What Happens When the Songs Are Too High

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.

18 thoughts on “What Happens When the Songs Are Too High

  1. Martin Clarke April 17, 2012 / 12:34 pm

    Great post. Surely song writers and worship CD producers must take some responsibility here. (DISCLAIMER – this is coming from someone who’s written a grand total of zero finished songs, so I know I’ve not been much help in this.)

    Though I don’t for one second doubt the integrity or heart of these folk, I am somewhat baffled as to why so many people are consistently writing songs for worship albums (that claim to be for use in a church context) which are often unsingable for most normal people. i.e. with a completely unworkable range…too low in the verse and too high in the chorus. The women need it pulled down for the chorus (often as much as 5 steps, sometimes more), but then the men literally can’t sing the verses.

    A recent example of this is Chris Tomlin’s recent song from the new Passion album ‘You Came Down (Son Of God)’. It’s a brilliant song, and one that our worship group are determined to keep on with. But in order to pull off the powerful vibe that it has on the CD (e.g. second verse build into chorus), you need to do it in a silly key. (Tomlin acknowledges this himself in a New Song Cafe video.)

    There are so many other examples I could give.

    Now, if someone’s writing for a performance setting then that’s different. And I also understand the value of the odd “conference song” that’ll push folk that extra bit. I also don’t have any problem with folk pitching songs up (or down) in order for it to suit their voice ideally for a recording etc. It’s the range that’s the issue.

    But, in general. if folk want to write songs for the gathered church, I’m not sure why they would write songs that go lower than a B or higher than a D the octave above that. (Of course, it’s much harder to get that anthem feel without this huge jump from low-verse to high-chorus…but should that really be the determinative factor?)

    I should give a shout out to Brenton Brown here – he seems to work very hard to keep his songs singable within a good range.

    Other good examples?

  2. Jen April 18, 2012 / 9:29 am

    Hey Jamie,
    It’s Jen, the other “lone Anglican” from the Worship God conference. 🙂 It’s been a while! I keep up with your posts and just wanted to tell you how TREMENDOUSLY I appreciate that you always bring everything back to the heart. All our efforts are in vain unless they are a sincere expression of our love for Him.

    I personally love the song “Stronger” by Hillsong, but find it to be similar to what your other posted said; if you really want to build into the chorus, you need to sing the line right before the chorus UP an octave, which really stretches people’s range. Perhaps if I had a stronger voice they could just weakly squeak along for that one line, or sing down the octave. As it is, I’m an alto, so I’m squeaking myself, and certainly not sounding declarative and powerful! 🙂

    Thanks again for always reminding us of what’s most important.

  3. johnforbis April 20, 2012 / 9:42 am

    I can’t agree with your post MORE! I’ve been leading worship now for over 20 years, I’ve seen a lot come and go in that time.

    While I absolutely LOVE what’s being produced these days in the “worship music” genre, as a worship leader I find it very difficult to use most of the new music coming out these days. Like Martin said in his post, it’s really about the RANGE of songs being written that make them unusable for the church as a whole.

    I may not have the best voice around (I’d never make a successful recording artist), and over the years I’ve lost a little of my range. But I know how to sing…and even I can’t sing a lot of the new stuff out there. And if I’m not able to sing it, how can we expect people who don’t know the first thing about singing (and that would be the majority of our congregations) to be able to sing these songs!

    The part I hate most about this trend…when I find a song that really moves me personally, and I find myself thinking this song would really impact our worship services…if only it was a congregational friendly vocal song. 😦

    INSERT shameless plug for my blog here (a post I wrote along the same lines): http://bit.ly/I4xIui

    Thanks Jamie for keeping this blog up and running – I love your thoughts and encouragement.

  4. Brian Buda (@budafulmusic) April 23, 2012 / 12:08 pm

    It’s true people stop singing when the song gets too high. I think however, in many cases that the song range often determines the key for us and lets face it, many popular songs have huge ranges. Before the Throne is an octave and a fifth. You’d really have to be a fool to consider any more than a few key possibilities for it. Be Thou my Vision, an octave and a fourth. While Irish tunes are very singable, the ranges can be very broad. I love the Getty’s songs as much as the next person but many of their hymns have huge ranges. That is merely an observation not a criticism and certainly not all of their music is this way. Think of also Londonderry Air (what grace is mine), has a range of a 13th (on a keyboard).
    What can be done to help people sing out in songs like this? The range of a song does not in and of itself make it less worthy for people to worship with. Less singable perhaps. This is only part of your equation but should song writers perhaps limit the range of their melodies in order for churches to be able to sing them better?

