Putting Songs in the Best Key: Leading Worship

Hey, worship leaders!

Once, on the subject of leading worship, Darlene Zschech taught, “We do all that we can do, and then we let God do all that He wants to do.” How true. Leading worship, like any other ministry responsibility, is partnership with God. If we “do all that we can do” but remove God from the equation, we are simply strumming guitars and matching pitch—hopefully it sounds nice, but it never bears the fruit of life change. What a waste. What irresponsibility. On the other hand, we are not to come before God empty-handed (Deuteronomy 16:16-17) but are to make prudent use of what God has trusted to us (Matthew 25:14-30). We cannot be lazy, irresponsible, and unprepared, and expect God to honor our offering.

So today, I am writing about one of those worship-leading aspects that falls to us, one of those practical factors of which we need to be mindful.

How do we choose what key to voice a song? What key is the best?

There’s a few things I think are important to keep in perspective here:

1. Know your context.

If you are leading worship at your church’s regular weekend service, be mindful that your congregation is probably very musically diverse. In the same row, you could have a barrel-chested electrician who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and a pubescent girl wearing a Hello Kitty T-shirt, and a retired college choir director. They each naturally sing (or at least make a joyful noise!) at different levels. For this context, you’ll want to voice songs in keys that reflect a happy medium for most of the people in the room—more on that in a moment.

I have led worship at men’s events and women’s conferences—and I take into consideration those contexts when voicing songs. And that’s a no-brainer, too: men have lower voices and women have higher voices.

In a few circumstances, I have led some very musical people to Jesus in worship, so I’ve had the freedom to push songs a bit. (It’s such an enriching experience to hear your folks breaking into spontaneous harmonies!) However, most of the general public these days is not asked to sing wide vocal ranges or complex harmonies, so again, know your context, and know it well.

2. From C to Shining C

Now for the practical! Let me teach you an Italian vocal term: tessitura. The tessitura of a song is technically the range of the song—the highest and lowest vocal pitches in a song—but it can also generally mean the range in which most of the singing takes place. What we are concerned with (usually) is that range where most of the singing takes place. Sure, some once-in-the-song notes may be a little low or high, but where does the biggest chunk of the singing take place?

As a general rule of thumb, you will want to voice the tessitura, the range where most of the singing happens, “from C to shining C.” Remember that your congregation is probably made up of a variety of voices with a vast spectrum of musical abilities. This does not work for every single voice, but most voices can match pitches comfortably between C and C. (For women, I mean C4 to C5 as indicated below, and for men, I mean C3 to C4.)

For example, the beloved hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is published in most hymnals in the key of F. The tessitura spans from E4 to B♭4, which fits easily between C4 and C5. Most people will be able to sing this comfortably because—notice—it fits between the Cs.

Now, I advise you to hold this general rule of thumb loosely. Just use it as a guide. Once in a class (a long time ago these days), my music professor told us to keep congregational vocals within the A3 and E♭5 range, and that’s great advice, too. I would simply suggest that you start paying attention if you notice a song extends too far below or above a C.

Notice the tessitura of some “homerun” songs and judge for yourself:

  • “Amazing Grace” (Key of G): spans from D4 to D5
  • “Great is Thy Faithfulness” (Key of D): spans from C#4 to D5
  • “Here I Am to Worship” (Key of E): spans from B3 to B4
  • “I Give You My Heart” (Key of G): spans from D4 to C5

Now, just for kicks, check out some fabulous exceptions. These songs do not fit with our general rule of thumb and have a wider range, proving that our “C to shining C” is simply a guide, not a hard-and-fast rule.

  • “In Christ Alone” (Key of E♭): spans from B♭3 to E♭5
  • “Shout to the Lord” (Key of A): spans from G#3 to C#5
  • “Blessed Assurance” (Key of D): spans from C#4 to E5
  • “Be Thou My Vision” (Key of E♭): spans from B♭3 to E♭5

3. Keep parts of the song between Cs

Okay, let’s build on the previous point, but break it down a bit more. Songs with bigger vocal ranges and jumping octaves are trending now and have been for the last decade or so. At the time of my writing this piece, “Who You Say I Am” by Hillsong Worship is currently the top song sung in churches in America according to CCLI, so I’ll use it as an example. It’s a powerful song and beautifully written, but you just cannot fit it comfortably between any two Cs. So what do we do with songs like this one?

