Finding the Right Key to Sing In

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.

Listen
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.

Tempo
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).

Range
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.

Repetition
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.

Modulation
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.

Parts
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, 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.

41 Responses to Finding the Right Key to Sing In

  1. David May 11, 2009 at 11:00 AM #

    Thanks for this post. It’s very helpful in thinking through this stuff.

  2. Chris Burke May 11, 2009 at 11:58 AM #

    Thanks Bob. I especially appreciate the “Tempo” section. Very helpful.

    One of the ways that I am dealing with this is to have the ladies on the team sing melody more often. I have found that if the song is in a comfortable key for them, the men in the congregation fairly easily find the lower octave.

    Thanks again for taking the time to answer my question.

    Grace and Peace

    Chris

  3. Ben May 11, 2009 at 1:02 PM #

    Thanks for this post. I’ve heard the rule about the low A to a D before, but the other explanations were helpful as well.

    Any thoughts on what to tell the one woman who is a low alto with little range? As we almost always play by these rules, she still gets frustrated when we’re hitting D’s. She actually has a nice voice, and I think her range is bigger than she knows (she sings on the worship team too), but she consistently complains the songs are too high.

  4. Ander May 11, 2009 at 2:32 PM #

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks so much for your post on this subject. Very helpful and useful for the next time we want to find the “right” key to sing in!

    gracepointworship.wordpress.com

  5. chris May 11, 2009 at 2:42 PM #

    thanks so much for this, bob.

  6. Thomas Clay May 12, 2009 at 10:41 AM #

    Bob, you touched on it a bit in the “Repetition” section but another element to consider is “tessitura” or where the melody “lies” in the voice. In other words, a song may have an upper range of a high F# but if that note is only crossed once, I don’t worry about it as much as if there are 5 or 6 F#’s. Also, the range of the song may not be as high but if the song lands consistently on C’s and D’s it might need to be lowered as well.

    Conversely, if the melody is consistently low in the voice, even if there would be one higher note, it is worth it to me to raise it at the risk of taking that one note a little high.

    For those not familiar with the term, think of it this way:

    Range=highest and lowest pitches in the song
    Tessitura=average pitch of the song

    • Bob Kauflin May 12, 2009 at 11:14 AM #

      Thomas, thanks for the helpful comment. You just know all the fancy words.

  7. Charles Roberts May 12, 2009 at 11:52 AM #

    These are some of the issues we addressed when people used to take church music seriously enough to seek training in college and seminary. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has closed their church music school…I suppose partly because people seem to care much less about the fact that issues of worship leadership have fancy words attached to them.

  8. Thomas Clay May 12, 2009 at 2:20 PM #

    Bob, as you know, anything I have has only been given to me! Thanks for all you do! :-)

    I don’t want what I deserve…only grace!

  9. Jay May 12, 2009 at 3:52 PM #

    Thanks for this posting… definitely helpful. I’d also like to suggest choosing song keys that fit within the “flow” of a particular group of songs. I’ve found it can be detrimental to move through a series of consecutive songs in different keys, unless there is a clean break between songs filled with words, Scripture, video, etc.

    If I plan for three or four consecutive songs, I’ll generally try to keep them either in the same key, or do one or two in one key, work in a key change during the second song, then have the third song maintain that new key.

    Hopefully I’m explaining myself adequately!

    To God be the glory!

  10. Donald Zimmerman May 12, 2009 at 5:57 PM #

    very helpful stuff…

  11. Tim Walsh May 12, 2009 at 10:58 PM #

    Well said. On occasion I’ve visited churches and been surprised at what the worship team expects the average person to belt out. One sure test is if the women/girls are singing in the same octave as the guys -then you know it’s too high! (And rarely should a congregation sing a song in the same key Chris Tomlin recorded it – too high!)

    Serving others should permeate everything we do – especially leading worship. Thanks for pointing this out.

    I just got the latest Song Discovery CD in the mail – really nice job on the new melody/chorus for “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.”

    Tim Walsh

  12. Emily May 13, 2009 at 7:09 AM #

    finally you said it all,blessings bob

  13. Benjamin May 13, 2009 at 1:25 PM #

    Hi,

    Good article, I naturally hit higher ranges from being a tenor in our church choir, and as a PT worship leader I relate to those who would rather sing in a key that is comfortable to them. over the past couple of years I have been working on improving the quality of my voice in lower keys for this vary purpose. I agree with you that our ministry is to the congregation and as leaders we need to serve others like Jesus and that means giving up what we find comfortable.

