Three Keys to Choosing the Best Keys for Worship

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “How do I select the best key(s) for congregational singing?” I am encouraged that worship leaders are asking this question as it points to a sensitivity to serving those they are leading.

There are many different perspectives on this topic. Some of the most popular ones I have heard are:

  1. Sing in the key that’s most comfortable for you as the leader.
  2. If you can’t sing it in the original key, have someone else lead it or don’t use it.
  3. Change the key of the song so the melody never exceeds a certain note.
  4. Don’t worry if it gets to high for some, it’s good for people to ‘sing out’ at the top of their range.

If I may, let me divert down a short bunny trail as a music theory enthusiast…

One common mistake some worship leaders make is assuming there are some specific ‘friendly’ keys for worship.  Whereas some may note they often feel comfortable singing in certain keys, it has less to do with the key but where the melody is pitched within the key.

For instance, baritones (like myself) often cite “G” and “A” as being friendly keys for them.  They feel this way because worship melodies pitched in these keys often do not exceed an octave range and most commonly stay within a 5-6 note range.  Many do not exceed a perfect 5th jump from the tonic note which in the key of G is an “D” note and in A, an “E” note.  This is the top of a baritone’s most comfortable singing range causing them to see these keys as synonymous with their vocal range.  This perspective has resulted in some worship leaders categorizing specific keys as ‘girl keys’ and others as ‘guys keys’.  Despite the correlations between keys and ranges of many worship songs, it all comes down to where the melody falls, not the key itself.

So where should songs be ‘pitched’ for congregational singing?  Which key is the right one?  Instead of making hard and fast rules, let’s consider some Biblical principles of worship that will help guide and direct us:

1. The role of a Worship Leader is to serve.

“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” – 1 Corinthians 4:1.

With Christ as our lead worshipper and example, this foundational principle ought to inform every aspect of our worship planning from song selection to key to arrangement. Our corporate worship expression ought to be tailored in a way that is invitational, making it easy for those we lead to respond to the greatness of God and make much of Jesus.

2. The role of a Worship Leader is to make much of Jesus.

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.  Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness” – Psalm 29:1-2.

Worship isn’t about how great our voice sounds, how flawless our vocal licks are or how slick our arrangements are.  It is possible for our production to be spot on, but completely unacceptable in the eyes of God.  Every decision a worship leader makes, including how they pitch their songs, ought to filtered through an absolute resolution to put the greatness and majesty of the Almighty on display.

3. The role of a Worship Leader is to lead.

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” – 2 Timothy 2:15

It has been said that worship leaders are “preachers in song”.  The content of what worship leaders sing teaches others what to think about God.  Given the weight of this responsibility and duty, there’s no room for ‘worship suggesting’.  Instead the mechanics of how a worship service is planned including the keys of songs ought to be part of an overall objective to move people from a place of self-reflection to a place of Christ-reflection.  The right key is the one that will inspire others to follow you as you lead and move people to a vertical destination – that is, Christ.

So how should you pitch your songs?

In a way that makes much of Jesus through serving and leading those who God has entrusted to you.

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