I’ve read a number of posts and articles about how to determine what’s best for your congregation to sing. Kevin DeYoung did a two part series a couple years ago here and here that was excellent.
As the new year began three thoughts came to me about the kinds of songs we should be leading in our churches or ministries. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but it might serve as the bare minimum for how we choose our songs.
1. Choose songs people CAN sing.
This should be obvious. But important things often are – obvious and neglected.
In one sense people can sing just about anything. I’ve been in concert setting where crowds are belting out high Gs, complicated rhythms, and obscure lyrics with unbridled enthusiasm and gusto. Even though it might not sound that pleasant, there’s no question that they’re singing along. But it’s because they’ve listened to it a gazillion times.
In the church (and even at a conference), we shouldn’t assume people have the same songs on their iTunes. Or that everyone even uses iTunes. That’s due both to our individualized musical culture and the multi-generational nature of the church. In the church, we haven’t gathered to use the key that makes the leader sound best, because the entire congregation is singing!
So here are some suggestions for how to know whether songs are “singable.”
* They can usually be picked up after the first or second hearing, primarily due to melodic or rhythmic repetition.
* They typically fall within a range of a low A to a high D. You can get by with higher or lower if the song doesn’t stay there long.
* They don’t have melodies with a lot of unexpected twists or ones that are so bland no one can remember them.
* The leader sings the melody consistently and doesn’t add stylistic variations every other bar.
2. Choose songs people WANT TO sing.
I’ve read thoughts from well-meaning individuals that make it sound like God cares nothing about musical likes and dislikes. That may true in some sense, but not categorically. Singing is meant to be pleasant (Ps. 135:3, 147:1)! Of course, the primary reason it’s pleasant is because we’re meditating on and proclaiming the works, word, and worthiness of our great God and Savior. But it can be musically pleasant as well. A great lyric can go unheard for decades, if not centuries, because it’s wedded to a poor melody. John Newton’s Amazing Grace was around for decades before it started getting traction when it was set to an American tune.
Here are a few thoughts on determining whether people want to sing a song:
* People comment on how much they enjoyed singing it.
* The majority of the congregation are actually singing the song with enthusiasm.
* The melody grows on you rather than sounding old or tired by the end of the song, or after the second week.
* The melody emotionally affects you and the people you lead.
*The rise and fall of the melody correspond with the emotional rise and fall of the lyric. In other words, when you want to belt out some truth about God you’re in the higher range of your voice.
3. Choose songs people SHOULD sing.
You can choose songs people can sing and want to sing and still fail to choose songs that people should sing. This category may actually trump the other two categories at times. Songs that feel good aren’t always songs that are good for you. Songs that we should sing will eventually feel good to us because they conform our minds and emotions to God’s Word.
The Psalms are the primary reference we have for the kinds of songs we should sing as God’s people. They contain a number of phrases that we generally feel uncomfortable singing. Lyrics about discouragement, trials, questions, and disconnectedness. They also contain a lot of words. They’re also more focused on lyrics than musical setting. Lots to learn from the psalms.
Col. 3:16 says we’re to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly as we sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in our hearts to God. That “word of Christ” is the gospel of Christ, the good news that Jesus has come to rescue sinners from sin, judgment, death, and hell through his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. It includes the fact that he was fully God and fully man, lived a perfect life of obedience, died in our place, rose from the dead, ascended to the Father’s right hand, and is now interceding for his people and will return one day to reign forever. Do our songs make those realities clear in people’s minds and hearts?
Here are some thoughts on how to know which songs we should sing.
* People know better who Jesus is, what he did, and why he did it through singing our songs.
* They help people deepen their theology and connect with history.
* There’s a good chance we’ll be singing these songs a year from now, maybe even five, maybe even 100.
* People walk away with truth that changes them, and not just tunes that move them.
* There is enough content in our songs to stand on its own without any music.
* A particular song brings a variety of feel, depth, and/or length to the songs we’re singing. i.e., psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Like I said, this is in no way comprehensive and I don’t intend these to be hard and fast rules. But if you’re responsible for choosing songs, I pray this post nudges you to being more purposeful and selective in the coming days. Songs are just one part of the Christian life, but led intentionally and wisely they can be a means of grace to change people’s hearts and transform lives for the glory of the Savior. Let’s not miss the opportunity.
We’ll be covering topics like this and more at the WorshipGod UK conference in Bath, UK, 5-8 March. Love to have you join us!
Good, practical, and easy to implement. Thank you for the straightforward simplicity of this reminder. Congregational singing holds great potential for aiding worship renewal.
A very helpful article.
Thanks for sharing it
Great post as always. Thanks.
I am always trying to figure out the key part of choosing songs (or whether to lower them). I agree in general with your assessment about the range.
My question is about these octave songs that are around now. Where should we gauge the sing ability of those if the lower octave is fine for the guys and the higher is fine for the girls?
