The Right Key

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 20, 2010

When you’re writing for congregations to sing, remember that not everybody has the same vocal range that you do.  Have you ever been in a meeting when someone—usually the pastor—starts singing a worship song by himself, expecting the people to join in?  There’s an awkward moment when the instrumentalists are all trying to find what key he’s in. Often it’s a key most of them can’t play. Or worse, he’s not in a key at all; he’s fallen through the cracks. So the piano picks him up in one key and the guitar in another, and we have a little traffc jam. Then when the song gets to the highest or lowest notes, it’s out of reach of half the congregation. If that ever happens to you, we suggest you lay out until the first chorus is over.  Just let it be a cappella.  Then, have an instrument set it in the right key for the second time through. This way you’ll avoid embarrassing the pastor. 

• Congregational songs must be written in the common range. That’s the range of the average person, generally from low B up to D.  You can stretch that a half step on either end if necessary, but preferably not if the notes are to be held out very long. It’s demoralizing not to be able to reach the long high or low notes. 

• If a song is to have dramatic impact, however, it needs a range of at least an octave—so it has room to build up to something and climax somewhere. “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” “Open the Eyes of my Heart,” “Above All” and “Shout to the Lord” all have ranges of over an octave.What if your song’s range isn’t that wide? Then you have a choice of keys, depending on the character of the song.  If it’s a bright song, pitch it high to accentuate its brightness.  If it’s a quiet song, pitch it lower to help keep it gentle and less urgent.

 • A song with a small range can establish a quiet mood conducive to contemplative worship. No ringing high tones, no dramatic peaks. A short chorus with simple chords, gentle tempo and a soothing melody can create a rocking, womblike comfort. Its utter simplicity helps us come as little children, leaving behind our sophistication. And precisely because of its limited range, the congregation can sing it together in progressively higher keys, to complement the rising warmth of our worship. For those childlike enough to enter in, this kind of song is a good doorway into worship. A classic example is Jerry Sinclair’s “Alleluia,” with its range of only four notes. Its different lyrics on each repeat allows us to linger in the atmosphere of worship without getting tired of the many reiterations of the tune. “Here I am to Worship” has a range of five notes and accomplishes much the same effect, although its form, ABABCBB etc., is much more extensive and accommodates more message to meditate on. “Heart of Worship” has a range of a 6th. (This doesn’t mean that a beautiful quiet song can’t have a wider range. Even “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” has an octave.) 

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