Picking The Right Key For Your Congregation

I’m sure you’ve heard the jokes from male worship leaders saying they need to tighten their belt a few inches before singing a Chris Tomlin song.guitarist Tomlin, who happens to write many of today’s most used congregational worship songs, tends to write them in keys too high for most congregations to sing.

I’ve noticed that other worship songwriters are following suit. They write in a key that would give the most impact and dynamics to the song. However, that key may not be the best for your congregation to sing along to. In fact, even Tomlin has admitted to taking some of his own songs a whole step down from his recordings when he leads them live.

Have you ever been in a worship service where the worship leader was singing his heart out, but it was too high for most of the congregation to sing? Instead of leading the people in worship, it causes the people to stand there a bit frustrated and just watching the worship leader go for it for 20 minutes.

What? You can hit the same notes as Tomlin?! Great! More power to you! However, as worship leaders, we must remind ourselves that most of people in the church are not trained singers. And, they may not be able to hit the notes that you can.

So, what’s the right key for your congregation? Of course, it depends on the song, but I would suggest picking a key that most men in your church could sing comfortably in. Most women in your church will sing no matter what key you sing a song in. Women tend to be more comfortable singing along, even if it means having to find a harmony because the melody is too low or too high. However, if the song is too high, most men will not sing or they will get frustrated in their attempt and stop singing.

Kenny Lamm, senior consultant for worship and music for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, highlights ideal keys for some of today’s most used corporate worship songs in this post. He also gives these tips:

Criteria for determining congregationally-friendly keys:

  • The range should fit an average singer. The highest note should be a D with an occasional Eb allowable. The lowest note should be an A.

  • For songs with a small range that could be sung in a wide range of keys, the character of the song and the composer’s original key were considered to preserve the intended feel of the song.

  • Songs with a high tessitura may be pitched a bit lower even if the top note is a D.

  • A few songs on the list have ranges beyond the scope of an average singer. Those key suggestions are noted in parentheses with the best key(s) possible with the understanding that there are outliers in the melody.

Congregational worship is not a time for you to show off how wide your range is and how awesome you sound singing the latest worship song from the radio. It’s a time you are called to lead your church in worship through music. Don’t let your congregation be left behind. Make it as easy as possible for them to engage in worship.

-Mark Logan

5 thoughts on “Picking The Right Key For Your Congregation”

  1. Not sure if I agree with picking a song that most men can sing and just let the women follow along? Also, there is no way to get the key right for everyone…operate in your gift that God has given you and use wisdom when leading. Many men can lead a song and it is to high for women and only skilled women who sing regularly, automatically” go into harmony” What about the female worship leader?The song needs to first be in a comfortable key for the worship leader to lead…..a key he OR she can lead comfortably and the congregation can sing along. Definitely not promoting show boating, but since most people in the church are not trained singers, since most in the church are average singers,since the leader is trained vocally, should be in right relationship with The Lord, walking in her or his assignment….then trust God for that person to do What He or she is called to do..pray for that person and let he or she lead.

  2. Angie, thank you for your input! Love hearing from different perspectives!

  3. Sean Carlisle says:

    Can a song be too low? I’m “the new guy” on the worship team and I find myself not able to sing in the selected key because they are really low. I usually have to drop most contemporary worship songs a step or two but can it be “too low”?

  4. Sean, thanks for your question. As mentioned in the article, the lowest note should be an A.

    Sean Carlisle :

    Can a song be too low? I’m “the new guy” on the worship team and I find myself not able to sing in the selected key because they are really low. I usually have to drop most contemporary worship songs a step or two but can it be “too low”?

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