- Finding the right musical key for small church worship
(Originally published in Worship Leader, July/August 2015, for more articles like this one, subscribe today!)
I can’t help but notice how many worship song album versions aren’t very suitable for small churches. So many songs are too rangy for small congregations, with octave leaps that leave either the men or the women stranded. Or when original album keys are too high, I’ve heard many worship leaders change a song into a key that works for their own voice but is still equally unsingable for the majority of the congregation. So here are some tips that may help make those anthemic songs a little more singable.
A Bigger Story
When trying to decide a good congregational key, many people say don’t sing notes above a top D, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Finding the right key is much more than purely locating the song’s ultimate high and low notes, it’s fundamentally more to do with finding where the power of the song lies and setting the key so that those power notes can be sung more powerfully by more of the people, more of the time.
Let’s think of a song in two ways: range and strength. In terms of pure range, as a rule of thumb, if you’re trying to find a workable congregational range I’d suggest using A below middle C on the keyboard as the lowest note, then up to a D above the octave. If you’re a guitarist, the easiest way to visualize that is by using your A string. Played open as the low point up to fret 17 for the top D.
Conversely, thinking about where each gender typically sings with most strength the available range then moves further apart. If you take that same range of low A to D above the octave, a stereotypical woman’s voice will be strongest on that low end and best between E and B, so frets 7 to 14, and a typical man’s strong range would start to push nicely at the higher end of the range, between the A on fret 12 and that D on fret 17. As you can see, that means there’s really only a single tone, effectively between A and B on frets 12 and 14 where both gender’s sing at their strongest points.
In the real world, many original versions of worship songs sound too high because they need to be recorded around the lead vocalist’s strongest vocal range where there’s most power. Taking a Chris Tomlin or Phil Wickham type of voice, those guys sound very strong above the top end of our congregational range, which is why they regularly hit D, E, F# and G notes—notes beyond most non-pro male vocal abilities, let alone women’s.
So for a song to be truly congregational, its strongest notes need to be placed across that E to C mid-way fulcrum where both men and women have more of a chance of hitting more of the notes. Higher and lower is fine sometimes but not for the power moments or majority of the song.
Practically, bringing a Wickham/Hughes/Tomlin/male Hillsong led song down a minor 3rd so both genders can sing it and bringing some of the female-led songs up a tone so as to not completely exclude the men does the trick.
For something like “10,000 Reasons,” bringing it down a minor 3rd from G to E works extremely well, as it’s not a very rangy song and the majority of the power notes fall between G# and C#. If you have more women in the congregation, come down another tone to D, and it’ll still be reachable by both genders.
Similarly, octave leaps sound great on record, but in practice will probably result in 50 percent fewer people singing when you get there, so realistically I’d favor dropping the leap and choose a key in the middle of those two octaves. For instance, Matt Redman’s “Here For You” in B and “Cornerstone” in C both drop nicely into G if you drop the jump.
Andy Chamberlain is a Director of Musicademy and the presenter of the Musicademy Worship Guitar DVDs – students enjoy observing his varying hairstyles as the DVDs progress. Andy was trained at the Academy of Contemporary Music, has played at festivals such as Soul Survivor, New Wine, Spring Harvest and Spirit West Coast (US) and has worked with many worship leaders including Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Martyn Layzell, Vicky Beeching, Viola and Lloyd Wade.