Just Because That’s the Key They’re Recorded In…

highI really appreciate Matt Redman’s music. His songs are consistently theologically sound, musically fresh, and congregational. His newest album, “We Shall Not Be Shaken”, is fantastic, and has a number of songs that I could envision using in the context of a worship service.

But many of his songs are written too high. Older songs such as “Blessed Be Your Name”, “Praise Awaits”, “Nothing But the Blood”, and newer ones like “You Never Let Go”, “This is How We Know”, “You Alone Can Rescue”, and “How Great is Your Faithfulness”, are all recorded in the key of B. This usually means that the chorus and bridge sit very high in the vocal range – with D#’s, E’s, and F#’s all over the place.

The key of B is a great one for Matt, but not usually for the average person in the congregation.

I also really appreciate Tim Hughes’ music. I met Tim in Oxford a couple of years ago and was struck by his humility and genuine desire to write songs that serve the Church. His CDs are also dependable sources of good music. But, again, many of his songs are too high.

Newer songs like “Happy Day”, “Everything” and “Jesus Saves” are recorded in the key of C, meaning that the congregation is asked to hit E’s, F’s, and even G’s on a regular basis. Most other songs are recorded in keys that are more suited for Tim’s voice than the average man or woman in the pews.

Many of Chris Tomlin’s songs are good for using in worship services, but are recorded in keys nearly impossible for the congregation to feel comfortable in. “Indescribable” was recorded in the key of B meaning you have to hit an F# about 40 times in the song. “How Great is Our God” in the key of Db, meaning that in the bridge you’re belting out F’s and F#’s. “Holy is the Lord” in the key of Bb meaning the chorus and bridge sit around an F half the time. “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” was recorded in the key of G, meaning that you’ve got to hit a high G when the chorus rolls around.

Just because Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, or Chris Tomlin record their songs in those keys, you don’t have to sing them in those keys.

Take some time to figure out the best key for a song. My rule of thumb is “C to shining C” (I’ve mentioned this before), meaning that the lowest a song should generally go is a C (one octave below middle C on a piano) and the highest it should go is one octave up from there. I’ll still use songs that dip a bit lower than a middle C or jump up to a D, Eb, or even an E from time to time, but I want to make sure the song isn’t “hanging out” up in the stratosphere or down in the depths. I think most people are comfortable between a low G and a high C or D. Of course we can’t limit our congregation to only singing notes between a middle C and one octave up. It’s OK to move a bit lower or a bit higher from to time. But make sure it’s not all the time.

Singing all your songs really low can have a deadening effect, removing drive and energy from them. Singing all your songs really high can cause your congregation to stop singing.

Once you’ve figured out what key the song should be in, transpose it down and make a new chord chart up for your worship team. This is a skill you really need to develop if you haven’t already. A basic music theory book should help you learn how to move songs down into more comfortable keys. In the meantime, ask someone for help or use internet tools (CCLI’s SongSelect service does it) to help you out.

Moving “Blessed Be Your Name” down from B to A means that the verses are a bit low (i.e. you dip down to an A once in a while), but the chorus and bridge are comfortable, sitting in an A-B-C# range.

Moving “Happy Day” down from C to A means that the verses are pretty low (you dip all the way down to a low F#) but the chorus and bridge aren’t painfully high.

A lot of worship music CDs that I buy have songs that are written in congregation-friendly keys. I’m always really grateful for those. But others are written in the singer’s “sweet spot”. Those are great to listen to it, but require some extra work on my part. I’ll gladly transpose a song down a few keys to help as many people join in as possible.

18 thoughts on “Just Because That’s the Key They’re Recorded In…

  1. Michiel Doetjes November 14, 2009 / 7:51 am

    Hi Jamie,

    Thanks for posting this! In what keys do you sing ‘Nothing but the blood’ and ‘You never let go’? I’ve tried to sing them, but didn’t find a comfortable key to sing them in.

    By the way: I’ve just stumbled upon your blog ‘by accident’ and I’m so glad I found it. I love your posts; very balanced, focused on God and not performance… Thanks!

    God Bless,
    Michiel
    (the Netherlands)

  2. Jamie Brown November 14, 2009 / 2:23 pm

    Hi Michiel,

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I do both “Nothing But the Blood” and “You Never Let Go” in the key of A.

    On “Nothing But…” it’s pretty comfortable all around in the key of A. The verse dips down to a low B, which is pretty low, but then in the chorus you don’t get higher than a high C#.

