Why Theory?

One of the most often asked question regarding hymn playing is, “How do you know what to improvise?”  I remember being in college and asking my hymn playing teacher that same question.  The answer he gave me was, “Just listen to what I do and replicate it.”  So I did.  I still never got my question answered though.  I’ve discovered over the years that listening to what other people do IS a great way to learn new tricks, but that’s only a portion of learning hymn playing.  In the next few blog posts, I will give some practical tips on becoming a better hymn player.

First, one of the most important aspects of hymn playing is:


I’ve said the dreaded and often most hated word in music.  I still remember growing up and struggling to get my theory homework done every week.  When I mention theory to students the response is usually the same.  They hate it and give up learning any theory.  This could be one of the biggest detriments to being a good hymn player.  Hymn playing is all about knowing chords and knowing how to improvise with those chords.

First of all, I believe knowing all your key signatures, scales, chords and arpeggios are important to being a good hymn player.  Growing up, I was expected to be able to play any scale (major or minor) using quarter, eighth, triplet and sixteenth notes.  All of the chords and arpeggios had to be learned as well.  Little did I know how much this would help me now.  I could play in the dreaded key of B Major and knew what a f# diminished chord was.  Why is this important?  You need to know the key signature of the hymn you’re playing in and all the chords.  One of the first things I have my hymn playing students do is write out over the staff all the chords in the hymn.  It should look something like this:

Consider Him


Let me explain how I knew the right chords for this hymn.  First, I figured out the key signature.  There are no sharps or flats and it begins and ends the song with the note C.  I figured out the first chord by playing each note and then putting it into root position (notes separated by an interval of a third).  I have an E in the left hand and a C and G in the right hand.  When I move them around to be stacked by thirds, I have a C chord (C-E-G).  Thus I knew that first chord was a C chord.  I then continued to play until the notes changed.  On beat 3 of the first measure, I have G’s in the left hand and a B and D in the right hand.  All three of these notes are not found in a C chord so I know the chord has changed in the hymn.  I put the notes all together to form a root chord and find the chord G.  I notice in beat 3 and 4 of the first measure the notes stay the same except for an E in the right hand.  The E in this case is called a passing tone and does not mean the chord changes.  I continued these steps through the rest of the hymn and was able to determine when the chords changed and what they changed to.

Try this out for yourself in your own hymn book.  In my next post, I will explain what to do after you’ve figured out the chords for a hymn.  I will be using the hymn Wonderful Grace of Jesus as an example.

If you would like a great resource for scales, chords and arpeggios, check this book out:

The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios and Cadences


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