Some worship leaders simply write off songs that have a range much bigger than an octave, but I’m not an advocate for avoiding songs solely because it’s vocally demanding. The Church would sorely miss blessings such as “In Christ Alone” or “Be Thou My Vision” as I mentioned above.

Here’s my little tip for voicing songs that have bigger ranges.

Keep specific parts of the song between Cs, generally, even if they end up being in different octaves. Make sure the tessitura of the verse is within Cs, and then make sure the pre-chorus is within Cs, and then make sure the chorus is within Cs, and so on. This provides a natural and comfortable opportunity for your congregation to “drop” the octave or “raise” the octave if their voice needs it (rather than having to adjust the octave midway through a single line).

Let’s go back to “Who You Say I Am.” It’s written by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan (songwriting geniuses) in the key of F#. The melody range of the verse is F#3 to C#4 (C#4 is the starting pitch). Notice that it fits nicely within the Cs (by one half-step difference to that C#). Whether a person feels most comfortable beginning on the C#4 or an octave higher on the C#5, it still works and is not too demanding.

Then the chorus moves into an upper register, from D#4 to B4. By itself, this chorus has an easy tessitura. If a person wants to move up to that D#4, then she can, but if a man would prefer to stay in a lower register, he can come in on a D#3 (an octave lower). The chorus is a natural place for an octave change, and everyone’s happy. In other words, no one has to drop or raise the octave halfway through the chorus, which is a win.

The bridge fits within F#4 and A#4—super limited and super simple. Perfect. Men and women can choose which octave they want to sing this in.

So even if the song in its entirety does not fit “from C to shining C,” you can still find the natural “breaks” in the song and make sure those parts follow our general rule of thumb. Do you see what I mean? Now, since I am a high tenor, when I lead “Who You Say I Am,” I lead it in the key of D, making the tessitura D3 to G4, but since each part of the song still fits between Cs, it’s effective in typical church settings for both men and women.

You can make this work with most songs that have wider ranges, like “Living Hope,” “Reckless Love,” “Forever (We Sing Hallelujah),” and “King of My Heart.”

Now, here are a few extra thoughts.

Disregard what key they do it in on the album.

There are many additional factors a worship ministry needs to bring into consideration when they are recording their worship experience, most of which you don’t have to worry about when you’re leading worship for your local congregation. Don’t worry too much about doing it in “their” key. You study the tessitura of the song and do what is best for your context. If it happens to be the same key, great! If you change it to something different, that’s great, too!

Keys that are “too high” or “too low” do not exclude worshipers.

Some will erroneously argue that a congregation isn’t worshiping because the song is too high or too low. I have used a lot of words to empower you to choose your keys carefully and thoughtfully. But when all is said and done, it honestly doesn’t matter too much what key you end up choosing. (I know, I know.) There are many moving pieces that together make a great worship experience: the song keys, the song selection, the instrumentation, the arrangement, the quality of musicianship, the accuracy of on-screen lyrics, the sound mix, the room acoustics, and more (not to mention what is non-negotiable, the anointing of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ reception of our praise). No one component will “cinch” or “ruin” the worship experience. Rather, it’s the strength of each component working together to make a strong worship experience overall.

Besides, here’s the reality: true worshipers love to worship God. Period! Whether you sing “How Great Is Our God” in C or E♭ or F# or G is almost irrelevant. True worshipers have learned to cultivate the inner discipline—and joy!—of pouring out their hearts to the King regardless of external factors like the style of music, the volume, the length of the song, and of course, the key you end up putting the song in. It’s true that some keys are helpful to enhance the worship experience, but trust me, worshipers will worship God.

Push your team musically.

This last one is just my challenge to you. It can be easy for a worship team to get into a musical rut by defaulting to the same few keys over and over again. If you default to D, for example, why not try to put the song in E♭? It’s a slight difference vocally and your congregation may not even notice the change, but it will stretch your team musically. Try to go without capos one service, or try not to transpose the keyboard. Sharpen your team’s ability to play in every key! Offer musical excellence as an offering to Jesus!

And there you have it. What did I miss? What would you add? Let me know in the comments! And meanwhile, I am praying for you, my worship leader friends, to have an incredible time in God’s presence this coming Sunday!

Josh

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