    Singing “You Never Let Go” in the key of A is a bit on the low end for the verses. A low C# is common, and dips down to a low A. But then when you hit the pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge, your highest note is a D. So, the verses are a bit low and the chorus a bit high. It seems to be a good compromise on this song, though.

    Jamie

  3. Sarah Kerr November 16, 2009 / 1:34 pm

    Hey Jamie,

    Thanks for the tips on this. I’ve been dealing with the issue of difficult keys a lot lately! Can you clarify the description of your rule of thumb – do you mean from the C below middle C to middle C itself? (ie a one octave range) Also, are you describing a good range for male voices? If so, then for female voices, would it be middle C to the C above middle C?

    I find CCLI’s Song Select so helpful, since when it transposes the song, I can check the piano sheet and see exactly what the high/low notes for the melody will be in that key.

    Btw, whenever I read this blog, I am so grateful that you are exercising your gifts by writing this blog. Thanks for writing it.

    • Jamie Brown November 16, 2009 / 1:57 pm

      Hey Sarah!

      My rule of thumb is confusing since men and women sing in different octaves. So, it’s hard to specify which “C” I’m talking about… For men it’s from an octave below middle C to middle C. For women they’re comfortable singing from middle C to an octave up. Then there are those who are exceptions on both sides. It’s confusing. Oh well.

      I should have linked to Bob Kauflin’s post on this topic a few months ago. The post was titled: “Finding the Right Key to Sing In

      He shares a number of helpful tips about range, repetition, etc.

      Jamie

  4. Sarah Kerr November 16, 2009 / 3:53 pm

    cool, thanks. Do you play Famous One, and if so, in what key? that’s the latest one I’ve needed to change.

    • Jamie Brown November 16, 2009 / 4:11 pm

      Hi Sarah,

      I used that song several years ago, but haven’t in quite a while. When I did use it, I moved it down to the key of E.

      Jamie

  5. Alistair Metcalfe November 18, 2009 / 8:47 am

    Great post.

    You remind me of a complaint I’ve long had about live worship recordings…

    I can fully understand worship leader albums for using songs in keys that showcase the singer’s vocal gifting – I think that’s a matter of excellence and artistry.

    But I cannot understand why the recording companies carry on putting out live worship recordings using the same songs in the same keys. Do the same rules of serving your congregation with songs they can actually sing not apply?

    Al.

  6. churchmusicblog December 8, 2009 / 12:48 pm

    Jamie,
    I recently found your blog and wanted to introduce myself and say thanks for writing about these topics. Putting songs in the right key to serve your congregation is CRUCIAL! I find the same has to be done with songs in hymnals, as well. They are often keyed for 4-part harmony, which has sopranos singing the melody…way out of the range of average voices.

    Thanks for writing about this stuff.

    I am an Anglican worship leader in DC, as well, and I think we may have some mutual friends. Ironically, I also blog on such topics over at http://churchmusicblog.wordpress.com/ I just found your blog and intend to put it in my reader. Maybe we’ll cross paths at some point.

    In the meantime, keep up the good work.

    Peace,
    Wendell Kimbrough
    Director of Worship Arts
    The Church of the Advent, DC

  7. Kim Briggs Lytton April 23, 2012 / 10:29 pm

    Hi – what a great article. I would like to add one thing – tessitura. That means “pitch range that most frequently occurs within a given piece, or part, of music.” It’s like the math average of where the most notes are. So while the C – C rule works really well, the 2nd step is to check the tessitura – because if most of the notes are at the high end, the congregation may still encounter vocal fatigue… That’s why 1 song may work really well in a lower key, but the next song is harder to sing, yet you never went higher than a high C…. probably tessitura to blame.

  8. Terry Turner May 7, 2013 / 9:42 am

    I do not entrely agree. If the songwas wroitten under the annointing of the Holy Spirit it should ebe in the right key. Unfortunately people like to “sing in their boots” and some think even top “d” is too high yet even contraltos should be able to sing top Es. They fear the otp notes, when htye should not. LEt us remember that teh majority of women are sopranos, for whom high notes should not be a problem, whereas the majority of men are baritones. So we drop keys and they song loooses it oompf because it is too low,….. Our pastor,is not able to sing thje low notes, and although I am a trained singer, I am not comfortable with the low notes…..

