From C to shining C, Please

Written by  on April 28, 2011 

The process of selecting songs for a church’s worship ministry is a complicated one, with both content and usability implications for both the lyrics and the music.  Here I’m going to highlight a particular criterion of a song’s musical usability – can we find a key that everybody can sing this melody in?

Songs with big ranges are tough to find common ground for men and women – not to mention tenor vs. bass and soprano vs. alto!  The conventional wisdom around this is a mnemonic of “From sea to shining sea” (from America the Beautiful) as picking a one-octave range from the notes C to C.  At my church, we tend do things a little low for my “sweet spot” range in order to accommodate the women and baritones in the congregation, and keeping the above guideline in mind, I rarely have melodies go higher than a D for anything congregational.  On the platform we generally have me leading with a single female backup vocalist, and occasionally the reverse for a particular song or verse or an entire morning.

So what do you do when otherwise-great songs don’t fit into a range like this?  Here’s an interesting example – Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend’s masterpiece In Christ Alone, in medley with the classic hymn refrain to The Solid Rock, performed by Travis Cottrell.

In Christ Alone is already a tough song because it’s got a big range – an octave plus a 4th.  (In C, that would be a lower G to a higher C.)   In Christ Alone is a rare exception for my team in that we do it in E, which means it goes up to an E, mostly because the low end of the range is so low for my voice in any other key.  So that means that it’s relatively high for women.

So take another listen to the video, where the song transition takes place: you notice that his voice drops in and out?  That’s because Solid Rock goes up another 5th at that point – which in our case, would be up to B!  So you can tell that he picked a key that was optimized for his choir to take over at that point.  Note that also in the 3rd verse when his voice jumps into the higher octave for the “up from the grave” line, he isn’t able to stay on the melody for the whole verse.  Same thing in the final verse after Solid Rock – he isn’t able to stay on the melody in that octave.

You can see where this gets complicated.  Making things sound excellent but are also congregationally singable are two entirely different animals and serve at times conflicting purposes in actual implementation.

A bigger frustration I have is with songs that have the verse in a low octave and the chorus in a high octave. Here’s an example of a song that my team just learned: Happy Day written by Tim Hughes, as performed by Jesus Culture.

It works great from a songwriting perspective, because it brings immediate energy to the big chorus and matches the lyrics well.  But it ultimately fails congregationally, because it’s nearly impossible to find a key that both genders can adequately sing in both octaves.  So what it usually means is that one gender or the other ends up singing harmony by necessity only in half the song, or if they’re not able to harmonize, due to either ability or chord complexity, they end up singing the verse in the high octave, and the chorus in the low octave – thereby stripping the whole arc of the song for half of your congregation.  Unfortunately, this is the norm in worship chorus writing these days, and it’s annoying all of us.

Honestly, sometimes I wonder how Chris Tomlin has been as successful as he has – his recordings are generally out of range for men AND women!  I can’t imagine actually trying to sing along with him in a worship context – unless the whole congregation singing in harmony (again, by necessity) sounds like this big heavenly choir.

Note: if you read this post earlier, I’ve rewritten this section – I’ve come around on this one.
His Jesus Messiah is an interesting one – it’s in kind of an odd key, but the whole song only has the range of a 5th-  in this key (B), it goes from B to F#- but what that means is that once you find your octave, at least you’re able to get comfortable on the melody or harmony and not have to jump around.  (Taking a note from Bruce Springsteen, the master of small vocal range, perhaps?)

I’ve made the choice to be extremely conscious of this issue; it’s one of those things the congregation would generally never notice unless it went away.  My team members might take note that most special music tunes that I sing are in higher keys than the worship choruses surrounding them.  I would make a lot of enemies in the congregation very, very quickly if I chose not to care about this.

So- worship songwriters- big dramatic song ranges might get you on the radio, and a lot of play in larger churches where the emphasis is on the production and not on the congregation, but for smaller churches with normal singers where everybody can hear each other, try to keep your writing with more achievable ranges.  We appreciate it!

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