Substituting Chords in Worship Music

In most contemporary contexts that I am familiar with, part of a worship leader’s responsibility is the arrangement of music. This actually becomes a very important task when you realize that worship (or liturgical) music must be appropriate for the congregation (or culture). Today we are going to take a look at one method for creating new and fresh worship arrangements.

The skill of substituting chords in worship music is, in one sense, very simple. In theory, any chord can be replaced with another chord as long as the new chords still supports the old melody line. This allows for new harmonies. In practice, only certain new chords are going to sound good with the melody line. Subjectivity as to what sounds good plays a part in this process.

Now let us look at a couple of examples so you can start to get an idea of what we are talking about.

Substituting the V

This first chord substitution is very simple and works (sounds good) 9 out of 10 times. Let’s say you have a standard I – IV – V – IV progression. So in the key of C this would look like C – F – G – F. Instead of playing a major G, we can “substitute” the G (V chord) with a V7 chord, or G7. Now our chord progression looks like C – F – G7 – F. This is a great way to add potential harmonies without removing old harmonies. A standard major chord is made up of 3 notes, the 1 (G), 3 (B), and 5 (D). A seventh chord adds just that, the 7 (F).

This particular substitution proves very helpful in songs with repetitive chord progressions, hymns which chords have been oversimplified, or if you are looking to create a new arrangement.

Substituting the I

Let’s look at another substitution that can be done in a lot of contemporary worship music. Let’s start with the same progression we used in our last example, the I – IV – V – IV progression, or C – F – G – F. This time we are going to substitute the I chord (C chord). The new chord is going to be a vi chord, or an Am. The new progression looks like this: vi – IV – V – IV, or Am – F – G – F. You could also substitute the I chord for a vi7 chord. For our example, this would be an Am7 (Am7 – F – G – F).

Multiple Substitutions

Performing one or two substitutions in a song can really change a piece and add a lot of new sounds and create endless possibilities. However, do not shy away from from performing more than one substitution. If we combine our two chord substitutions from above, we end up with a chord progression like this: Am(7) – F – G7 – F, much different than the C – F – G – F that we began with.

Be bold with your musical arrangements; g0 for something new. There are certainly many skills to learn when covering music and playing a song just as you hear on a recording, but there may be even more skills you could learn by writing new arrangements.

One Last Note

Now, as I have written before, music must appropriately reflect and interpret what we are singing. If you substitute a I chord for a vi chord, the tone of the phrase, section, or even the song could change. So when you make chord substitutions, consider how the new arrangement re-inteprets what has been written.

Peace be with you as you arrange new music for your local congregations!

JP#4Jason Palmer is the Administrator of TalkingWorship.com. Jason has a Bachelor of Science in Ministry with a Worship Arts Major and Music Minor. He has lead worship for evangelical churches for 7 years and desires to see worship leaders become confident in their calling.

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