A Real KEY to Producing Spectators in Worship

on November 17 | in Participatory Worship, Song Selection, Uncategorized | by | with 12 Comments

Last week’s post began a discussion of things we do to create a culture of spectators in our church rather than creating an environment that helps people worship with heart, soul, mind, and strength in participatory worship. If you did not have a chance to read that post, please take time to read that one first.

Today, I want to address perhaps one of the greatest “transgressions” of worship leaders that leads to congregational spectatorship–the key of the song. 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 it 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 they sound the best in. Remember that worship is not about dazzling the congregation with our awesome vocal skills.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.

Here’s the bottom line. Select keys for songs that have the lowest note the congregation will sing at a Bb or occasional A. The highest note should be a D or 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.

What does that mean for your worship band? Once you have selected music that will be part of your congregational song (I will address song selection soon), 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 Gb).

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.

Note: if the music you do comes from a hymnal, most likely the music is already placed in good keys for congregational singing.

Need help with finding the right keys for your songs? Here is a great resource.

Next week I will talk about another major hindrance to participatory worship–new songs. New songs can kill our worship or they can greatly enhance our worship. How do we make that determination? See you next week. Take a look at the post.

I welcome your comments..

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12 Responses

  1. You are naive to think that you can just transpose melodies into different keys without also changing the color and sentiment. This is fundamental to the music and why it was composed that way. Amazing Grace must be sung in G; if you transpose to F or Eb, then it just sounds wrong. Those major keys each evoke very different sensibilities. Transposition changes the spirit of a melody, and usually for the worse. Hence the very tricky and subtle art of applying modulations in “high church” organist styles, which takes theoretical discipline and great care to succeed. Just because you have capos on guitars, efforless transpositions on MIDI instruments, or genius musicians who transpose on the fly, doesn’t mean you can just fix unsingable ranges with such facility.

  2. Jen says:

    Yes, thank you!! I’ve been trying to tell worship leaders to stop trying to sing in the same key as the recording because it is way to high. “Mighty to save” is an excellent example and one of many.

    Actually, I personally think that with if the service were held in the morning, the range might be even smaller because our vocal cords aren’t warmed up yet.

  3. Marshall says:

    An interesting read, though I’d be interested in what led you to A-D as the appropriate range. Did you conduct a study or consult available academic resources, or are you basing the argument on your own experiences with groups? If the former, can you please point me to the data?

    My own experience as a songleader had led me to a similar, albeit smaller, comfortable singable range for congregations: C-C.

    • Kenny Lamm says:

      Marshall, the A-D range (with an occasional Eb) has come out of several years of study with groups, consulting with other worship leaders, and taking note of others’ writings (sorry, no references to point to). I agree that C-C would be more ideal, but in reality, we would limit a vast number of great songs if we have to limit the range to one octave. When possible, that would be ideal. In my training events, I have groups sing worship songs in keys outside of the A-D for a demonstration of this concept. It seems they always have difficulties and begin to understand the importance of this consideration if we truly want to help our people to engage in participative worship. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Andy Hammond says:

    Thank you for articulating this concept so well. I feel this is the #1 pastoral and musical hurdle to maneuver when incorporating Contemporary Christian Music in the church. The key sung on the radio is often chosen because it “pops” and sounds nice with a band (Key of B, capo 4 on acoustic, anyone?). But that will not do in a congregational setting. And as some artists continually stretch the ranges of their songs, it makes them almost impossible to sing in worship, no matter what you do to the key. Choose songs pastorally and wisely, worship leaders!

  5. Darryll Prew says:

    Excellent post – I spent last weekend at the Mission Worship conference and got really frustrated watching especially ladies not able to join in with (or at least having to revert to harmony or even dropping down an octave) some of our more revered worship leaders. Just because they sound great, it doesn’t mean that all find it easy to sing along.
    eg, 10,000 Reasons – surely should be no higher that E major or Happy Day – A major surely etc etc

  6. superg28 says:

    Just a question, when referring to the note range of the song which note would be the starting point to work from? Is the E note in your mighty to save example E two octaves above middle C? What would be the average congregation range?

    Sorry about all the questions, quite interested to try this on a few songs in our rep!

    EDIT: Just got pushed back here, please allow comments from behind proxies

    • Kenny Lamm says:

      Thanks for the questions. This is a VERY important concept to grasp to insure the congregation participates actively in worship. I have just written a new post that has a resource for the top 100 worship songs and the congregationally-friendly keys for each. The criteria listed there will be much clearer in understanding how to arrive at good keys for additional songs. Take a look at this page and the page it links to.

      In summary, the average range (thinking treble clef) is the A below middle C to the D or occasional Eb one octave above the middle C. Additionally, check out the other criteria on the pages I referenced above.

      Hope this helps.

  7. Yep, hymnals often have songs pitched “too high” because they are trying to fit a full 4 part harmony below and need to not be too extreme to bassists either. Also, at some point “too high” is “nice and low” for some… I guess I’m not completely sold on this concept, but I’d like to be! Do you have any more reference work on this? I’d love to study it further. Thanks!

    • Dan Marty says:

      I guess this is a case of “you can have one or the other – choose”. If you like and want to encourage congregational harmony, don’t try to re-pitch everything so that everyone can sing the melody. If all you want is unison melody, go for it. Different congregations have different needs and abilities. Professionals get paid to serve those needs, and grow the abilities.

  8. Brent Hobbs says:

    That’s a great point and one some worship leaders don’t realize. I’d disagree a little about the use of hymnals. Newer ones are better, I believe, but our church still has the 1993 Baptist Hymnal and the songs are consistently too high for most people to sing.

    I’ve transposed about 75% of the songs we use on a regular basis from that hymnal so we can sing them together in a key that doesn’t distract from worship. It’s hard to worship with a song when you’re straining to hit the notes.

    And yes, there is a noticeable difference in how loud people sing even the same song when it’s in a comfortable key.

  9. JJ Wozniak says:

    How right you are! Amen! Same thing with counter melodies in songs, such as “You Are Holy”!

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