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Reason #3: We Are Singing in Keys too High for the Average Singer

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.

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.

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Congregationally-Friendly Keys

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

Evaluate

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..

About The Author

Kenny Lamm

Worship Consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. A frequent worship clinician and guest worship leader. Extensive work in worship renewal in several Asian countries.

11 Comments

  1. 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!

    Reply
  2. 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.

    Reply
  3. 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?

    Reply
  4. 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
    Mick

    Reply
    • 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!

      Reply
  5. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
        • 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…

          Reply
  6. 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

    Reply
    • 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!

      Reply

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