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Image by Jake Fagan
Image by Jake Fagan


Key Notes

Zarc Porter

Choosing the most suitable song keys for your congregation.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding how to choose the best key for leading worship with a mixed congregation and this is a subject we receive lots of emails about at iSingWorship. Everyone has a vocal ‘sweet spot’, a range of notes where they can sing with power, feel comfortable and sound at their best. These ranges are sometimes labelled as soprano, alto, tenor, baritone etc. When singing the tune together as part of a mixed congregation, men and women need to be able to sing most songs an octave apart from each other in order to keep the melody inside a comfortable range. However, the difference between the average natural male and female vocal range is in fact smaller than a full octave. This means that when singing songs communally, the best key will almost always be a compromise with most men singing a few semitones lower than their ideal range and most women a few semitones higher.
The larger a song’s melodic range, the bigger this compromise becomes and the more difficult it is to settle on a suitable key. The song ‘Here I Am To Worship’ only spans a melodic range of 7 semitones so it’s perfect in a congregational setting and is really simple for everyone to sing. However, some songs have such a large range that it’s almost impossible for a congregation to sing them without jumping between octaves several times during the song. According to vocal registers as defined by Harvard University, everyone bracketed into either soprano, mezzo soprano or alto ranges should be able to comfortably sing between middle C and the C an octave higher and tenor, baritone or bass singers should be able to sing between the C below middle C up to middle C. Therefore the ideal song for congregational singing would have a melody spanning no more than one octave in a key where it runs from a C to C an octave higher. Of course, this is very rarely the case and many popular worship songs reach well beyond that range.
With this need to compromise, there are 2 different approaches that can be taken. Firstly, there’s the idea that the worship leader finds the most suitable key for them as a singer so that they can provide a strong lead and make their congregation feel comfortable by association. The argument goes that if a congregation hear a strong vocal lead, that makes them feel better about singing themselves and even it they don’t actually sound that good, it doesn’t matter in the context of a group singing together. The downside of this is that if the leader has an average male range, some women in the congregation will be singing uncomfortably high and if they have an average female range then some men will be singing too low.
The second approach to finding the best key is to look at the song’s melodic range and find the key that slots that into the most congregation friendly range possible. This means that both men and women will be able to sing the song as confidently as possible within the confines of the usual male/female compromise. With most of the popular worship songs, it’s perfectly possible to find a good congregation friendly key. The downside of this approach is that a worship leader may feel that they don’t sound at their best.
Before we begin to record new songs for iSingWorship (and Worship Lyric Videos), we always search to find the best key possible for a mixed congregation. This works perfectly in cases where a church don’t have a worship leader at all and they can always use the recorded lead vocal as a guide if they choose to.
Of course, there are always people who would prefer a song to be a bit lower or a bit higher and then there is always the time when you want to lead worship in a women’s or men’s group where an alternative key would work really well. It can also sometimes be effective to drop the key in a very small group setting where it might feel more natural to sing in a more reflective way. The iSingWorship app contains a key change feature allowing for every song to be played up to 3 semitones higher or lower meaning each song can be played in a choice of 7 keys. There is also a capo feature allowing guitarists to read chords in a simpler key without transposing the music. So if a worship leader wants to lead by singing while using the app, they will usually be able to find a key not too far from the original that’s a fair compromise between their own vocal range and the average male and female ranges in their congregation.
Ultimately, it's all about providing your congregation with the most effective platform possible (without any unwanted distractions) to enable them to fully engage in worshiping God.
Do let us know about your thoughts and experiences when searching for the most suitable song keys.

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