Wyrick, President, Worship Arts Conservatory