On American Idol, the singers work tirelessly to sound and look their best. Each week vocal coaches work with the contestants to find the song key that best suits their voices. Pick a key that’s too high for a singer, and they might sound strained or flat when they get to those high notes in a song. Pick a key that’s too low, and they could end up “bottoming out” on the low notes or the song won’t carry the same “punch.”
Just as key selection can make or break an American Idol contestant’s performance, a worship leader’s key selection can make or break a worship experience. When I am being led in worship and encounter notes I can’t reach, my focus is drawn away from the God I am singing to and I suddenly become very SELF-conscious. (“Whoa, that’s high! I don’t think I can sing that high. Let’s give it try… nope, I was right, that’s too high for me.”) I doubt that is ever the worship leader’s intent, but that’s the result. When I get to those high notes in the song, I have a few vocal options (and having to choose between them is yet one more distraction away from worship).
1. Drop my voice down an octave so I can sing that part of the song comfortably. (You’ll often hear guys “rumbling” around down the octave from the leader because that’s all they know to do when a song is out of their range. Women, in contrast, often compensate by singing “at pitch” (in unison) with the male leader which is less noticeable than when men drop the octave.)
2. Create or find some harmony or an alternate note to sing. Adding an impromptu part may be an option but not always, depending on the song. Not everyone might have the training or ability to use this option.
3. Sing in falsetto for that section of the song. When I do this, I usually feel a little silly or like a vocal “wuss.” (“Hey, he can reach that note, why can’t I?”) The final option, and the one I most frequently use is to simply:
4. Sit out that part of the song until it comes back down from the stratosphere. Now I am self-conscious, distracted, and an observer, rather than a participant.
If your goal as a worship leader is to encourage people to “engage with God,” to give Him glory and honor, and inspire them to be, as one hymn puts it, to be “lost in wonder, love, and praise,” then you need to choose your song’s key as carefully as an American Idol wannabe.
So which key is the “right” key?
The right key is the one in which most of the congregation can sing the song comfortably. That includes you as their leader. If the song is too high or too low for you, it’s likely that in ITSELF will detract from your leading. But whatever your voice type, there will be people in any group that don’t share your vocal range. So yes, find the key that fits your voice. But don’t stop there.
In general, all four voice types (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) can sing from an A to a D (one octave and a fourth). So I recommend finding the key that places a song’s melody within these pitches. That may not be possible for every song, but I use those limits as my general guidelines, which allow everyone, regardless of voice type, to participate.
In my experience, keeping melodies within these limits will often mean lowering the key from where it was originally written and recorded. For whatever reason, many of today’s most popular worship songs have been written by tenors: Chris Tomlin, Phil Wickham, Desperation Band, Michael W. Smith just to name a few examples. Now I use many Chris Tomlin songs, but I don’t lead try to lead groups using the same keys as his recordings. If a song’s melody is more than 50% around a high E, I transpose that song at least a step down or more to bring it closer in line with my vocal range guidelines. As a worship leader, I believe I should take the servant role and accommodate my key choices to the people, not to ask them to accommodate me. I want to do everything I can to help people to draw their focus and hearts toward Jesus.
Many modern worship songs are written by guitarists and generally speaking, in (higher) guitar-friendly keys. Have you ever noticed the plethora of worship songs in the key of E? Now, it’s very possible to write a very range-friendly worship song in E: “Here I Am to Worship,” and “Better Is One Day” are just two examples. I don’t quibble with a song that might touch on an E once or twice, like at the climax of the song where I know people will be singing all out. These ARE guidelines. But many songs could be so much easier or welcoming for the congregation if they were just one step (or key) lower, such as in D. Even moving down a half-step from E to E flat can make a huge difference. And if I am anticipating that congregation may be singing softly, such as a ballad or more reflective song, I will choose an even lower key to make the song comfortable to sing at quieter volumes.
So worship leaders, if you notice participation or engagement in any one song is sparse, ask yourself, “Is the key too high?” There could be other reasons for the lack of vocal participation: maybe the song is new or unfamiliar to some people, or maybe they just don’t like it. Ideally, maybe they are so caught up in/with the worship they stop singing because they are in awe of God’s majesty.
Picking the “right” key for a song helps minimize a potential stumbling block for a corporate worship experience. You may not get to shine vocally like an American Idol contestant. It may require some extra time and practice to learn a song in a different key. But it could make all the difference in your effectiveness as a worship leader.
How about you? What do you do when a song is too high for you during a worship service? What modern worship songs do you find vocally taxing in their “original” keys?