    I relate to what Tim Walsh posted I have had those some experiences and find it disheartening because I have desired to worship and found that the key they were in or the way they were leading made it impossible for me to sing along. Although worship is from the heart it is discouraging when that worship can’t be expressed on my lips.

  14. Mark Lioret May 13, 2009 at 1:45 PM #

    anything to do with the musical aspect of worship, i have to look at through the eyes of an acappella setting, as that’s what we do… and in this case – the pitch is HUGELY important.. your tips are very good – if the congregation is dropping out, or sounding like a bunch of screeching owls, you know it’s too high.. and this certainly distracts – their minds move to “sheesh, this is so high” instead of being on the glory of God… of course, i have the option of stopping everything and re-pitching… (usually with some kind of wisecrack – “sure am glad i don’t have to have a rope around my ankle like they did in the old temple days…”).. i guess that’s hard to do with instruments, unless everyone’s skilled at transposing…

  15. Jim Pemberton May 13, 2009 at 2:12 PM #

    Taking the congregation into consideration first is definitely the way to go. If the worship leader is a tenor and can’t get the energy in the lower range, some training and vocal exercises can help to open up his lower range. A further option is to put together a small vocal worship team, even if you have a choir, to fill out some parts and reinforce the melody in lower ranges.

    Another consideration is the difference between early services and later services. Many people at an early service are not loosened up and warmed up vocally and often do better in the lower ranges. These same people later in the day will be more capable of higher keys. I’ve led worship throughout the day at weekend events and know by the end of the weekend, an early morning song works best if it’s low and higher songs work best in the afternoon.

    One last observation: If you have a special service with a lot of singing, it’s good to key songs for some variation between them so a congregation doesn’t get tired in one range, even if you have to write or improvise modulations for contiguous pieces or transitional underscores for commentary between songs.

  16. Matthew Westerholm May 13, 2009 at 3:48 PM #

    GREAT post, Bob. And good call on time of day, Jim. Worship teams that rehearse in the evenings (anybody else?) need to get some good objective data on their highest notes rather than simply going by how things “feel” on their voices.

    If it’s a sunrise service on Easter morning . . . um, drop the key. My study of the human voice (“experiential exegesis” is very dangerous combination) would indicate the resurrection occurred after 8:am.

    Seriously, though, sometimes a song that works fine at a Saturday night service needs to get bumped down for 8:30 the next morning. (ie. the bridge on Redman’s Nothing But The Blood — “We’ve been ransomed, We’ve been healed” — The normal key of B might lead to actual blood at an 8:30 morning service.)

  17. Matt Blick May 13, 2009 at 6:16 PM #

    Great comprehensive post.

    You’re very humble Bob, I’ve heard you use the word “tessitura” before, you were just making it easy for us former heavy metal guitarist!

    “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”. Hilarious! Thankfully all the ones in my church are very gracious and let me know when I get it right too!

  18. JJ May 13, 2009 at 6:27 PM #

    As a lay person, an unmusical lay person. Someone who would not consider the choir, but loves to sing, my input into the discussion:

    By all means put the song in a key we can sing. I am so tired of having a music minister feel like he or she is needing to “carry the energy”… which means, “impress us.” This is about worship.

    Listen to this next part with the love that is intended:
    You don’t NEED to sing. Just lead us. Yes, give us the note…but that is all. WHen you want to inspire us, sing a solo! Or a duet with another. We defer to your musical expertise! But, don’t lose worship for the sake of your singing. Don’t spend 2 minutes thinking, “I wonder if I sang well enough today.” We don’t care. We want to worship a God who knows what vile sinners we are. Don’t get in the way.

    Our music minister lost his voice for an extended time, couldn’t hit all the notes he used to.. still can’t. His voice was terrible, quite frankly. He felt terrible. And yet, the church grew over those years, worship took on new energy, and the music minister became so humble and likeable that he is such a dear friend to so many. Oh, visitor may wonder at times… who cares…. the energy is with our worship… God has a way to change things to His Glory.

