I ask because I understand that it may not be, and that’s ok.
I have attended churches where it was obvious that the leader did not expect me to sing. The service was moving, powerful, and well-planned. The sermon was engaging and challenging. The music touched me deeply. I worshiped.
But I didn’t sing.
Congregational singing was not a priority, and that’s ok.
It’s not my preference, but worship isn’t about my preferences.
However, if congregational singing is a priority for you and your church, as it was for me in my ministry, then I have a suggestion.
It’s more of a plea, actually.
Please put the songs in a more singable key.
Now, I want you to know that I don’t agree with most of what I read about why congregational singing is waning. I don’t think projecting the music along with the words will help. I don’t think the answer is to stop doing new songs. (I responded to one article which touches on many of these complaints. You can read it here.)
But I do believe this one thing with all my heart…
People won’t sing with you if you deliberately exclude them.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but the recordings of most popular music (including popular worship music) is pitched in a low range for female singers and a high range for male singers. The result is that the vocals end up in approximately the same range. It’s a range we like to listen to. Now we may let loose and do our best to sing along in the car when no one else is around, but we know we sound awful. Because the songs are in a range most non-musicians and inexperienced singers are uncomfortable with.
The thing is, most of our worship leaders are experienced musicians who are comfortable singing in the pop music range. In fact, they prefer it because it allows them to be more expressive.
But it doesn’t encourage congregational singing at all. In fact, it does the opposite. It discourages participation. People may even want to sing, but they won’t be able to.
I know this because I really, really want to sing. I want to belt out my praise at the top of my lungs. I’ve been around the musical block a few times. I know what I’m doing. So sometimes I can find a harmony that feels right, or an octave that works. But there are many times when I simply can’t participate. I’m motivated. I try. I know what I’m doing. But many times I still can’t find anything that I can sing.
I guarantee that most of the people in the congregation who aren’t motivated, who have to be encouraged to try, and who don’t know what they’re doing, won’t participate.
Now, because I’m a man, what I’m about to say isn’t known through experience, but it seems to me that the women in our congregations are somewhat more flexible in their vocal range than men. What I mean is, if a male worship leader is singing in a very high range a female congregation member can generally sing with him in her lower octave, in a prime unison with the leader, and it can sound awesome! The men of the congregation, on the other hand, must either choose to sing in a high falsetto to stay with the leader (which will feel silly to him), or resort to a lower octave which, for a man, just isn’t going to be as expressive because it won’t have enough power for him to really even hear himself.
The third alternative is that he simply won’t try to sing at all. When you factor in the cultural bias that singing isn’t a very manly thing to do anyway, you can see why so many will choose option 3.
So, how do you determine what key to use?
I’m glad you asked.
A congregation will feel most comfortable if you keep the melody of the song in a range from about Bb below middle C to the D in the staff. You can go a little lower in quiet times and a little higher at big musical moments. Locate the highest and lowest notes in the song and find a key that puts the melody closest to this range. (This would be easier if worship leaders would use lead sheets instead of just lyrics and chords, but maybe that’s another blog post.)
I realize that many younger worship leaders will likely pooh-pooh this advice, but before you do I challenge you to try it. Consciously pitch your songs this way for a couple of months. You might not feel good about it because it may not be in your own sweet spot, but yours isn’t the sweet spot you’re aiming for.
Please remember that our congregations are not filled with trained musicians or singers. We do them an extreme disservice when we expect them to sing along with a song that is completely out of their range.
They won’t do it, and I don’t blame them.
I plead with you to let us sing!