A common struggle amongst inexperienced worship leaders is the ability to pick appropriate keys for the songs that they are leading. Most churchgoers would be familiar with straining to hit the high chorus or desperately reaching for the low notes. Have you experienced this? Are you a worship leader who wonders why the congregation isn’t singing as loudly as you would like them to? Here are a few insights into how to pick the key of a worship song.
The key of a worship song is dependent on its purpose
What is your intention with the songs you are singing: participation or performance? If your intention is to put on a great performance, pick keys that suit your voice. If your motive is to support the congregation’s worship through singing, pick keys that they can sing too.
In a church setting, I would strongly encourage picking a key that suits general participation from the congregation. Colossians 3:16 tells us to sing in the context of teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom. Ephesians 5:19 instructs us to address one another in this way, singing and making melody to the Lord. Even Jesus sang a hymn with his disciples after the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30). These are just a few of many Biblical examples of people singing together rather than being sung to.
One of my favourite passages about singing to the Lord is found in Psalm 96:1:
“Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth! (emphasis added)
If our goal is, ultimately, to do all we can to help all the earth to worship the Lord, then I would suggest that our objective should be to sing songs in keys that the vast majority of churchgoers are comfortable singing in!
The key of a worship song is dependent on its setting
10,000 people singing at once is very different to 250…or 15. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. To be one face in a crowd of many hundreds or thousands is often comforting for people as they do not feel so exposed. Not only that, but the production values in a large church setting or arena are much higher, meaning that the sound is often louder and the room is often darker. This can often encourage people to sing louder and to push their vocal range further as they don’t feel as self-conscious of others hearing or seeing them. Conversely, in a small room where the sound is quieter and there are fewer, people are often nervous to really sing at full volume as they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
Much of the contemporary worship songs we sing are written in churches with extremely large congregations. Furthermore, they are also usually recorded in keys that suit the voices of the singer. It is a mistake to think that the original recording’s key is necessarily the right one for your setting.
Another consideration is the demographics of the people that you are leading for. Women have different vocal ranges to men; children have different vocal ranges to adults. Make sure you pick keys that are appropriate for the setting that you are leading.
General rules for picking the key of a worship song
There are a few simple principles when it comes to picking a key for your setting. Ultimately, these are not definitive rules, but helpful guidelines for the average worship setting – provided you’ve taken the previous information into consideration.
Generally, most females have a comfortable upper range of around an A or a B. There are exceptions, of course (many females can reach C, D and higher), but if you aim for a key where the highest note of a female-lead song sits around the A or B, you will find that it’s almost always suitable for the ladies in the congregation or a female worship leader to sing with confidence.
Generally, most males have a comfortable upper range of around a D or an E. There are exceptions, once again (many men can reach F# and higher), but if you aim for a key where the highest note of a male-lead song sits around the D or E, you will find that it’s almost always suitable for the men in the congregation or a male worship leader to sing with confidence.
One issue with contemporary worship songs recently is that artists love to incorporate an octave jump in the melody (when they go from singing low to really high). This is a wonderful musical tool as it helps emphasise the lyrics…but it comes at a price. Most people do not have the vocal range of these worship leaders, so it can be tough to sing these songs in a smaller church setting. There are two options in this scenario:
A) Raise the low sections an octave (significantly shortening the overall range), and transpose the song to a key where the whole song becomes comfortable. Unfortunately, you do lose that sense of dynamic in the melody. This is not my favourite option, but it works if necessary.
B) Utilise a vocalist of the opposite sex. Generally, if a song is uncomfortable for a male vocalist, it is probably comfortable for a female vocalist. If the song has a huge range, I will often ask a female vocalist to lead the lower sections and then I will join in for the octave leap. It still gives that emphasis and it also encourages female members of the church to sing too. This is my favourite method, but of course, it only works if you have a competent vocalist of the opposite sex to execute this!
A few final tips
With the above principles, you should be able to pick the key of a worship song with relative confidence. A simple way to do this is to find the key of the original, and then find the highest note. A theoretical explanation can be found below, but consider taking this free music theory course, where we go through a few examples and also teach the Nashville Number System which is extremely helpful for this process.
An example: a song might be in the key of C, and its highest note might be E. This is the 3rd note of the C major scale, and would be comfortable for a male vocalist. However, For a female vocalist, it would be better to have the highest note around an A or B. We need to find a major scale where A or B is the 3rd note. Those scales are F and G. Therefore, singing a song in the key of F or G would likely be comfortable for a female vocalist.
One last thought. If you have a good gender spread in your setting, consider getting a member of the opposite sex to lead a song or two. This way, you can guarantee that everyone in the congregation will have an opportunity to sing in a key that suits their range.
If you have any other hints or tips, I’d love to hear them! How do you pick the key of a worship song? Is this helpful for you? Let me know!