I’ve been involved with leading worship now for the better part of twelve years. On those occasions where I’m asked to work out all the aspects of the process (e.g., picking music, working transitions, introductions, etc.), inevitably there is always some discussion on the keys that I choose to employ for any number of the songs that I pick. My curiosity is always piqued when my fellow musicians feel so passionately about which keys to use, or not use, as the case may be. Usually when I am criticized for picking a poor key (okay… always), it’s because it is said to be too low; yet, I do not choose based solely upon what is convenient and comfortable for me, but on a variety of factors. After long last, here are the thoughts that run through my head:
First, the worship leader must always take into account which key is most comfortable for the congregation to sing in. This is to be first and foremost in their mind. In my experience, women are more comfortable singing in congregational settings than their male counterparts. I think the lack of male participation is due, in part, to the high ranges of the songs. And, if the tenor worship leader chooses keys with high ranges, you are even going to lose the women, as well. This is especially striking when you consider “composers” (I use the term loosely, and should probably just say “songwriters”) keep the highest notes for the emotional climax of the song. Why should the tenors be the only ones to sing the most “moving” part? The sopranos have switched to head voice, and the basses and altos have switched to mumbling the words.
Even if this distinction is not present (i.e., men and women sing equally loud), this whole idea of range and tessitura must be addressed. Gone are the days when women ably employ their head voice without being trained to do so. Participation in choirs or other vocal groups has dropped precipitously, which has also led in a decline in the ability to read music. Contemporary radio (Christian or secular) is rife with chest voice (which is virtually always the case with men, but all the more prevalent with women). It’s what the congregants hear, it’s what they emulate, and it’s really the only thing they are capable of doing, at least with any volume.
If this were our sole factor, we wouldn’t be looking to have the congregation sing any higher than an A4, possibly B4, if indeed we were looking to have a full, comfortable sound. My dear alto friends in my church choir start griping around this range. Anything above that and, unless properly trained, the range becomes non-conducive for congregational singing. If we were to look at it from the male perspective, we’d probably want to top out at either C4 or D4. I don’t think that contemporary worship should ever cross the E5 (E4 for men) threshold, if not Eb5. It’s at this point that the range is going to limit your congregational participation. Fs should simply be off limits. Always.
What about the low end of that comfortableness? Women would probably be able to extend down to A3 comfortably in their chest voice (with the occasional G3); however, given the amount of tenors, we probably shouldn’t extend the low range past Bb2 (with the occasional A2). It’s all about finding that happy medium that doesn’t make it too high for basses/altos, but yet not too low for tenors/sopranos. I’d say, then, that we as worship leaders should seek to pick keys that have a melodic range of Bb3-Eb5, where the notes on either end of that range would be sparse.
Second, that being said, we need to take tessitura into account. Whereas range is that set of pitches that any given human voice can sing, the tessitura is that range within the voice that is most comfortable to sing in (or, in relation to music, the range within which a melody will “sit” for any given period of time. Even if the song’s melody falls within that Bb3-Eb5, if the chorus is a non-stop barrage of C5, D5, and Eb5, there’s a problem. The common congregant (or every alto and bass) will not be able to sustain singing at that range, thus hindering worship. That’s why, when I choose keys, I look for a tessitura (the most commonly used range) between D4 and C5. It’s not as big of a problem on the lower range, as that’s where the verses tend to lie, and sopranos and tenors can still “speak out” the melody if they are unable to vocalize a full sound.
Third, it is often leveraged against me that we are straying from the original keys, which causes the song to lack power and emotion. But let’s think about this. Majority of contemporary, radio-friendly worship leaders (here’s looking at you Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Michael W. Smith, et al)? Tenors. Of course they are going to write and sing songs that sit in their powerhouse. Majority of worship leaders? Tenors. It’s nothing for them to knock out an F4, or even a G4, but they do so at the expense of alienating the congregation. It’s to this end that we need to adjust the keys so that the ranges reach the greatest majority of the congregation’s powerhouses.
Fourth, lower keys will enable tenors (or those brave baritones) to sing the higher harmony on contemporary songs. I think this helps everything click into place.
A case study — Everlasting God
If we use a key of A, the verse looks like this:
And the chorus in A:
You’ll see that while the verse sits on the lower end of the accepted range, the chorus sits higher (has a higher tessitura). This is to be much preferred over the song in C:
It’s only three half-steps difference, but they are crucial. While the verse is still singable, the chorus becomes too high for the majority of your congregation — including any belting women you may have on your praise team. While the range may be acceptable (barely), the tessitura is ridiculous. And this is just one of many examples I could give.*
Two other things to note. We need to make sure they keys are friendly to our guitarist friends. This may mean ensuring they have a capo, and the appropriate key in which to play with the capo. Also, a note about hymns. Within the past century, it has been common to lower the keys of the hymns found in hymnals. I believe this to be, in part, due to the lack of musical training within the church today. A century ago (even a half century ago), congregations sang in four part harmony. Sopranos would sing the melody, altos the (gasp) alto line, and so on and so forth. It was nothing for hymnals to contain music with F5 or F#5, because sopranos, properly trained or counseled how to employ their head voice, could hit them with ease. In recent history, the trend has been to lower these keys for reasons I just explained.
For the record, I’m not crazy (or worse, simply catering to my own desires as a bass) when I choose keys for worship. I choose them based upon careful consideration of the needs of the congregation and what would most enable them to sing, and sing out loudly, enabling them to focus on the act of worship. I highly recommend that this is something we teach not only our current crop of worship leaders, but also those that will someday replace us.
*One other example. Here is Mighty to Save in D:
And the bridge:
Note the high tessitura of this bridge, especially given that the verse is in a medium range. What happens if we take it down just one step to C? All of a sudden, it’s golden! And the verse is still plenty singable. If it weren’t for our guitar friends, I’d probably prefer another half step and sing it in B.