Reason #3: We Are Singing in Keys too High for the Average Singer
The post, 9 Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship, has generated hundreds of responses, some supportive and some not so much. Today, I want to dig deeper into reason 3.
We are singing in keys too high for the average singer. The people we are leading in worship generally have a limited range and do not have a high range. When we pitch songs in keys that are too high, the congregation will stop singing, tire out, and eventually quit, becoming spectators. Remember that our responsibility is to enable the congregation to sing their praises, not to showcase our great platform voices by pitching songs in our power ranges. The basic range of the average singer is an octave and a fourth from A to D
This reason is perhaps one of the greatest “transgressions” of worship leaders which leads to creating congregational spectators (pew potatoes). It is difficult to say just how huge this issue is, but I have experienced this problem in the majority of churches that I have attended that have a contemporary or blended style of music.
In order for people to sing the songs of worship, the songs have to be pitched in keys that the common person can sing. If songs are too high, many people just stop singing because it hurts to sing high. Some drop the key an octave for portions of the song if the song is pitched really high. The problem is that the average singer has a medium range, and many worship leaders have high voices and want to pitch the songs in keys in which they sound the best. Remember that worship is not about impressing the congregation with our awesome vocal skills, rather as worship leaders, our task is to enable the people to worship. As worship leaders, it is paramount that we do all we can to facilitate the worship experience in such a way that the congregation can become involved in worship, setting an environment for people to encounter the transformational presence of God.Is your congregation singing in keys too high? Click To Tweet
Here’s the bottom line. Select keys for songs that have the lowest note the congregation will sing at an A. The highest note should be a D (or occasional Eb). The average person will struggle with E and above. (This is such an important concept that I have participants in my worship conferences to raise their right hands and pledge that they will never again lead the congregation in inappropriate keys!) If parts of the song stay at the high end of that range for a lengthy period, it will tire voices fast, so those songs need lower key considerations if the lowest note in the range is in acceptable limits. The sweet range of the average voice is the octave C to C.
What does that mean for your worship band?
Once you have selected music, determine what keys are acceptable for the voice range. There may be 1-3 keys that work, depending upon the range of the melody. Then always use those songs in the keys that you have determined are best.
Here’s an example.The song, Mighty to Save, is often done in the key of A. I have been in worship services where it is sung in an even higher key. The range of the song in A is within the guidelines until you get to the bridge, “Shine your light and let the whole world see….” Not only does the bridge go to a high E, but it stays high in the range throughout that section. The key of G works much nicer, and F is even better for the congregational voice. Conclusion, use the song in either the key of F or G (or endear yourselves to your musicians and do it in the key of F#/Gb).
Best Keys for 150 Top Worship Songs NEWLY RELEASED RESOURCE
To make things a bit easier, I have just completed a resource of the top 100 CCLI songs plus fifty additional top worship songs and the keys that are best for congregational participation. Check out this resource.Best keys for 150 top worship songs! Click To Tweet
Look at your song list for Sunday. Are the keys appropriate for participatory congregational singing? If not, make the change and see what a difference it can make. If your congregation is used to not participating, it may take a while to break the cycle, so have patience, submit your worship planning to God, and lead the congregation to where they need to go.
Notes: Singing early in the morning necessitates lower keys than later in the day. Music from a hymnal most likely is already placed in good keys for congregational singing–some hymns may be pitched a bit high (especially in earlier editions).
I welcome your comments..
I don’t have Cd’s of newly dumped ‘songs’ at church. I don’t listen to music on my phone, iPad or radio etc. A professionally trained pianist/organist plays music I have never heard or read before. Words flick on and off a screen & I can’t take them home to learn & I have no music given so that I can slowly learn the song in all its forms. I refuse to sing as I am told that copyright rules are in place. I am not offered a copy for which I am prepared to pay whatever is required for such. Children who used to ‘jam’ along after church no longer are the up and coming replacements for the professional artists who are getting older & older & will soon drop out. I find this all too unsatisfactory for the enjoyment of singing & learning new songs any more. Most of them are not hymns but just junk noise. V
My experience is actually that most modern worship songs are pitched too low – you can’t sing with fervour if you’re growling in your boots! Congregational singing lacks energy because the songs are pitched so that they don’t require energy. It is as important not to go below C (if possible, perhaps B) as it is not to go above Eb (perhaps E if it’s a well-prepared climax and the song doesn’t lie high). Remember that if it goes too high you can drop an octave, but if it goes too low you just end up mumbling, or dropping out altogether. The problem of course is that too many songs have a range that is too wide, so that a good key doesn’t exist. Song writers should stick to a tenth maximum! (Some of the best hymn tunes have a surprisingly small range, e.g. Hyfrydol only a sixth.) C to Eb is ideal; go down to B before going up to E. Avoid further extremes.