    Another problem cause by changing keys is the musicians who can nto paly by ear but read the music score…… If you have osmeone on your team with the necessary skills they can transpose the parts, but it is veyr tiem consuming, and what abotu having to transpose it down for a keyboard player? I do not like to cheat using the transpose button as all too often I forget to turn it off…… As a musician I stand by my opinion that songs should be sug in the key in which they were composed. Likewise too many “worship kleaders” learn a song incorrectly and then teach it oncorrectly to their congregations, and the melody and rhythmns are not what the composer intended ……. sonetimes I just can nto find an accurate recordign for my isngers to listen to so I have ot do a ecording myself…..

    • Jamie Brown May 7, 2013 / 9:52 am

      Hi Terry,

      Thanks for stopping by. Two quick responses:

      First, the only thing the Holy Spirit has ever inspired that’s infallible is Scripture. Chris Tomlin has certainly written some anointed songs, but that doesn’t mean the keys he recorded them in aren’t too high for the average voice. Praise God for inspiring new music for his glory. Thank God that for the sake of our congregations we can bring them down a few steps. If you read my post again you’ll see that I’m not saying we can’t ever sing Ds or Es. I’m just saying the song shouldn’t hang out in that range. I don’t think the Holy Spirit minds if I lower a song to be more singable.

      And secondly, I never give my musicians a chord chart or sheet music in one key and ask them to play it in another. If I discern that we should do a song in a different key from the recording, it’s my job to make a new chord chart or get new sheet music in the new key. Many services, such as CCLI’s SongSelect, will do the transposing for you.

      So, in short, songs should not always be sung in the keys they were composed. I agree that we should remain faithful to the melody and rhythms (and lyrics) to avoid confusion, but keys must always be fair game.

      Jamie

  9. Taylor May 17, 2013 / 8:49 pm

    What if you physically can’t sing the low notes?

    I have lead worship songs at school and people have complained that my songs are too high. I admit when I first started, they were high. I once sang “White Flag” in Chris Tomlin’s recorded key which resulted in the chorus having many sustained F’s, which was quite high. Most of Chris Tomlin’s recordings are comfortable for me.

    However, I am a Tenor myself, and my low C does not project very much, and going below that is difficult. I once sang “Blessed Be Your Name” in A major, and the Chorus was fine but the Verses had low A’s and when I sing an A is usually sounds like I’m breathing the note out. Even in B the verses are challenging for me to project, and if I sang it alone I would rather sing it in D.

    There is another band at my school with 3 Alto singers and the melodies are quite low for me. I either have to jump up an octave or harmonize above the melody.

    Lowering “White Flag” from Eb to C, would result in D’s instead of F’s in the chorus, which would probably be better for most voices, but the bridge would then have low C’s which I can’t project without a mic. and even with a mic. it’s pretty quiet.

    I recently lowered some of my songs, but due to my lack of low notes I still end up singing D’s and E’s on the high end. Sometimes I still may sing an F or F# but it’s rare and only if the range is wide, an example being Matt Maher’s “Alive Again” which is recorded in Bb Major and ranges from Bb2-G4 (Middle C=C4). I sing it in A which results in a high F# in the chorus but I can’t lower it any further, because my low A already sounds breathy, and I can’t physically go below that.

    What advice would you give? I’m trying to sing in comfortable keys for a congregation, but my low range is limited.

  10. David June 13, 2013 / 2:42 pm

    I certainly do not mean to be argumentative but in the article you mention the top worship leaders and some of the top worship songs. People are fond of and even drawn to these leaders and songs for a reason. I have never been in a service where people stopped singing along with Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Jesus Culture, Gateway Worship, Elevation, Citipointe, and the list goes on. They all write, sing and lead worship songs in the keys you say to avoid. In fact you will be hard pressed to find popular worship leaders who do not sing in these “high” keys. I have been leading worship for 15 years. I have led for 1000’s and for small groups. Never have I experienced a crowd stop singing and I tend to lead the songs in the keys in which they are written.

    What you are dealing with is preference plain and simple. If your vocal range is lower keys then cool, thats great. Sing there. If it is not then sing where you are comfortable. Again, there has to be something to the fact that the most influential worship leaders in our church culture today sing in the keys you say to avoid. The questions has to be asked “why?”

  11. Ifiok August 26, 2016 / 8:22 pm

    I actually can hit an f4-f#4 without our belting at times, and I’ve been able to hit notes as high as a4-b4. But I understand ur post, and I agree due to the fact that most of the time, mattering in genre, most males will belt in a way that’s sounds forced or screamed

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