Stay On the Melody (Please)

One simple thing that many worship leaders could do that would immediately increase their effectiveness by leaps and bounds would be to stay on the melody. By resisting the urge to break off of the melody and sing higher, or sing harmony, or sing a cool little blues run, they would instantaneously be easier to follow, less distracting, less annoying, and more confidence-building.

The average person in the congregation is an average singer. You have some who are really good and some who are really bad, but most people are just average. They can carry a tune, enjoy singing, and while they wouldn’t want to sing in front of people with a microphone in front of their face, are generally willing to give most songs a try.

If you’re leading worship it means that, for the most part, you’re somewhat comfortable singing in front of people. You might have a great voice, you might have an average voice, and you might have a below average voice. But that doesn’t matter. Whatever kind of voice you have – you should be singing as averagely as possible. Nothing exciting, nothing special, and nothing noteworthy except for it’s averageness. Sing the melody, sing it confidently, sing it clearly, and sing it only.

I know, I know. There are occasions when it works to go off the melody a little bit. But those occasions are (or at least, should be) so rare, that your general rule of thumb should be to sing the melody and only deviate from it when it won’t throw anybody off. Anybody.

Most of the time when a worship leader sings anything other than the melody, it throws people off. Maybe not everyone – but someone. This is why it’s usually (always?) a bad idea. Control yourself, keep it together, and sing so Felix the dishwasher repairman can follow you.

I think there are several worship-leading vocal myths that can get into our head and make us distracting singers. See if you recognize any of these:

  • The higher you sing the harder you worship
  • The more you emote the more they’ll emote
  • You should sound like the guy/girl on the recording
  • You should be able to sing as high as Chris Tomlin
  • The level of your anointing directly corresponds to the highest note you can hit. If you can break an E – you’re really anointed
  • You can make people get into it if you sing really intensely (and maybe even growl)

None of these are true. But we can start to believe them and before we realize it we’ve developed some bad habits.

Really – worship leaders should be singing the melody 99% of the time. If this isn’t a big problem for you, that’s great. If this sounds impossible, then I’ve got a fun challenge for you: the next time you lead worship – sing only the melody on every single song. Your congregation will thank you – probably quietly – but trust me, they’ll be thanking you. They’re the ones who asked me to say something to you about this. I’m kidding. Or am I?

13 thoughts on “Stay On the Melody (Please)”

  1. I really enjoyed this. Hey, I can break an E – that must mean I’m really anointed. 🙂 Greatness! As for singing like the artists – there are so many worship songs out there right now that have the artist doing some ad-lib singing that sounds really good for a concert but is just impractical for most congregational singing. Gets worse (to me) if you start throwing in too many call/response type things. I think you touched on that with a post on Woahs.

    I agree with your point here. Unless you’ve got a team to back you up w/ melody, it makes sense for the worship leader to stay on melody to help everyone out.

  2. Thanks for this post Jamie.

    Similar to what the previous poster mentioned, what about when you have other singers with you and some of them always sing melody. Should the worship leader continue to always sing the melody?

    On a similar topic…I’ve seen that, in some churches where there are other vocalist singing the melody, the worship leader may do more exhortation or singing in between lines, for emphasis.

    Maybe it’s a style of music type of thing (e.g. a “Gospel” thing)? Here’s an example youtube video showing what I’m talking about. Jump to the middle of the clip and the worship leader is hardly ever singing the melody but is singing/saying other things to carry the song:

    Or here’s another clip (just the first part) where the worship leader isn’t just singing the melody:

    Any thoughts on this? Is my perspective far from the average person since, being a musician myself, I can more easily follow along when the music gets more complicated and the melody isn’t the most prominent at all times?

    1. Hi Cyrus. Great questions – and thanks for the video examples of worship leaders who break off from the melody.

      It does seem common in Black Gospel music to have a worship leader who frequently deviates from the melody. In this genre, usually there are a bunch of singers who are carrying the melody and the worship leader is acting more as a cheerleader. It usually seems like the congregation understands this and catches on that they’re supposed to be following the group of singers and not the cheerleader.

      The problem is when the worship leader sets him/herself up as the one whom people should be following and then unexpectedly leaves them wandering on their own. The worship leader can’t exactly make a quick announcement like: “OK, you’ve been singing with me for a verse and a half now, but in a minute I’m just going to go up an octave and have some fun while you stay down here and keep singing normally. Then I’ll come back down and you can start following me again”. That’s confusing.

      So once you establish yourself as the person who’s singing what they should be singing – you need to keep singing what they should be singing or else they’ll try to copy you when you start singing something other the melody.

      There are times I’ll have another singer lead an entire song, or part of a song, and I’ll sing harmony behind them or not sing at all. In these cases, it needs to be made clear to the congregation that they should be following the other singer. The singer needs to lead confidently, I need to step back and sing more back-up like, and the sound engineer needs to know also so he/she can mix accordingly.

