Choosing a keyLarge

How do you choose a key for songs?

I remember thinking when I first got introduced to modern worship as a teenager that I would never be able to lead worship as the songs were all too high for me to sing. That is, until someone suggested that I simply change the key.

It seems so obvious now. However choosing the right key can be tricky. Here are a few considerations when choosing a key for a song.

The key on the recording is not necessarily the RIGHT key.

Whilst the purists amongst us would like to sing the song in the key it was written, especially if you are trying to emulate the arrangement on the recording, it’s worth noting that most artists will push their vocals higher on a recorded version than they may risk live.

The wonders of auto tune and other modern recording techniques will smooth the blemishes. Meanwhile in the local church the sound technician has no such magic wand.

Know your voice

As a vocalist it’s really important to know where your voice sounds best and choose songs and keys that work best for you. As a worship leader if you are vocally confident and strong that will really help the congregation to enter in.

You have to remember most people feel shy about singing in public. A congregation will pick up on a leaders confidence and sing out louder as a result. Men with tenor vocal ranges write the vast majority of modern worship songs. That means if you don’t have that kind of voice you will need to adjust the key to suit. Ideally the key you choose though would be as close to the original as possible.

Think about the range

It’s worth thinking about both the range of a song and also how many phrases stay in and around the highest point of that range. One of the most successful worship songs in modern times is “Here I am to worship” by Tim Hughes. Its melody range is less than an octave. Its top note is the B above middle C and it doesn’t venture below middle C. This is the ideal sing-able vocal range.

Most songs will require us to widen this range but ideally you wouldn’t go lower than the 3rd or 4th below middle C and not much higher than the 8ve above middle C. Some songs have a much wider and more demanding range.

A good recent example is Forever (we sing hallelujah) by Brian Johnson et al. It’s lowest note is the A below middle C but it’s chorus sits in and around the octave above middle C for a sustained period. This can make it vocally tiring for a congregation and you may wonder why they begin to drop off after you’ve repeated the chorus for the 6th time.

To leap or not to leap

Also a common trick in newer worship songs is the octave leap. A good example is Hillsong’s “Cornerstone”, the first chorus being sung an octave lower than the second chorus. These songs pose a particular challenge for female vocalists as you end up sounding like Louis Armstrong in the verse and Alvin and the Chipmunks in the chorus.

It is sometimes possible to choose a key that avoids the leap altogether, for example “Beautiful” by Phil Wickham can be dropped from Eb to C and the leap in the final chorus can be missed out altogether.

Musical High’s

A note of caution however is that messing around with keys can sometimes lessen the musical impact of a song and leave it feeling a little lack-lustre. Sometimes we love a song so much that we’ll compromise its musical integrity so that we can sing it.

There are songs that never make it into my repertoire because I simply don’t have the range to pull them off. My reasoning is if I can’t sing it then our congregation is likely to struggle too.

It’s all about the balance

It’s worth considering the balance of the set as a whole. Having lots of songs where we’re all singing in our boots is equally problematic to having lots of songs where we’re all singing in the rafters. It’s all about balancing the set nicely to give the best conditions for congregational singing.

A helpful general rule is the bigger the congregation the higher you can afford to push it. In small groups it’s definitely wise to err on the low side when choosing keys.

The value of co-leading

Finally the recent trend to having more than one worship leader really helps with this kind of thing as you can tailor the set and the keys to suit each other’s strengths and vocal range. Having a different voice coming in at the high bridge or chorus can be really effective.

Just make sure your sound team know its coming!

Question: What consideration do you give when choosing a key for a song? What tips do you have?  Leave a comment below.

For worship leader Suzanne Hanna, lockdown has been a time of resourcing churches, events and individuals to worship God.
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