Thanks, Dustin. By “octave songs” do you mean songs that jump an octave? If so, I still think A to D is a good place to start. We do Grace and Peace which stays mostly in the A-A range, but the tag goes up to the E. We’ve done it in B as well, so the high note is an F#. But it’s very brief, almost a throwaway. ISn’t it the other way around, though? Octave songs are usually good in the lower octave for girls and better in the higher octave for guys. In any case, if the high part is brief, I’d use the key that’s better for the lower part of the song. Unfortunately, I think it’s not the best for congregational singing and I hope it’s not a lasting trend.
Was working short-listing songs for this year’s 1st quarter for the Worship Team for congregational worship, this article is timely. Thank you for sharing.
Good article. Ideas below, certainly feel free to edit:
CAN SING: Our lead singer is a low alto and her break is at ‘B’ so we tend to stick with songs with pretty small ranges, and that’s okay – our congregation is older and has limited ranges too and a song can be interesting without a wide melody.
On those songs that jump an octave, another option is to NOT jump the octave, and if the song is boring without it, well, there are lots of other songs out there to choose from. Then put the song in a middle key where the whole thing is singable.
And one other thing that works for me: put the song in a key where the high parts of the song are singable, and then tweak the melody on the low parts to pull it up into singable range… this tends to be not as obvious as lowering the high parts, nor as disruptive as putting the song in a key that people just can’t sing ’cause it’s too high.
WANT TO SING: I know not every WL is a songwriter, but what we’ve really tried to do is to give the sense that our worship team comes “from” the congregation (as opposed to bringing in a hired gun leader). So our current repertoire is about 1/3 original songs, and for us, the congregation really seems to like that sense that “this is one of ‘our’ songs.” And I’m not sure, but I don’t think that most of our congregation listens to the Christian radio stations. So we’re trying to mix it up, about 1/3 current things, 1/3 “classic contemporary” and 1/3 original. At the same time, if somebody comes to me and says, “this is a song we did in my old church, could we do it here?” I always try to honor that request, even if I’m not wild about the song itself.
SHOULD SING: My theory is that P/W singing is “putting words in the congregation’s mouths” and when I’m picking songs, I tend to look at words first. Songs that are preachy (sinner, “you” should do this) or God speaking don’t usually make that cut. I like songs that focus on one idea (as in, say, a song about learning from God’s word), and a lot of current stuff is just a string of worship-song cliches, and that stuff doesn’t make the cut either. So the songs we do aren’t always deep theologically, but they are words that somebody standing in church would say.
This is one of the reasons I took a break from PW.
There were difficult and octaving songs that people repeatedly requested, then when we would do them, they would fall flat…although the PW team was awesome. The worship became about the people being happy rather than about praising God…and that’s when I said, I’ll take a break.
As a side-note–Funny thing being in the military. I led an all-male service for a year, and I had to take every single song DOWN 5-8 steps, and these octaving songs still were hard.
Sometimes, people hear the song on Christian radio and they sing along, so they think it’s a great worship song…and it might be, but not all the time.
The last thing is that there are great worship songs and great worship PERFORMANCE songs, and knowing which are for CONGREGATIONAL SINGING and which work best for solos and small group offertories or musical offerings is a challenge.
I took a break after we performed Open the Eyes of My Heart two Sundays in a row then skipped it, and got actual complaints…
This kind of article always depresses me, as if there’s a ‘best fit’ kind of style, song, melody, church expression…. It’s this flavor of article which is why the clubs are full of young people while many churches are dying out arguing over what songs to sing.
I’m sure many of you won’t agree with me, but this is such a common trend, making something beautiful and organic like worship and music into a method based function of the institution that is hemorrhaging life until it satisfies the lowest common denominator
Jdawg, not sure why this post would depress you. I stayed away from detailing what a particular song should sound like, don’t even mention contemporary vs. traditional vs. organic, and tried to keep the principles broad enough so that they could be applied in different ways in different places. “Beautiful and organic” aren’t necessarily biblical categories, although songs should certainly strive for a God-glorifying beauty. Edifying and faithful are biblical categories and that’s what I’m seeking to encourage in this post. Hope that’s helpful.
I didn’t think you’d agree but thanks for replying anyway.
Great article~ Thanks
Great and helpful post. Thank you for sharing.
God bless you.
After reading the article it was hard getting past the first point, “choose a song everyone can sing”. Where the point was made don’t choose something that is too high or too complicated while making a point that at concerts people have been seen singing super complicated, melodic and high pitch songs with no issues and claiming that could only happen because of personal taste in music. The bible talks about singing a new song and new songs can be tough to learn. That’s because they are new and possibly because they difficult. Here’s the thing about difficult songs, they get easier as they are learned. They become the standard. Lets take for example the non-worship song America’s National Anthem, that song is ridiculously difficult to sing and yet it’s the National Anthem of the US. They sing it and expected to recognize it at the very least. So picking a song everyone can sing would honestly leave the most simple and uncreative songs out there. Of course this is an over-generalization but so is the idea of picking a song everyone can sing. If you’ve never been to a church all songs are going to be new and weird doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pick a song because they can’t sing it yet. The leader should pick a song they can sing and teach others to sing and lead people, all people young old intelligent and unintelligent to the throne of God and giving him praise He deserves that words often fail to express anyway.