      1. Thank you so much Jamie! I’ve been wondering about this question (worship leading styles in Black Gospel music) for a while and I’m glad you were able to express things so clearly!

        This is very helpful for me and trying to figure out where I fit into things. I grew up in the Black Church but have since been a part of different churches with different styles of worship. So, I’ve never quite known what exactly I should do when I lead since I’ve seen worship leaders of both styles. (I’ve been doing mostly just the melody at my church since starting out).

        In terms of your last paragraph, if you switch singers during a song, how do you make sure the congregation doesn’t stop singing, thinking it’s a “solo,” just because you stepped back? I’ve thought about having 1 of the singers lead the second verse of a song, but I’ve been afraid that the congregation might think it was “solo” time.

        Thanks so much!
        – Cyrus

      2. If I wanted to have a singer other than me lead a song I might handle it a couple of ways: First, if like you said, it was the second verse of a song and I wanted to step back and let another singer lead but not confuse the congregation, I might give a little three/four word cue like: “let’s sing” or “King of all days…”. Then I’d step back, but (this is important) I would keep singing – but not into the mic. If I step back and stop singing, then people might think it’s a solo. But if I give a little cue, step back while the other singer takes over, and continue singing, then hopefully people would get the memo. If they didn’t, I’d come to the mic again and start singing.

  3. GREAT post. Rock on.

    Perhaps on the flip side, if one ever DOES make a “worship recording,” staying on the melody would be the wrong thing to do. Too bland. No style, interest.

    I guess the rub comes when we take the recording-principle and make it the in-service principle. The two are not the same.

    Ultimately, as you are saying, discerning worship leaders should hear a recording and “listen through” all the little vocal tangents and get to the melodic core. This discipline gets honed especially if you’re developing your own lead sheets. You’re forced to figure out the true melody and set it down.


  4. Sometime could you talk about what to do when the CONGREGATION doesn’t sing the melody correctly? On one hand you have simple stuff like rhythms that are supposed to be syncopated that they sing straight, or singing the vocal flourishes they’ve heard on the published recording. Things like that may be better to just overlook. But what about when the congregation happens to have learned the melody with the wrong notes? Often this happens prior to a particular worship leader’s tenure at a church, but sometimes congregations just don’t get the right idea of the melody even when the worship leader has taken the time to teach it correctly.

    1. I might question at that point if the song isn’t really singable for that congregation and consider dropping the song from the rotation in favor of something that they can sing. Some songs just don’t work well for congregational singing – popular/newer songs, older hymns, whatever. I think that Bob Kauflin has some stuff at his site as well on how to pick songs that work well for the congregation.

      I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all” answer to this. Either muddle through, deal with the fact that they won’t get it, or drop it.

      I seem to remember someone suggesting that playing the song in the pre/post worship music can sometimes help if you have a good recording of it. Perhaps use it as a solo or offertory type piece as well. If after hearing it and singing it repeatedly they just don’t get it, re-consider and re-evaluate.

    2. I generally handle this one of three ways.

      1. Re-teach it. Usually as the offering song, or as the opening song in which case I might say something like: “we’re going to sing a song we’ve been learning, and before you join in, we’re going to take a moment to refresh your memory about how it goes”.

      2. Point it out. This is tricky, but sometimes it works to just say light-heartedly “I don’t do this very often – but I’m going to take a second and help you learn how this next part is supposed to go”. This gets old if you do it all the time (and may be a sign that this song falls into the “too hard” category) but sometimes this can actually help people sing the song with more confidence.

      3. Give in. If it’s just not big of a deal and you’re willing to live with how the congregation has learned it, then just start singing it their way.

  5. As a bass singer, I refuse to sing normal. I prefer to sing 2 octaves below the average person.

    If you can lead harmonically, then I think you should. God have given you the talent, use it.

  6. @James Henderson

    As a ‘below average’ singer (I have plenty of gusto but only occasionally get a valid note) I disagree for *leaders*.

    I love it when capable singers (either in the congregation or backing vocals) sail off into a descant, or bring in harmonies, or play any of the hundred and one musical tricks they have up their sleeves.

    BUT – the leader (the person(s) charged with leading the worship of others) needs to do that – and I can better follow someone singing the melody at a sensible pitch (which is why I prefer it when there is at least one male vocalist singing the melody on stage)

    From a purely musical POV my ‘favourite’ group of singers (at my church) are all female, harmonise beautifully with one of them pulling in beautiful descants; I love mixing for them.
    But I always try to ensure that the melody is still easily picked out of the mix by the congregation.

    The PA operator has to know who is carrying the melody (both for the ladies and the men if possible) to bring those voices to the point where they are clear – not dominant, just clear.

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