I was recently watching a well-known worship leader lead worship at a church that was broadcasting its service online. His leadership was excellent, the band was playing well, and the songs were really good. There was one problem, though. The keys were all way too high.
I’ve written before about the art (it’s not really a science) of choosing the right key for your congregation, so I won’t go into all those details again. You can read this article if you’re wondering what guidelines to follow (generally) to choose congregation-friendly keys. But if you’re not convinced that it matters what key your songs are in, here are some effects that high keys have on a congregation.
They stop singing
They might not all stop singing at once, but they do start dropping off like flies pretty quickly. The brave and enthusiastic will keep on singing. But the people who are on the fence about singing (and you know that every church has them) will stop singing first. Then even the eager will start dropping out because their throats hurt.
They get confused
Here are the questions that start going through the congregation’s mind when the key is too high: Am I supposed to try to sing that note? Maybe I’m just supposed to listen to the worship leader sing it? I guess I’ll sing down an octave, but that feels really low, that can’t be right, can it? Am I just a really bad singer? Will the next song be more singable?
They get tired more quickly
When the songs are in unsingable keys, people will get worn out more quickly. After just one song in the stratosphere, people are going to want a break. Why? Because it feels like exercise. And it is, in a sense. If you’re singing songs in really high keys, you’re asking people to do a vocal work out. And it’s tiring.
They focus on (and blame) you
People don’t like feeling uncomfortable. That’s a basic fact of life. And when people feel uncomfortable, they look for someone to blame. So if I’m Joe the Plumber and I come to church on Sunday and the songs are all really high and unsingable, I’m going to blame the guy/girl who’s leading them. Now the worship leader is the focus and Joe the Plumber isn’t singing along. Not good.
They get conditioned to be spectators
After several too-high songs, or after several weeks/months/years of unsingable songs, your congregation will be conditioned to not sing along. They will have learned that it’s much more comfortable for them to listen to/watch you sing. At this point, you’ll really to have work to get them to sing along with you. Shouldn’t it be the opposite in the churches? I’d rather my congregation be so accustomed to singing along in church that it feels foreign to them to just listen/watch.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of choosing keys wisely for congregational songs. If the Psalmist said “let us exalt his name together” (Psalm 34:3) then surely our number one priority is unified singing. Good keys are the basic building blocks of unified singing.