Choosing songs people want to sing is just as bad because you are left with a handful of songs people want to sing. Most people don’t want to sing new songs, because they don’t know them. Again we are instructed to sing a new song to The LORD. And it seems this point contradicts the first point when it says, “*The rise and fall of the melody correspond with the emotional rise and fall of the lyric. In other words, when you want to belt out some truth about God you’re in the higher range of your voice.” The first point seemed to go against belting things out because most people can’t sing it. So, which is it? Really I think that it is more simple than that.
You did say these aren’t hard and fast rules which is good, but I think that these rules should be avoided. The leader needs to be a leader. Sometimes a leader will lead people they don’t want to go to help people get a better view of The God of the Universe. CS Lewis put it like this: There is a youngster who has only known the grime of the inner city and has dwellt in the gutters with the infested waters. When someone declares they are going to take them to a day at the beach they have no comprehension of what that is, so they go kicking and screaming. However when they get there they aren’t prepared for the beauty that is a day at the beach (loosely paraphrased). It’s the same for the worship leader, sometimes they will need to lead them through difficult songs to enjoy the beauty of the Ancient One. Sometimes the best songs are the ones no one wants to sing. Sometimes the ones we should be singing are the ones that people are afraid to sing in church. I think we are more afraid of offending each other rather than offending God. David danced half dressed and became indecent in front of the people, he was King when he did this! Moses took off his shoes in the presence of God. Samuel’s mom as well as Peter and the disciples were accused of being drunk when praying and talking to people. The point I’m trying to make is while this seems like a good attempt to help lead the people it’s more stifling of creativity that the Holy God placed on the individuals He’s chosen to be leaders. It will limit the stretching of the congregations perception of both who God is and who we are. Thanks for the thoughts, but I respectfully disagree. Our God is bigger than a handful of songs that people like, are richly worded and easy to sing.
Mark, thanks for your comments and thoughts. I posted this not for the sake of making rules but because I’ve been in too many situations where songs are chosen simply because a leader sounds good singing them, the band likes them, or they happen to be at the top of the “worship hits” charts. There are better reasons to choose songs for the church to sing. While creativity in songs can be a means of drawing attention to the words we’re singing, God doesn’t tell leaders to be creative, but to be edifying and intelligible. It’s not about offending people but seeking to serve them. But to be clear, nothing in this post is meant to limit someone from teaching a more difficult song if they think the congregation will benefit from singing it. But if after 2-3 attempts a lot of people in my church are still having a hard time singing along, I should probably find a better song.
Bob, I appreciate your view but I must respectfully disagree. If people aren’t getting it with two or three times of doing the song it means you need to do the song more so they can learn it. It takes 28 days to pick up a habit, so they say, maybe it will take 28 times hearing the song before they learn how to sing. Leadership isn’t about pleasing the people but leading the people. Sometimes that means doing hard things. Sometimes it means not singing during “worship” time.
I do agree that songs shouldn’t be chosen just because the leader sounds good singing them or because it’s really popular right now. But when you say that God doesn’t call leaders to be creative, I again have to disagree. What did he makes us if not creative. The music alone shows the creativity in our expressions to Him. Sometimes words fail to express the emotional state while music can access this portion. I don’t need to explain this to you, I believe you understand this. The point is you stifle the leader’s God-Given creativity we are missing the point. We need to see God’s creativity in the beauty of His creation and diversity of those around us. The leader needs to be able to lead the people in his charge. This means knowing the congregation and knowing what is going on with the talk. It should be an integrated part of the service. That doesn’t mean it should bend to the whims of congregation nor the worship leader but to the will of the God they are worshiping. God can be worshiped with the songs Moses penned (quilled-maybe) 3,000+ years ago and he can also be worshiped with the songs written moments ago. Both could be difficult to teach a congregation to sing…doesn’t mean it should be done. I guess that’s my whole point. You say it’s not meant to limit but then say if it can’t be done in 2-3 attempts, it is time to find a new song. Maybe the sheep are stubborn or just need more tending, not that the song is not worth doing. Any song can be used to distract from the actual worship of God, so it’s the leader’s job to attempt to keep people on track, to actually lead.If the choice is between what is easy and what is right…it should be clear which is best.
Mark, thanks for your comment. In essence, I agree with it. But I’m speaking to trends I’ve seen in the church today. Leaders seem unaware or unconcerned about whether or not their congregations are actually singing the songs. Songwriters tend to write songs without a concern for the 65 year old who might be trying to sing them. All of my guidelines are just that – guidelines. I agree that there are some songs that bear repeated singing because even though they’re difficult to learn, they’re worth singing. But there’s no reason that the majority of our songs have to be difficult to sing.
As to creativity, I primarily mean being creative with the content of the gospel. Certainly, musicians should be creative. That’s part of what they do, as you say. But musical creativity is to serve an end – pointing people to God’s glory in the person and work of Christ. It’s not an end in itself. I’ve been in too many meetings where the creativity became a distraction rather than a signpost to a greater glory.
Mark, Great comment. I couldn’t have said it better. God bless you.