Actually, Hyfrydol is a good example of what Mr. Lamm’s talking about. It’s a tune I love but rarely sing the melody for, because it’s traditionally pitched too high, in the key of F. In the second half, there are endless repeated top C’s, followed by the climactic D just when the voice is completely tired out!
We’ve taken Hyfrydol down to D in the past (over the protests of the sopranos in the choir!) so that those repeated notes are A’s. And the congregational singing volume increased markedly,
As a man, I can’t sing above middle C. (Hence, the bass clef.) So, when the worship leader says “Why don’t you stand up and sing….”, I don’t I remain sitting, close my eyes, and listen to the show. Nice show.
The only difference between me and the rest of the men is whether they are standing (and not singing), or sitting (and not singing.) Not much. I notice more and more men are like me: “No, I’ll remain sitting and enjoy the show. There is no worship here.”)
Which C-C octave is best? I am new to this and would like to understand it more specifically. I have an instrumental background and now have to lead vocals.
For ladies, middle C to one octave above. For men, one octave below that. Thanks for clarifying.
I am an alto… and I find anything above a A above middle C way too high. Every time the female worship leaders lead (who are all sopranos) .. I basically have to sing a lower harmony. I rarely get to sing melody in congregational singing because C above middle C is too high. (And I don’t believe i am alone in this, especially for modern worship choruses).
I also lead worship and pick keys that work for my range (generally G below middle C up to A above middle C) . I lead at a women’s event one year, and I had alot of women who came up to me and thanked me for picking keys they could finally sing along in!
G to A is a range I have found to work well for women. It’s different for men, unfortunately. Perhaps C to C works well for them, but its not a universal range for women in my experience.
Thanks for this website and article. I understand wanting to sing in your wheelhouse, we all do: well not me, I can’t sing. But I am a multi-instrumentalist and as a sax player, I have favorite keys where the more powerful notes are dominant. But, I have to remind myself that it is not about me. We are not to be performers and not even leaders! We’re just Christman men and women who have some gifts to use to God’s glory. I keep trying to remind the band that we are not to be on top of them (the congregation), we are to be underneath them. We are to support them with a base that they can sing upon. We are commanded to come before the Lord with song, and so it follows to me that our aim is to get everyone involved. I love to talk to the congregation and assign them parts. They are the lead singers. But, I’m also the lead guitarist in my band (until someone better comes along) and I really have to work hard to get my parts down. So it frustrates me a bit when we play the same song in 3 different keys at different times. This is because of different lead singers wanting to optimize their vocals. So, I ask them “why(?), the lead singer is the congregation, we just support.” The people’s range has not changed so, our polished vocalists need to get down on their musical level because we are not special. We just have a different gift.
It has been my experience that the worship
director chooses the key that suits his/her own voice
best. He/she HAS to sing withing their own range .
(Usually a tenor or an alto)
We have transitioned from hymn
singing (4 part traditional harmonies)
with the soprano being the highest voicing on the
melody, and the others singing
harmonies, to contemporary songs written
with 3 harmony parts, within the voice range of the worship leader.
This leads to the worship team singers trying to find a harmony that best suits their own voices. And then the congregation is left to sing a part, any part to which their voice fits.
What also make worship songs hard to sing for the congregations is the fact that worship songs tend to be written more as a solo song, than a congregational song. Choosing appropriate songs is key!
Consider how the song writer writes the songs. Low verse, bridge in mid range , and chorus high range. Can the congregation sing low enough? Then high enough?
. The average songer has an 8-10 note range.. A song that is healthy for a singer ahould be in the middle 1/3 of their range,(tessitura) extending only occasionally to the lower/upper third.
Let’s write apropriate music, in appropriate keys , get people singing, worshipping, and glorify God!
This is Torah from Sinai! I find my self transposing a lot more these days, and making wise use of a capo on my guitar depending on how I’m singing on any particular day.
I have some background in music but I don’t write songs or transpose them. I love to sing in a choir and I play the piano. In my experience with congregational singing (I’m over 60 so I’ve had a lot of it) my biggest complaint is that the songs are getting so low that I cannot sing alto anymore; instead, I often sing the alto part above the melody–that’s how bad it is! So, I think my experiences have been vastly different from yours. I sometimes sing while playing songs from a hymnbook that was popular back in the 80’s. The songs in there are written so high and yet we all grew up singing along loudly with the melody. I’ve always wondered why people’s voices seem to be so much lower than they used to be and have attributed it to poor music training in the schools, at church, and at home. What do you think about this? Do you think people’s voices have gotten lower? Surely you remember singing so many of those hymns that were written up so high?