  19. Nigel May 14, 2009 at 9:46 PM #

    being a young and inexperienced lead worshipper, Ive always thought the higher you go, the better job youre doing at singing to your Father and impressing the congregation(ok if you’re Stevie Wonder)…but this has lain it all to rest. I always prayed, less of me and more of You Lord…at least now I know where to begin…by dropping the key!

    God bless you Bob

  20. Ted Vaughn May 23, 2009 at 4:28 PM #

    Great post Bob. I’ve been a worship arts director and worship leader (musically speaking) for 15 years. I would only add one thought / idea to your post; ENERGY. Often we think a fast tempo, increased volume, and/or high pitch is needed for energy to be present. While they might help, I’m not sure they are needed. What is CRITICAL to energy (IMHO) is groove. Often slow songs that are singable for a congregation (meaning too low for the leader) can deliver energy if they have a powerful groove, pocket, and the band is playing musically. Black church does this incredibly well. No rushed tempos….tons of pocket….and a killer groove that delivers and often refreshes a song.

  21. Sarah M. Bosse May 27, 2009 at 1:32 AM #

    Mr. Kauflin,
    Excellent advice and observations! I appreciate your emphasis on making worship a truly worshipful experience for the congregation rather than trying to get it “just right” for the worship team’s comfort.

    Mr. Matthew Westerholm,
    You truly had me laughing with your comment! I too believe the resurrection happened after 8am. *Wink!*

  22. Sam June 13, 2009 at 4:52 PM #

    RE: Charles Roberts

    May 12th, 2009 at 11:52 AM

    These are some of the issues we addressed when people used to take church music seriously enough to seek training in college and seminary. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has closed their church music school…I suppose partly because people seem to care much less about the fact that issues of worship leadership have fancy words attached to them.

    Just for clarification:
    Southern Seminary combined the School of Church Music with another school to form the School of Church Ministries. They are still training leaders for the local church in music and worship.

    Thanks!

  23. Andrew June 25, 2009 at 5:50 PM #

    I am compelled to add that it is ESSENTIAL that we never dwell so much on the “energy” and “experience” of praise, but focus rather much more on the lyrical faithfulness to God’s greatness. If we are to scrutinize the kinds of sermons that are preached on Sundays, should we not as well scrutinize the kind of music that passes as praise to God?

    So many times, I hear of praise leaders who are too concerned with the right key to sing in that optimizes the emotional energy that can follow, so I really want to encourage all you praise leaders out there that we never let that become the focus! praise God that he entrusts us sinners with the delicate art of praising Him.

    by His grace,
    Andy

  24. Brandon Swanner July 14, 2009 at 9:33 AM #

    Thanks Bob,

    This is very helpful. I too am a mid-range tenor and struggle with how to serve the church in finding the right keys. I am trying to be extra careful in what range limitations I use for songs. I have found as our brother posted earlier that most of our recomendations have primarily been made for the benefit of men. Our hymnals are brutal on women who can’t sing harmony many times.

    I usually try and keep from having our congregation sing anything higher than an E and anything lower than an A. However I have noticed that the majority of our men have pretty deep bass-like voices and enjoy a female lead more than a male because it’s much more comfortable for them to sing the lower octave. Also our women who aren’t sopranos enjoy a high male lead more than either a low male lead or normal female lead.

    Are we making this too simple by saying there is one range that best serves our people?? I worry I as a leader am not serving my congregation well many times when it comes to the keys we sing because there is such diversity and it’s impossible to make everyone happy.

    • Bob Kauflin July 14, 2009 at 11:35 AM #

      Brandon,

      Thanks for stopping by. Certainly every church is different, and you have to lead according to who is in really in the congregation. But I don’t think it’s over-simplifying things to say that there’s a preferable range for congregations to sing in, assuming that you specify whether you’re singing in unison or in parts. It will probably hold true 90-95% of the time.

  25. Brandon Swanner July 15, 2009 at 10:04 AM #

    Thanks Bob,

    Ignorant would be a great adjective to describe me at this point in ministry. I have only been doing this seriously for two years and I am learning from the ground up. Thank God for the heart he has given you to serve us in these practical areas. Looking forward to coming to Worship God 09 next month. It will be my first Sovereign Grace conference.

