The Art of Underscoring

I have the great privilege of traveling the country and meeting church musicians from all walks of life. Sometimes, my job is to lead these musicians in reading sessions, and, other times, my task is to work with folks from a more pedagogical standpoint.

Being a pianist, I am often asked to teach workshops geared toward some aspect of keyboard ministry. Of all the questions I receive, the one that comes up the most often is, “how do I play beautiful underscores for litany readings, times of prayer, communion, etc.” In this article, I will try to answer this question and give some insight into the rather elusive art of underscoring.

First, let me say from the outset: a good keyboard underscore does not draw attention to itself. Your function is not to wow the congregation with your mad improvisation or chord substitution skills. Your function is to set the appropriate mood for whatever event might be occurring at that time during the service. Your function is to help people connect with the Father on a more personal level by appropriately framing the worship moment you are accompanying (for lack of a better word).

So, with all that in mind, I will tell you that when I underscore a portion of the service, I do it very simply. I tend to not play “far out” harmonic progressions or chords, and I keep the activity of my right hand to a bare minimum, sometimes playing something as unobtrusive as a single note melody line against a simple left hand accompaniment.

Regarding the selection of music chosen for an underscore, keyboardists will often just play hymns or contemporary worship ballads in a quiet manner. If the keyboardist is adept at improvising or playing by ear, he or she might choose to work from a lead sheet, which provides only the melody and accompanying chord symbols, or the keyboardist might opt to work from no music at all.

There are also many books written by today’s arrangers that contain material designed especially for underscoring. Still other folks prefer finding chord progressions that are pleasing to the ear and using these progressions as the basis for simple improvisations. This is what I tend to do, and where I would like to camp for the remainder of this article.

I am going to assume that my readers have some basic knowledge of chords and how they are named in traditional music theory. If you lack this knowledge, you might consider picking up a theory textbook from an online distributor or your local music store.

But, if you are comfortable with some basic theory, you will recognize this to be the C major triad chain. In other words, these are all of the diatonic (or naturally occurring chords) in the key of C major:

You will also notice the Roman Numerals below the staff. These numerals name each chord in the triad chain (upper case numerals for major chords, lower case numerals for minor chords, and a small circle beside vii, the one diminished chord in the chain). And, it goes without saying that this triad chain can be transposed into any of the remaining eleven major keys.

Believe it or not, this triad chain is really all you need to know! Using it, you can create innumerable chord progressions for you to sensitively improvise upon. As an added bonus, the notes of the C major scale serve as the only resource you need to create melodies. That’s right, the notes of the C major scale will sound good over any chord in the chain with the possible exception of the diminished chord. (Remarkably, even the scale tones that are “dissonant” with the underlying chords still sound pretty good, as you will hear in the examples below.)

The next question you might be asking is, “Well, all of this sounds great. But how do I know what chords to play and what order to play them in?”

I’m so glad you asked!

You have at least two options. You can either choose to improvise on a standard chord progression, or you can create your own. Here are a few standard chord progressions:

a) I–IV–I–V–I b) I–vi–ii–V
c) I–vi–IV–V

Using what we have already discussed, an improvisation over chord progression “c” might look and sound something like this:

But, what if you want to create a more original chord progression? No problem. Just let the following simple rules guide you.

In traditional Western music, chords tend to move by:

a) Ascending 4ths (ordescendingfifths)

b) Ascending 5ths (or descending 4ths)

c) Ascending 2nds

d) Descending 3rds

So, if I use these simple guidelines, I might create a chord progression (and an accompanying improvisation) that looks and sounds like this:

Obviously, the possibilities are endless here, and you can spend countless hours honing your ability to create interesting chord progressions. As intimidating as all this may sound right now, with some degree of practice you will eventually feel comfortable doing this “on the spot” during a worship service.

Finally, for extra fun, transpose and master the triad chain in each of the other eleven major keys as well. I believe it was Jamey Aebersold, the great jazz pedagogue, who once said, “there are no difficult keys, only unfamiliar ones.”

I realize this is a little bit more theory-oriented than my usual postings, but, hopefully, this has opened up some new horizons for you. In the meantime, have a great fall, create some great underscores, and check back soon for future articles in THINKING OUTSIDE THE LOFT!




Editor’s note: Please enjoy these latest offerings from Brad Nix.

Sweetest Music, Softly Stealing

A King In Swaddling Clothes

The Wondrous Gift

Lord, I Worship You


Dr. Brad Nix currently serves as an editor for Hal Leonard Corporation, where he works in the sacred choral division. As a widely recognized composer and arranger, he has written for many of the nation’s major publishers and has well over 120 pieces in print. He frequently travels throughout the country as a clinician for reading sessions and conferences. In addition to his work in the music industry, Brad serves on the staff of First Baptist Church of Bastrop, TX. His responsibilities at the church include planning worship, leading worship, and directing several choral and instrumental ensembles. Brad previously served for many years as Associate Professor of Music and Department Chair at Sterling College, located in Sterling, KS. At Sterling College, he taught music theory, composition, orchestration, applied piano, and group piano. Originally from Dallas, GA, Brad received his DMA degree from The University of Colorado at Boulder, and his BM and MM degrees from Georgia State University in Atlanta.

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