Keys for Them, Not for You

Written by ryan on
Jesus Loves Me Sheet Music

Selecting just the right key for a song can be tricky, but we have to try.  As worship leaders, our chief responsibility is to employ musical elements in order to engage the congregation, helping them connect with the Holy Spirit and worship God.  If the congregation can't physically sing a song, it's a non-starter.

Let's start with how not to choose keys, and take it from there.

Don't Default to the "Original" Key

First of all, there is no single key that a song belongs in.  Chances are, we've come across new music in the context of a concert or album, so the key in which we'd first experienced the song was best suited for a large performance venue or listening experience.  Yes, I've had plenty of powerful worship experiences in these settings, but they aren't necessarily what we're working with on a Sunday morning.  Interestingly, the more I've experienced songs in different settings, the more I've learned that the songwriters themselves change the songs' keys all the time, based on factors like venue or even time of day.

Stay Away from the "I Sound Awesome" Key

As you choose keys for your worship service's songs, if the first question is "can I crush this?," you might be on the wrong track.  There's great value in a worship leader being confident and comfortable when leading a song, but there's greater value in the congregation singing along.  The "I Sound Awesome" test is great for albums and concerts, but not so much for Sunday mornings.

Don't Run from the Flat Keys

If the key that best suits congregational singability is Bb, don't worry about the band knowing how to play in that key.  That's what rehearsal is for.  That's what strong instrumentalists are for.  I understand that moving the key too far up or down from the original can negatively effect guitar voicings and riffs, so we should be mindful of that but trust our instrumentalists to work around it.

Now, here are some things to strive for as we choose keys.

Keep It Comfortable

To quote, well, myself, "It's nearly impossible to know what your congregation's vocal boundaries are, but in general, try to keep the low notes above low C and the high notes below high D.  Men, women, boys, and girls all have different comfortable vocal ranges, but this is at least a good place to start (Songwriting for the Church)."  The more we push those boundaries, the more obstacles we create for a worshiper to follow what we're leading, and that sort of goes against everything we set out to do as worship leaders.

Keep the Energy without the Strain

To be fair, there's still great value in setting songs in the higher parts of common vocal range.  The higher notes can offer quite the positive effect, as they require more breath support to be produced, thereby requiring more whole-body involvement and energy from the singer.  Also, the larger and louder the venue, the higher people tend to voluntarily sing.  But, we have to acknowledge the delicate balance, here.  If the song lives in the higher register, or sustains a higher note for too long, or pushes trouble vowels ("eee") too high, voices will strain and fatigue, therefore discouraging participation by singing.

Keep the Flow

Transitions between songs can make or break an atmosphere of connectedness with God.  Any drop of continuity will allow distraction to enter in, falling in the face of the worship-focused environment we hope to create.  So, if shifting the key a step or so will make for a smoother hand-off from song to song, go for it!  Otherwise, you can always use this handy Transition Chart.

It's OK to Flatten Out the Range

Over the last few years, it's been popular to write worship songs with huge vocal ranges and octave jumps.  Just this past Sunday, I led two songs each with a 13-note range.  While the congregation can always drop or jump octaves to sing in whatever range is most comfortable, I'd be curious to see how many actually do that.  Even less likely is that a worshiper would find a harmony part that fits his or her comfortable range.

In the end, choosing the right key is just as much an algorithm as it is a feeling.  There's an abundance of factors to keep in mind, some personal and some corporate.  There's no such thing as the universally-perfect key for any song, but we worship leaders can still seek to serve the congregation by including this process as we plan our sets.

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What do you think? Keep the conversation going below...

I think it's also important to note that a song with too narrow of a vocal range is also not actually very singable.


In reply to by Conrad Deitrick (not verified)

Hi Conrad!  That's an interesting point :)  From your perspective, is it more that it's not singable, or not enjoyable?  We certainly also want singers to take joy in the songs we all sing, so that's also highly valued!


In reply to by ryan

I actually think it's less singable from a congregational perspective, because there's less of a melody that you can follow.  I usually think of it as an issue with some of the contemporary songs that are on the radio--pop and rock music in general tend not to have melodies that are as dynamic, but what sounds great when an artist sings it with a band onstage may not necessarily be easy to sing on your own, if the melody is too subtle to follow well.  The issue is not the ability to hit the notes, but to follow the melody.

But it's not just a contemporary thing.  The hymnal has some offenders, too (although the hymnal has more culprits that go the other way--songs that are too high or have way too wide of a range; they may be great for the choir but horrible for the congregation).

All very thoughtful and useful considerations.   As a congregant, it might also be helpful to know that I often choose not to sing, but rather listen to the worship leader deliver the high or low notes while I meditate on the words.  When there are songs which don't fit my limited vocal ability, I simply don't sing, but don't stop worshiping.   Sometimes I actually mouth the words to myself.  Other times I just let the music, "carry me along".
Recently, we were singing a song I really didn't like.  In those cases, I often try resist the urge to be annoyed and just participate as best I can.  While doing so, even while grumbling, I had one of those "moments" where I felt like God was talking right at me with one particular line in the song.  In an instant I went from merely enduring the song to crying at its significance and God's message for me.

I say all that to offer encouragement to do all you have mentioned but, hold loosely your influence as the leader.  Somehow, I believe, if we congregants are willing, even if only a tiny bit willing, like I was, God will break through our bad keys, poor singing and whatever other obstacles we face to worship him.


In reply to by Rob Zeigler (not verified)

Rob, that's a beautiful reminder of how the Holy Spirit is the supreme worship leader, and these obstacles I talk about don't stand a chance against Him!  I love that.

I also love and admire your intentionality to worship God during the worship service.  I actually just reminded this past week that people singing is not the same as people worshiping, and people not singing is not the same as people not worshiping :)

And, a few weeks ago, I had the same experience you did!  I didn't particularly like a song for the song's sake, but there was a lyric that grabbed me and stuck with me for weeks!  It was a tough song to sing, and the style was just OK, but the Holy Spirit made His beauty and power known anyway.

As always, thank you for your wisdom and insight!