Every once in a while, I encounter a topic that seems to garner a fairly strong consensus of opinion but about which I disagree. My opinion on the use of the selection of song keys and the use of two-octave worship songs seems to be one of those right now.
Many of my colleagues banter regularly about when a song is “too high” or “too low,” which keys are “good keys,” and how it’s confusing to begin a song in one octave, then jump up an octave later in the tune. While I may be the contrarian voice in all of this, I don’t think keys and octave jumps matter nearly as much as most people think.
Men and women have and will always sing in different keys. Worship Leaders go to great lengths to ensure that songs are in “singable” keys for everyone, but this is often a fool’s errand. God created the human voice to sing across a wide spectrum and wired each person with a vocal range as unique as they are. We make attempts to choose songs that will fit in an acceptable range for “most” people and there are definitely common places where vocal ranges overlap. But no matter what key you choose, it will always be uncomfortable for someone.
I’ve been in churches that are full of life and they’re singing songs in keys I never would have chosen. Even here at my church, this happens regularly. Our people sing loudly and (when some of our other worship leaders are leading) I often find myself having to jump octaves or find myself a harmony part to sing along.
Conversely, I’ve also been in churches, large and small, where the worship leader has gone to great lengths to choose keys based on a carefully developed set of criteria and people seem to be completely disengaged from the worship experience.
Both realities illustrate the compelling truth that there are so many other contributing factors to congregational engagement. We often get focused on one tactic (ie, choosing the right key) that we neglect to ask ourselves other pertinent questions: do our people even like this song? Is it accessible to a non-musician? Does it use weird language that no one understands? It’s unspeakably important to be evaluating in a multi-faceted way. As worship leaders, we can’t allow ourselves to fall into the enticing trap of assessing our music based on a single criterion.
I also find it very interesting that churches are tending to rebel against songs that cover a two-octave spread when the strategic use these songs could have an unexpected and positive byproduct. Starting in a lower octave sets an example for non-musical men – those illusive, we-can’t-ever-get-them-to-sing-with-us creatures in our congregations. When we begin a song in the lower register, they sing. And by the time we make the jump, they’ve had time to acclimate to the song. They realize that it’s completely acceptable to keep singing in that very same register while we jump up to give the song the punch it needs at that moment.
As I’ve asked average non-musicians (particularly men) about their thoughts regarding these types of songs, these are the sentiments I hear regularly. I think we musicians can often be blinded to the needs and desires of the non-musical in our midst.
The way we worship is influenced by how we’re taught to worship. If we teach people that not singing when a song isn’t in “their” key is appropriate and acceptable, we do a disservice to their understanding of true worship. If we teach them that we’ll alter (or won’t use) a song because it jumps an octave, we lose an opportunity to demonstrate a new aspect of musicianship.
What if we began to embrace the inherent and obvious differences in the human voice and let our leaders lead where it’s comfortable for them? Doing so would give them the gift of being unfettered from the weighty yoke of constantly second-guessing themselves. Decisions about keys and the use of tunes with octave jumps shouldn’t influence our ability to engage with God in worship. Free yourself from it.