    Solus Christus
    Brandon

  26. grande October 7, 2010 at 10:55 AM #

    thanks for this, very helpful…

  27. Nat December 10, 2010 at 9:41 PM #

    Thanks for your input Bob. Good things to think about!

    I have been singing for a long time. I’ve been leading congregational singing for probably 14years and err on the side of soprano. I’m lazy and sing alto harmonies so as to not have to sing the high nights. But, in saying that, I do have a rule that if I’m struggling to sing a song because of how high it is, how is a church member who only ever sings at church going to hit it? If I can’t do it, it gets dropped down a semi-tone or two.

  28. Ian Goldsmith February 12, 2011 at 1:31 PM #

    Hi Bob.
    This site is FANTASTIC! Only just started reading some of the resources and comments, but it feels like hitting a rich seem of golden helpfulness.
    Thank you and bless you.
    Ian.

    • Bob Kauflin February 12, 2011 at 3:11 PM #

      Thanks for your encouraging words, Ian.

  29. Tim Azevedo June 13, 2013 at 3:09 AM #

    I don’t understand the A to D range. Does that mean both the men and the women should both be singing around this range? What should I do with the song Stronger by Hillsong. It is tough to decide. Can someone show me?

    • Bob Kauflin June 13, 2013 at 3:11 PM #

      Tim, D is a little high for women, and A can be a little low for men. But in a mixed congregation (gender and age), A to D is a fairly reliable range. If you’re singing in parts, you can go higher for the melody, because only the sopranos are singing it. I’d try doing Stronger in C.

  30. Tim Azevedo June 14, 2013 at 4:19 AM #

    Thanks for responding Bob! I’m still confused though. Hopefully you can help me out.

    When you’re going in this range of low A to high D, are these the notes for a male singer to sing? You say that D is a little high for women, but do you mean an octave higher?

    So let’s say I am playing out a melody on the piano and the entire melody is within the low A and the high D (an octave and four). Does that mean the women would sing an octave higher than what I’m playing (sopranos)?

    For Stronger, playing it in C is higher than what I was playing. I am playing it in A and it’s a little low for me. I tried playing it in C and it’s comfortable for me to sing, but there’s a high D in there (which you said would be high for women). Also, there’s one part in the song that depending on how you sing it, the melody would hit an E (obviously the women can go an octave lower on this part if they choose).

    Did you mean to play it in the key of C or the first chord should be C? Because in the key of C, the first chord is F. Is that what you were referring to? I hope my questions make sense.

    If you don’t understand what I mean, I can quickly upload a video on YouTube explaining what I mean and maybe you can help! This would really help our church out. Thanks!

    • Bob Kauflin June 14, 2013 at 7:57 AM #

      Tim your questions make perfect sense. When I talk about an A to D range, women sing an octave higher than men. D is a little high for some women, but not unreachable or painful! And for Stronger, yes the first chord would be an F if you’re playing it in the key of C. Occasionally we’ll sing an E in a song, and as long as you’re not hanging up there for too many notes, it’s fine.

      Thanks for serving the church with your gifts!

  31. Tim Azevedo June 18, 2013 at 11:16 AM #

    Thanks for responding Bob! So how come you wouldn’t sing it in A? Is it because it’s too low for the man to sing? I feel like C would be really high for women. Idk. What are your thoughts?

    • Bob Kauflin June 18, 2013 at 11:34 AM #

      Actually, the key of A would work fine, Tim. The verse is a little low for guys, but it’s soft so it could be fine. Bb would be ideal! But there’s no “right” answer in this. Just do what you think best serves you and the people you’re leading.

  32. Rick November 15, 2014 at 2:53 PM #

    Although I found this article interesting, I personally feel it takes away from the individuality of who God created you to be. I believe that God finds it most favorable for those to worship him in the uniqueness of who they are. If you have a higher voice worship Him with your best. I you have a lower voice worship Him with your best. I’ve been to a Chris Tomlin concert – that guy sings very high – their isn’t a person standing around not worshiping Jesus. Your Church is letting you lead them into His presence. #awesome. They will follow you if the guys have to go falsetto and the girls go a little deeper. I would suggest growing your team with multiple vocal leaders to get the more dynamic key range you are looking for.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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