Dr. Tim’s Worship Tip of the Month – May 2012

Worship Tip of the Month | Friday, May 18th, 2012

The Keys to Worship: how to choose a good key for your congregational songs

Choosing good keys for your worship set is a big issue 2elimmnowadays. I remember in the 70’s everything was mid to low range and simple chords (though hymns typically are pitched high with a high ‘E’ being very common).  In our small church with mostly guitars, this mid-low arrangement worked fine for us. Then we moved to City Bible Church in Portland in the 80s and everything went soaring (high sopranos were the big thing then – with big hair!) But still we generally had one common key for any given song. Our lists of songs and their keys were standard and worked for most of our congregation (except the low-voiced men in the back who couldn’t sing the high stuff – they usually ended up mumbling a lot). We did a lot of spontaneous modulations (again because the songs were simpler back then)higher and higher the songs would go until everyone’s screaming. Weird times!

Integrity’s Hosanna became the main source of songs and helped standardize keys for their songs, along with lead sheets written out for everything! (gasp!) Most songs were mid to high with them. Then Vineyard Music came in with generally lower range songs, more intimate and guitar driven – hard to be intimate when you’re screaming at God. Then came Hillsong Music with usually a couple of key options in their books – but Darlene Zschech is an alto so everything was low to mid.

Now most songs are written by tenors (Tomlin, Redman, etc.) so the original keys are good for them. Not generally for your average congregation. When choosing the key for a song, I think the main consideration has to be the success of your main group of people in the congregation – not your leader.

We led at The City Church in Seattle for a few years and every song had options (lower for female leader – higher for male leader – I chose the lower since I am a bass) But I noticed if the song was too low on a big opening song – it was not successful in the congregation. If it was too high in a softer meditative song – it was not successful in the congregation. My experience is the original key is generally not the best singing key for an average group. So taking it down one to two whole steps makes it singable – and singability trumps cool.

  1. Find the range: I try to look at each song individually and its tessitura (range). Play the chords and sing the song. Find the highest note and the lowest note and identify them.
  2. Fast songs: For fast, big loud songs the upper range can easily go to E-F-even G if you aren’t sustaining it too long. Don’t hang on high notes (E,F,G)ever. And the lower range shouldn’t go below middle C.
  3. Medium and slow songs: For medium to slow songs I might tap an ‘E’ occasionally up high, but stay mid-range mostly with a low A being acceptable if not sustained. I think this will help most congregations be successful in their worship.
  4. Overall: You will notice most songs don’t have more than an octave and a half range (low A to High E; or low C to high G) So my system generally works. But it does take time to figure out the best range for each song. I do it in my head now, knowing the high note of the song and its relationship to the key (ie the 3rd of the key) then finding the key where that would work (key of C would give me a high E).
  5. Review: so, in summation: no screaming, no low rumblings, mid-range is best for most congregations.  One exception I have found is a woman leader who is a low alto who sings everything real low with power, and the men sing up high matching the same pitch with intensity. It works and has a great sound to it.
  • Note: SongSelect (from CCLI) now has the feature to transpose any song (with chords in their database) into any key that you want. This is a great help especially to those who don’t understand music theory or key changes.

God bless you as pursue excellence in worship. Hope you find the right key to your worship!

Dr. Tim

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