How to Find the Best Key for a Vocalist

Talking to more than few worship leaders, I’ve noticed some confusion over how to best match a song for a particular vocalist’s vocal range. This article will attempt to give a process for getting this match right.

Here are some key questions to ask:

  1. What key is the original song in?
  2. What is its range (lowest & highest notes)?
  3. What is the relationship between #1 & #2?
  4. What is the vocalist’s range?
  5. Based upon #3, match the song’s key to the vocalist’s range found in #4 and transpose accordingly based upon #1 & #2 as well, with consideration to the congregation’s average range (C to C).

Picking something I’m sure everyone has heard, let’s use the original version of Shout to The Lord by Darlene Zschech as an example. The key of the original recording is in A. While the original recording has a key change, we’ll keep this simple and ignore that.

Note Range for “Shout To The Lord” (key of A)

I’m a tenor so that’s too low of a key for me to lead. The lowest note of the song is G# (the word “my” of the phrase “my savior” found in the verse). The highest note is the C# (“forever I’ll stand” in the choruses) in the next octave.

I find it helpful to number the notes in the range. For this song, we’re looking at 7 (G#) to the 3 (C#) in the 2nd octave above.

As a tenor my note range is B2 to G4. I can sing above that if I use falsetto:

My Vocal Range

However, as a worship leader, my goal is to keep the average pitch range ‘from C to shining C’

‘C To Shining C’ (Avg range of a congregation)

With a song like Shout to the Lord, I won’t be able to do this perfectly because its range is ten diatonic notes. This extends more than an octave. If there’s any merit to the ‘from C to shining C’ rule (and not everyone agrees with it), then any song that has a range beyond an octave requires a compromise. The Darlene Zschech version compromises with some low notes (too low for this tenor). My version will have some notes too high for altos.

So as a tenor, what key will allow me to sing the range of 7 to 3 (2nd octave out)? The lowest key that will work for my voice would be C major. 7 = B2 and 3 = E3. My voice range could sing it as high as E major but the lower the better.

Greg Jones is a musician, music teacher, worship leader and independent recording artist. On my site you find me sharing music instruction, with an emphasis on worship music and articles on worship leading.

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Glenn Packiam (Doctor of Theology and Ministry, Durham) is the associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the songwriter of more than fifty worship songs, including “Your Name” and “Mystery of Faith,” and the author of several books, including Blessed Broken Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus and Discover the Mystery of Faith: How Worship Shapes Believing. He is also a visiting fellow at St. John’s College at Durham University and an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary.
Packiam preaches at conferences for pastors and worship leaders and has spoken at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford University, Biola University, Asbury Seminary, Calvin College, and Trinity School for Ministry. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with his wife, Holly, and their four children.