Chris recently wrote me to ask a question about the tension between congregational-friendly keys and leader-friendly keys.
I have a upper-mid range tenor voice and though I can sing lower fairly easily, I find that if I transpose a song to a “congregational friendly” key the song loses energy, sometimes significantly. I want to serve the people in my church well and I am willing to put up with less energy if they are more comfortable singing along, but if the time of singing is musically flat, I wonder if it may be more detrimental to the overall “experience” (for lack of a better word) than to have people stretch vocally or sing in parts. Any thoughts?
This topic came up in planning for our meeting this past Sunday. I led the singing with John Reilly and his band from Philadelphia. John is a tenor and usually sings songs in a higher key than a congregation would be comfortable with. So we made the decision to drop a couple of the songs a step. Being a humble guy, John was fine with it. (By the way, Reilly is one of the bands I’ll be leading worship with at the Next conference later this month.)
There’s a wide variety of opinions when it comes to what’s an “appropriate” key for congregational singing. My basic approach is to keep songs from a low A to a high D, but there are certainly exceptions and other aspects to consider. The strongest range for the congregation seems to be between G and D. That’s where a lot of up tempo choruses end up (Blessed Be Your Name, for example). Here are some thoughts I hope are helpful, in no particular order.
How do you know if you’re singing songs in keys that are too high? If the men in your church regularly switch to a lower octave, if people look like they’re straining trying to hit the notes, or if half the congregation drops out at the chorus, you should probably think about dropping the key. Your key is too low if it’s difficult to hear the congregation on the lower parts of the song. Of course, most of us have members in the congregation who will gladly let us know if the songs are too high or too low.
Slower songs with a narrow range (less than an octave) can work fine in lower keys because they don’t require as much energy. So “Here I am to Worship” (range of a 5th) could be done in C, D, or E. On the other hand, uptempo songs naturally require more energy and people can often belt out the higher notes without a problem. For instance, I’ve been in meeting where people didn’t seem to have a problem singing an F# on the chorus of a “Did You Hear the Mountains Tremble” (although I’m not exactly clear on what that chorus means).
The widest range a song will go is usually an octave and a fifth, the same range as “The Star Spangled Banner.” In those cases, I opt for a range of G to D or A to E. “Shout to the Lord” is an octave and a fourth, so A is a good key, although it can also be done in Bb. The hymn “Jesus Paid it All” has the range of an octave, but Kristian Stanfill’s version makes it an octave and a 4th. So I do that in A or Bb. It can be done in C, but the bridge briefly hits an F.
If much of the melody stays within a certain range, I’ll factor that into the decision. So if a song has a chorus that stays up around a D, I often drop the key of the song a step, as long as it doesn’t make it too low in other parts. So I typically do “Beautiful One” by Tim Hughes in the key of C. “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” has a range of a 9th, but the chorus hits the high note six times. So I’d generally choose the key of F over G, making the high note a D.
For hymns or hymn-like songs, it’s also possible to modulate on the last verse or two. That way people are only singing the highest notes for a brief time, usually when their hearts are full of faith and it’s easier to sing higher. So we start “In Christ Alone,” which has a range of an octave and a 4th, in D, then modulate to E between the second and third verses. That makes the top note an E, but we only sing it 2 or 3 times.
If your church naturally sings in four parts, it’s possible for the melody to go up to an E or F without a problem, because the guys who can’t hit those notes will generally be singing the bass part.
Serving the Church
Finally, if I have to choose, I want to sing songs in keys that are comfortable for the congregation, not me. Ideally, we haven’t gathered simply to listen to my voice, but to each other’s. I want the energy to come from the congregation, not me. That doesn’t mean I can’t do a solo in a key that works for me. But when we’re singing together, I want to serve the congregation. If I’m more comfortable in a higher range, I can always add harmony or vocal fills in strategic places.
While churches can genuinely worship God with songs that are too high or too low, the right keys can help people express their faith-filled praise in ways that are effective, encouraging, and enjoyable.