Thank you, Nancy. You are right about this whole gotta have the song lower idea so that folks will sing. As a cantor of over 30 years I know fpr a fact if the congregation knows a song well AND likes it, they’ll manage to hit the notes no matter how broad the range or how high (within reason!) As a soprano I was forced to sing alto range all the time. It was not enjoyable. The cantor–although we are the true leaderw of worship song–are not given any say so. It all falls to the pastor and organist, neither of whom know (or care) whether the congregation like the song or if it is a good song for singing. Most stuff is picked because the organist can play the accompaniment and likes it. They often have no degree while we,even with degrees, have out requests treated with indifference or hostility. To make matters worse, we are expected to sing without pay and are often not given time ahead sufficient to learn the music solidly so that we can sing with confidence. If the leader has no comnfidence or is being blasted into the wall by organists playing double forte, no wonder no one else feels like singing.
Hey. I came to the party a little late, but just wanted to say that I really appreciate your article. This is something I have been trying to implement in our worship team, and I’ve found your song list and suggestions really useful. The problem is that so many of our worship songs go further than the average singer’s range- even if we choose the right key (and not just the ones that jump the octave). It’s a great reminder to any song-writers to always bear this in mind- even if you write something high for your own voice- keep the range narrow. Keep up the great work. Blessings
Thanks, Mick. There is a huge difference between writing/singing to sound great and writing/singing to enable the congregation to voice their praise. Thanks for your encouragement!
What are your thoughts on songs that “jump the octave”? Songs like Cornerstone, Lord, I Need You and Always? If you’ve established the song in the lower octave, is it reasonable to expect the congregation to stay in that octave if the leader jumps up?
Excellent question, Tony. It is one I wrestle with as well. There are many songs that have the octave jump today. LifeWayWorship has adapted some of those songs to avoid the problems with the range (see I Am Free, for example). I have used some of these songs in a more moderate key without the jump. I have often used Lord, I Need You in a more moderate key and modulated the chorus up later in the song for a more powerful chorus without making the range unattainable for the average singer.The other possibility you have mentioned is helping your congregation understand that they can remain in the lower key while some of the singers take the melody up an octave. The problem, of course, is that the lower key is so low, there is no energy at all felt in singing it. Honestly, for the most part, there are so many other great songs, I avoid the majority of the wide range songs.
Great observation about the low energy in low keys. I actually find that many worship leaders are keeping the keys too low because of the upcoming “octave jump song” or because they are natural Altos. I agree that it’s more important to narrow the range and keep it in a singable key – high enough to maintain energy but not too challenging for the average congregational singer.
I am a second soprano…I find it difficult to sing the songs because they are too low for me…I try to harmonize above the melody line to be able to sing the song. Some songs have been changed to a harmony i am not able to find…”How Great Thou Art” is one song the worship team changed and I could not harmonize the song although I had sung harmony for many years with the way it was originally written. It is a constant frustration for me to find the new songs extremely monotonous and boring to sing…
This is me every Sunday during worship. I grew up singing more traditional hymns, and love congregational singing. I love that lyrics to the more modern worship songs, but find myself constantly lost and unable to sing along.
I’ve found that even “D” is a bit high for congregations. I tended to re-key songs where the melody would max out at “C”, sometimes “B” or “D”. A factor (for me) is how often does the song nail the top note — once briefly, or repeatedly? Makes a difference. DG
Yes. The best range is C to C, however many songs have a wider than octave range. The tessitura of various sections is certainly a consideration in selecting the keys. Thanks for commenting!
Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the option of having notes. I have musical training and feel that many in any congregation have either taken piano lessons as a child, played in the school band, orchestra or choir at some point in their lives. Being able to follow a melody up and down on the staff and read simple rhythms makes a big difference when trying to sing a song for the first few times.
In an attempt to modernize the church repertoire, why did we throw out the baby with the bath water? There has been more music education provided in our schools in the last 50 years than before. Let’s publish some praise song books for the pews with songs carefully chosen and arranged in the most reasonable keys. Watch the congregational singing pick up speed.
Yes Donna! I totally agree. It seems it has gone to “extremes” . We’ve upped the musical training/exposure and dumbed down the availability in the church to attract the “unchurched” so they feel comfortable. Even having it as an option would be amazing. And I agree – while most won’t necessarily recognize the actual notes on the staff, the pattern of the melody allows the brain to adjust of what’s coming next. (up or down) – you really don’t need much musical training to pick up on that!