There are two aspects of evaluating songs for use in worship: one is musical (is my congregation able to sing it?), and the other is lyrical.  Part one of this article will focus on the musical aspect, while part II will dive into lyrics. 

Context rules
The musical question is much more contextual than many people realize.  What is “singable” for a congregation of 500-1000 people in an urban area is going to be very different than what is singable for a congregation of 25 people in a rural farmtown.  This applies to both the style of the song (and what instrumentation is needed to make it viable) and its musical key.  When it comes to contemporary styles, some congregations just will not be able to pull off certain songs because of a lack of adequate instrumentation.
For example, “Brother Moon” by the band Gungor is not a song many people would likely consider for congregational singing.  It is actually very singable.  However, without skillfully played percussion accompanying it, a congregation will likely have a very difficult time picking up the rhythms. 

In choosing whether to introduce a new song, you also have to consider how often you will be able to repeat it.  If you will only be able to sing a song once or twice in the coming months, then it needs to be easy to catch onto.  But if you can repeat the song for 3-4 weeks, or play it at about half of the services over 2-3 months, you may be surprised what a congregation can learn. 

Generations will worship
Another thing to consider the diversity of ages represented in worship.  In recent years there has been an intergenerational renaissance in the church.  Congregations have realized that there is great value in fostering interaction between different generations, and the church is one of the few places where that is available in today’s culture outside the family.  So rather than segregating a worshipping community by ages on Sunday morning, we should try to keep our worship accessible for the whole body of Christ - young, old, and everyone in between. 

Key issues
A common musical mistake is singing in a key that is not congregationally friendly for that song.  Again, this is a contextual question.  An appropriate song key for an arena full of people who feel comfortable singing at full voice can be higher than for the same song being used for a small congregation meeting in a classroom.  Many if not most worship songs are recorded at a higher key than most congregations will be comfortable with.  Chris Tomlin, for example, has a tenor voice that sounds great in its upper range, so he routinely records songs higher than most people would feel comfortable singing.  

This of course can be fixed by simply transposing to a lower key.  If you use chord charts, transposing is simple.  If you need help, www.chordchanger.com is a handy tool.  If you use sheet music, it can be a bit more complicated, but you probably already know that.  

So how do you choose a key?  In most contexts, a congregation’s comfortable range is from a low A to a high D.  But it’s also important to factor in the “energy” of a song.  Slower songs are usually comfortably sung a bit lower, while up-tempo songs will lack energy if they are sung too low.  People will find it easier to hit that D in a louder, upbeat chorus than in a slow, quiet ballad.  

If you’re not sure about the appropriate range for your own congregation, just look and listen.  If half the congregation is dropping out on the chorus, or if males are consistently dropping an octave, it’s probably too high.  On the other hand, if you can’t hear the congregation on the verses, it’s probably too low.  If you’re still not sure, start asking around.  There will probably be no shortage of people willing to give you feedback (just be prepared for some unsolicited comments about other aspects of the music as well)!  

For more on the important topic of keys, see this blog entry from Bob Kauflin from a couple years ago.  

What are some of your struggles or successes related to choosing songs for worship from a musical standpoint?

See part II for the lyrical aspect of choosing worship songs.
 


Comments

Matt
10/22/2013 12:34pm

I am a worship leader at my church and have to lead (singing) on occasion. My voice is in a range similar to Tomlin's, maybe a half-step down sometimes a full step. Is there any concern of lowering a key that puts something in a range that is friendly to the congregation, however really tough for the vocalist leading that day? We've had experiences in the past where we've put it into a congregational key that the vocalist struggled with and it actually made things a distraction.

Reply
10/22/2013 2:48pm

Hi Matt,
You just have to balance it the best you can. If you have a higher range, I would recommend singing it in the lowest key that is still comfortable for you. A little on the higher side is definitely better than the leader being a distraction. The goal is always to serve the congregation by enabling them to sing - which includes quality of sound as well as singability.

If available, you may choose to have a different person sing lead for certain songs - perhaps especially songs with a slower tempo that can be uncomfortable for congregations to sing at full voice.

Thanks for reading, and blessings to you and your congregation as you worship!

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