    • Jamie Brown April 23, 2012 / 12:32 pm

      Hi Brian,

      You’ve probably heard this, but someone once told me that their rule for choosing keys is the “C to shining C” rule. You can dip lower to a low B or A but don’t hang out there or people will fall asleep. You can jump higher to a high D or E, but don’t hang out there or people will get light-headed. Most people are fine with a wide-ish range. But what wears people out is “hanging out” in the extremes, especially the high extremes.

      Many of the newer songs stake all of their energy on spending the last 2 minutes in the high E’s or even F’s or even higher. If you can bring those down without making the first 3/4 of the song unsingably low, do it. But if you can’t, that means the song is nice to listen to but probably won’t work for the average congregation.

  5. Daniel S. Ferguson April 23, 2012 / 10:04 pm

    You said, “I can’t overemphasize the importance of choosing keys wisely for congregational songs.”

    Of course you can. You could have said, “If the key is too high, people will drop over, die, and be swallowed straight into hell.” That would be overemphasizing the importance.

    🙂

    • Jamie Brown April 23, 2012 / 10:41 pm

      Wow. Thanks, Daniel. You are so right.

      • Joshua Arnold April 24, 2012 / 2:16 pm

        Ok……

  6. Joshua Arnold April 24, 2012 / 2:15 pm

    I really feel this is dead on. People stop singing all the time when the songs are just to high. Our worship ministry team has set out in a great direction, we check every song for the top note to make sure it doesn’t go over our designated high point. This allows us to reach that “plumber Joe” who doesebt want to feel like he is singing an “Nsync” arrangement of “Our God” he is going to do the same thing he did when he hears that sort of thing on the radio turn the channel or just get through it while his daughter sings along. I thank the creators of CCLI. in that one can transpose the key right there on the site. Continue to praise the Lord. brothers and sisters.

  7. Paul McFarland May 14, 2013 / 4:48 am

    I have heard some people say that all congregational songs should be from C to shining C. I agree that this is a safe range, but I think it limits the range a bit too much. Last year I posted a youtube video changing the key of Matt Redman’s song, 10,000 Reasons. In that video, the music goes up as high as D#. For most congregations I think E is too high a pitch. The original key for 10,000 Reasons goes all the way up to F#. I saw Matt Redman leading worship at a conference in Winston-Salem and that was just too high for just about everyone but him and Christy Nockels. High tenors sell a lot of CDs/downloads, but it is inconsiderate to expect congregations to sing along.

    • Jamie Brown May 14, 2013 / 11:11 am

      Hi Paul. The C to shining C doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean you can’t go down to Bs or As, or up to Ds or Es. It just means that the song shouldn’t live at either extreme. When the song lives in the low range, or lives in the high range, people aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do, so they tune out. At my church we regularly sing songs that hit Ds or Es. When the songs hang out up there, then you’re absolutely right, it’s inconsiderate.

  8. Dave Brown May 14, 2013 / 11:03 am

    Checking out from worship because a song is too high is an easy excuse and I truly believe it is “code” for some other problem (namely style, un-energetic worship teams, limited definitions of what worship is, etc). I have been to several different venues where Tomlin led worship. In surveying those rooms, I could only see engaged people singing at the top of their lungs. If Tomlin were to roll up to your church and offer to lead worship this Sunday, how would your congregations respond? Speaking for my own church family, the only comment we would likely hear is “worship has never been better.”

    I believe that painters can glorify God and be a blessing to me even if I did not take an active part in their creative act. I believe nature can inspire me to worship even if I did not “give God a hand” in His creative process. I believe that choosing the right lyrics, even if every person is not actively singing all the time can inspire great worship… so long as the congregation has the correct definition of what worship is.

    • Jamie Brown May 14, 2013 / 11:09 am

      Hi Dave. It’s certainly possible to sing at the top of your lungs when the songs are high. But it’s uncomfortable. Especially when you’re not in a loud stadium where no one can hear you croak. When you’re in your normal church with normal people with normal voices standing around you, really high keys will equal people tuning out.

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