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Songs for Worship: How Do We Determine the Best Keys for Congregational Singing?

Songs for Worship: How Do We Determine the Best Keys for Congregational Singing?
In my last post on song selection, I discussed the importance of selecting songs with great lyrics. This week, I dive into the often-abused area of correct keys for congregational singing. Read on!

The Reason why many people are not singing in worship is because we are singing songs in keys too high for the Average person

Selecting Song Keys for Maximum Congregational Participation

Today, congregations in great numbers have quit singing in worship. One of the greatest reasons for their lack of participation is that congregations are often invited to sing in keys too high for the average singer. The people we are leading in worship generally have a limited range and one that is not high. When we pitch songs in keys that are too high, the congregation will stop singing, tire out and eventually quit, becoming spectators.

CRITICAL UNDERSTANDING

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.

Leading songs in keys that are too high for the average singer is perhaps one of the greatest “transgressions” of worship leaders, which leads to creating congregational spectators rather than participative worshippers. This is a problem witnessed in a large percentage of churches that use modern worship songs.

The problem is that many modern worship songs are written and performed in keys which sound great on the radio, but are not in keys that the congregation can sing well.

Many worship leaders feel that it is best to sing the songs in the original keys to sound more like the original recording. As worship leaders, our calling is not to sound like the original recording, but it is to help our people to voice their worship and praise. Sometimes that means sacrificing our ideal sound to facilitate a better environment for 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.
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.

Congregationally-Friendly Keys

Here’s the bottom line. The sweet range of the average voice is the octave C to C–seek to pitch songs with an octave range in this zone. 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.  

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).

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. Also realize that the keys we need to select may not be the ones that make our bands sound the best. We then have to ask ourselves, “Is my purpose to sound the most amazing or is it to enable the people to voice their worship and praise in the best way they can?”

As worship leaders, I believe our calling is to help the people sing with all their being, even at the sacrifice of some things we, as musicians, would prefer.

A worship leader’s calling may require musical sacrifice for the sake of the congregation

Examples

Mighty to Save is often done in the key of A (the original 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 (bringing the melody into the congregational range), and the key of F is even better for the congregational voice. Conclusion, use the song in either the key of F or G.
10,000 Reasons original key is G, which makes the range of the chorus too high for the average singer. The chorus has many E’s and one F#.
A congregationally-friendly key would be Eb or E (example below is in E). The key of E has the high note as a D#, the highest allowed (occasional) note for good congregational keys.
This Is Amazing Grace originally appeared in the key of Bb and is often sung in churches in that key. This key is incredibly difficult for the average singer. The chorus practically stays on a high F and has occasional G’s.
Congregationally-friendly keys would be Eb and F. The key of F stays on a C with an occasional D.

How to Determine the Best Keys

Do not assume that the “original key” of a song is a good key for maximum participation of congregations.
If we take This Is Amazing Grace as an example, we see in the original key that the highest note is an occasional G.
For the congregation to sing this well, we need to get that note to be no higher than an Eb. That would require us to drop the key by 4 half steps, lowering the song to the key of F#.  With the high tessitura (the melody stays on high notes for some time), it would be best to bring it down at least another half step, taking us to the key of F.
We also need to check to make sure the melody does not go too low with the change we make. In this case, the melody range is fairly narrow, and the lowest note is only an F. Also keep in mind the BEST range, where possible, is C to C. The key of F will move the melody almost completely to that range. The key of Eb will have the highest note a C. In the example of 10,000 Reasons, the original key of G has an occasional F#.
The highest occasional note should be an Eb (D#). That would require dropping the key by at least three half steps to the key of E.
We then check the lowest note in the key of E, which is a B—an entire whole step above the lowest allowed note (A).
Therefore, the song could technically be sung as low as the key of D, but keeping in mind the best range of C to C; the keys of Eb and E keep the melody in a better overall range for the congregation. To make things a bit easier, there is an online resource of the top 100 CCLI songs plus more than fifty additional top worship songs and the keys that are best for congregational participation on this page.

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 not accustomed to 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; however some hymns may be pitched a bit high (especially in earlier editions).

Want More In-Depth Training?

Check out the online Worship Leader Boot Camp for in-depth worship leader training.
Click the arrows below to scroll through this series of posts.

Songs for Worship: How do we introduce new songs in a way that will capture the hearts of our people and help them adopt the song as their own expression of worship?

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Last week, I discussed how to begin your search for the best new songs to introduce to your congregation by discovering the possibilities as we look at a number of key sources. This week and next week, I will begin to discuss filters to determine if the song is right...

Songs for Worship: How do we find the BEST songs in a pool of hundreds of new songs?

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Information about this series

In this series, I will work comprehensively through many areas that we need to consider in helping our congregations voice their worship and praise. Some of the areas I will discuss are:

  • How do we find the BEST songs in a pool of hundreds of news songs?
  • How do we filter possible songs to see if they are suitable for our congregation, knowing that every congregation has its unique DNA?
  • How do we introduce new songs in a way that will capture the hearts of our people and help them adopt the song as their own expression of worship?
  • Why is the original, artist version of a song usually not a good idea for our congregation?
  • How many songs should be on rotation in our church–i.e. how many songs should be on our song list from which we plan worship?
  • How do we help our congregations REALLY sing the songs (active participants) in worship rather than be spectators?
  • What does the song repertoire look like in a church that seeks to be unified/multigenerational?

There is so much to unpack here, but I invite you to journey with me as we sincerely seek to be the best worship leaders we can be in helping our congregations truly worship. Kenny

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.

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