Within the past ten years, I have heard much talk about the keys worship songs and hymns are set in. Perhaps it was going on before the past ten years, but it seems to have been amplified recently. There are many reasons for this. With the popularity of Christian worship music, many church worship leaders often try to play their songs exactly as the bands who recorded them, meaning that every detail, note, guitar effect, and even key is the same. It has been argued not to do this because recording artists set their keys based on what is best for them and their recording project, not necessarily what is best for the people they lead in worship. That argument, however, fails to explain why the songs are in the same key at their concerts and people sing loudly and with confidence. Worship leaders are partially responsible for the singing confidence of a congregation so why is it that our congregations often fail at singing? This has nothing to do with quality of the singers but more to do with the key of the music…or so we’ve been told. I would like to take a different approach though and go against the grain of that argument. What is the appropriate key for congregational worship? I have a few suggestions I would like to offer.
A Key that Empowers the Congregation
When choosing a key for a song or hymn, it is important that the congregation is empowered. Many might argue that empowerment means the congregation does not sing too high. By that logic then, what about something too low? The assumption might be that a lower key is better than a higher key. This is not necessarily the case. Why is it that those not skilled in singing are more comfortable with singing in a lower key? There are multiple reasons, not the least of which is the lack of skill to expand their vocal range and sing higher pitches. However, I believe one significant reason is that lower keys are difficult to hear. Therefore, it is not a matter of skill but a matter of confidence. I will even argue that often a higher key can empower an entire congregation. A congregation made of individuals singing praises can be powerful if they are confident. This is where it is crucial for worship leaders to teach people the importance of singing in worship. When choosing a key then, we must choose a key that empowers a congregation. When you go to a Chris Tomlin concert, he sings in higher keys, yet the audience participates in singing, and they do so loudly and proudly. That is because the high keys are actually the strength of the songs. When I lead Cornerstone, I always do the octave leap. I also notice during that time that my congregation sings louder. That is because it is actually the height of the pitches that empowers them to sing loudly. The octave leap in the song gives it a great effect that no other musical element could likely do. Choosing keys is based on empowerment. We must empower our people.
A Consistent Key
It is incredibly difficult for people to familiarize themselves with worship songs if the key of one song is different each time it is done. It is one thing to raise or lower it by a half step or a step, but to lead with a female one week and then a male the next, thus significantly changing the key, confuses the congregation. In order to learn a song well, congregants must experience the muscle memory involved in singing it. Consistency in choosing keys for the same song or hymn will greatly aid in congregational singing.
A Loud Key
Something we often don’t think about when choosing a key is dynamics. I am not referring to breath support or air pacing here but rather the natural dynamics of a key. If we are honest, we all know that keys often force a natural loudness if they are set correctly. When doing a song with an octave leap, it is likely that the song will start out lower in range and then transfer to high with great strength. Most songs do not have octave leaps though so it is important that worship leader(s) consider keys in a modal range that forces the congregation to sing loudly. This is particularly true with new songs. When introducing a song, the key must be set to a range that allows the congregation as a whole to sing loudly. We often try to cater to the lowest common denominator by setting keys based solely on those in our congregation who do not sing. Let me make this clear: singing is a choice, and it is no fault of yours if your people do not sing. We should aim for keys that allow the congregation as a whole to sing loudly whether the key is good for everyone or not. Often the reason people do not sing is not as much because of the key as it is because of the difficulty of the song. Melodies are becoming more and more difficult for people to sing so the key has little to do with it. That is another issue though. We must pick keys that allow our people to sing loudly.
A Key that Is Good for the Worship Leader(s)
I write about this last, but it should probably not be the last thing to consider. We should pick keys that are good for us as worship leaders. If we are not confident in our singing, how will the congregation ever be? This is why recording artists pick keys that work for them, and because they do, people sing with them much easier. This does not mean only the primary worship leader though but also the singers and choir members. Everyone leading worship must be confident in the songs they sing. Part of that is picking keys that give confidence to the singers. If worship leaders are loud, the natural response of the congregation will be to sing loudly.
A common thought is that keys effect congregational singing more than they actually do. Certainly they play a role, but it is not as simple as saying, “Never sing in a high key.” I am going against the grain by saying that higher keys might be the strength of the song and, therefore, the very reason a congregation sings loudly. Certainly we want congregational worship to honor God, but part of that is singing, and it is in the singing that we want as many of God’s people as possible to participate. We must consider keys, and we must consider what will help God’s people worship corporately the best they can.