October 28, 2014
Congregational singing is an essential and beautiful part of a worship service. Its style can vary greatly from church to church, but across cultures and musical preferences, it is an opportunity for God’s people to unite in worshipping him. And an integral factor in the success of congregational singing, though some may not realize it, is the worship leader’s choice of key and vocal range.
Recently, a friend and fellow worship leader asked me to share my opinion about selecting keys and vocal ranges for congregational worship. What follows was my response to his request. It is my effort to put the philosophy of key and range that we practice here at Resurrection into words.
My perspective comes from a few personal experiences. I'm a choral musician first and I generally believe that people's ranges should be appropriately challenged and stretched. However, I also resonate with the difficulties that come when trying to encourage congregational singing. Lastly, I am a tenor and have generally pushed the envelope a little on the high range with my congregation.
Keeping these things in mind, here are my suggestions to worship leaders:
Of course you do not want to choose a key that will be too high for the average singer to keep up with. But often this issue has more to do with the specific song selection and how it approaches the high notes, than necessarily which high notes it requires people to hit. For example, Tim Hughes' song, "At Your Name” (in the key of G), sits on C and D throughout most of the melody, which makes the tessitura high and tiring for the voice. D is not a particularly high note for a congregation to hit now and again, but in this context it is more of a challenge. On the other hand, "From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable" by Getty/Townsend can be sung quite nicely by a congregation in the key of D. There are lots of high Ds, but they are approached from the beginning of the phrase and quickly run down. I find that this type of an approach to the note makes it easier to sing high.
First of all, there are some songs with such a small range that you have multiple key options. In this situation, I think many worship leaders make the mistake of picking the key that sounds the best in their own voice. A lot of women will choose a key that is too low, and men will differ depending on their vocal range (I have gone too high on this before). I think the better approach is to imagine a room of 100, 300, or 1000 people singing the song together. What is the climactic moment of the song? Where does the melody really soar? What note would really help those moments of the song blossom? Then, based on that, and assuming the whole song can be sung with that starting place, pick your key.
Second, it is impossible to deny that, sometimes, specific songs just sound better in specific keys. For instance, our worship team discovered that Paul Baloche's "Open the Eyes of My Heart" just rang out (both vocally and instrumentally) in the key of E in a way it didn't in the key of D. That might just be us, but I'm guessing that many have experienced something similar with a worship song. It is one of those hard-to-describe aspects of music, such as tone qualities, etc. Maybe this is not exactly what J.S. Bach had in mind when he composed the Well Tempered Clavier, but it’s certainly related.
Lastly, there is something to be said for challenging a congregation to sing higher. This has to be done with careful consideration, but something happens when a group of people truly LIFT their voices to the Lord. If it’s done well, there can simply be more power in the sound—people will have to breathe more deeply and sing louder to get the sound out. And as they hear others around them doing the same, they are spurred on. Plus, when the range gets too high for some women, they have the option of dropping to the male melody or singing harmony. Men (who are in our cultural often worse with harmonizing) can become inaudible when a song is too low.
Though there are benefits that come from choosing a challenging vocal range, a song that is too high can result in a pretty lousy sound from your congregation. Also, if your congregation doesn't sing along consistently as it is, the first step is probably not to raise the key. I do, in the right set of circumstances, challenge my congregation to sing up to an E. That would be in circumstances when my first and second points in the previous section were met and I felt like they would really go for it.
Also, be sure to consider the size of the congregation before choosing challenging songs. In a large room full of people, I'm more willing to stretch the range of a congregation. In a small, intimate gathering, I'm more likely to keep things simple. Intimate settings (unless people are really confident and comfortable) don't make for good settings to challenge the vocal range of a group.
I love a lot of styles of music. I work in a place where multiple genres of music are sung within the same service. However, the energy and drive given by a rock band often necessitates the simplification of melodic content. Many worship leaders are probably familiar with songs where the entire verse is sung on one or two notes (usually hovering around the fifth of the scale), and then the chorus mostly revolves around two higher notes (usually hovering around the 4-3 suspension). This music has its place. I usually have a song like that in my lineup! But I do think the Church is in danger of losing melody. By melody, I mean notes that move in a linear fashion and create a musical phrase. They often are built around an interesting interval (as in, not just whole steps and half steps). One definition for melody is "a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying.” I love that idea! I like to think about whether the notes, and just the notes, are interesting and memorable on their own. Take away the percussion, the wall of sound, and even the words, and ask yourself if the notes are still worth singing.
I believe melody teaches the theology of the songs we sing. It keeps the song intact within our hearts and minds when we leave worship. We don't need the latest recordings to be drawn back into worship during the week. The melody just shows up in our minds and on our lips, and we remember.
I also believe that melody lifts us up and challenges us in worship. The range is often greater in a song with a strong melody, but that reaching becomes the thing that draws us in. Think of those songs that cause you to wait in anticipation for that moment when the melody soars ("Then Sings My Soul", "In Christ Alone", etc.). Melody makes people want to sing, it makes them love to sing, and they often stop complaining about the vocal range.
Here’s my last point about melody (and this comes from the choral director in me): Some people believe that a song is not worth singing at all if it doesn't sound good with voices just singing in unison. Some of the most poignant and powerful moments I've ever experienced in worship are when we sing part (or all) of a song without any instrumentation. A few worship experiences I have had are forever etched in my memory (The pange lingua - "Now, My Tongue, the Mystery Telling, "What Wondrous Love is This," and "Amazing Grace"). I don't advocate an overabundance of a cappella singing in worship (neither does Psalm 150), but I do think we need to be mindful of what the instrument of the voice brings to worship and we need to challenge our congregations to "sing lustily and with good courage."
If at first you don’t succeed… well, you know the rest! I've messed up the key and range of songs so many times as a worship leader. My teams are very used to me adjusting the key of a song after we have experienced playing and singing it with our congregation. I also think that some songs work in multiple keys (and that some don't). If that is the case, then our various leaders have the freedom to pick the key they prefer.
But in the end, the main idea to take away from this is that finding the balance between comfortable and challenging keys is a process. It requires trial and error, and experience with your congregation. The hope is that as you grow in this skill, you will find yourself freshly enabled to lead others into worship and into the presence of God.