In the worship world, there are a lot of differing opinions on how to go about choosing song keys. Personally, I’m a bit tired of hearing people say things like, “this is the reason our congregations aren’t singing”… “worship services are too much like a concert”… “the song keys aren’t congregationally friendly.”
From my perspective… if you lead a song in the key that’s right for your voice—where you can deliver the range of the song with passion, conviction and authenticity (and good pitch of course!), that is you being friendly to your congregation. 😊
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that none of those other statements are valid, and I don’t think for a second that I have the “one right answer”… in fact, I don’t think there is one right answer when it comes to making decisions about leading worship and choosing song keys! But if there is one answer, the answer is… it depends.
It depends on so many things… that are unique to you. Your voice. Your church. Your congregation.
Which means… there’s no cookie cutter answer. You’ve gotta be intentional. You’ve gotta plan. Prepare. Ask for help from the Holy Spirit.
And here are eight questions you can ask yourself that will help guide you as you choose your song keys!
1. Where is your voice comfortable?
Know your voice. Where do you sound best? Where do you feel most comfortable? Are you really comfortable singing in a high mix voice? Are you more comfortable in the low range?
Bottom line is… the more vocally confident you are, the better you’ll lead and the more your congregation will enter in.
The original key is not the key that the song needs to be done in! So often, vocalists are singing in keys that are outside of their range—if you’re straining to hit the high notes or low notes in the song, it’s not the right key for you. The wrong key creates an awkward and distracting experience for the congregation, but the right key puts them at ease when they see you operating in your sweet spot!
So if the original key sits too low for you, raise it. If the original key sits too high, lower it. Do what’s best for your voice—not someone else’s voice! (Many recording artists sing their song live in a lower key… they record it higher because it sounds more energetic on an album—and they also know it can be tuned to sound perfect even if they sing it pitchy during the album recording!).
Everyone’s range is different, and… wait for it… that’s ok! Don’t feel ashamed to lower a key—it’s much better to sound good in your sweet spot than to sound bad in the wrong key for you.
But… if you can sing high, don’t be ashamed of singing songs in higher keys (even if someone tells you it’s not “congregational”)! If you as a male worship leader can get up to the E, F, F# notes… and girls to the B, C, C#… I say, go for it—again, better to sound good in your sweet spot than to sound bad in the wrong key for you!
If there’s an octave jump in a song recording—know your voice. If you can lead it confidently… go for it! If you can’t, sometimes changing the key and taking out the octave jump is an option… but I find more often than not it leaves songs feeling dull. Instead, try keeping the octave jump in, and have someone else lead a certain part of the song if it’s not comfortable for you.
2. What keys come before and after it in the set?
Individual song keys are important for what it sounds like in your voice, but just as important is how the song keys flow from one to another in a set. When transitioning from song to song, it’s best to keep songs in the same key, or change to a key that flows well (ideally, move 1-2 spaces clockwise on the Circle of Fifths, not counter-clockwise or across the circle—and if you’re not sure what that is, look it up!). For example, if I’m going into “What a Beautiful Name” in D, rather than do “Raise a Hallelujah” in Db—even if that’s best for my voice—I’ll choose the key of C or D, to make for a smooth transition in the worship set.
3. Who are you leading?
Is it a women’s gathering? A men’s conference? If it’s only guys or only girls… then only choose songs that are singable for that range. I attended a women’s conference a few years back where a guy was leading worship—and the songs were way too low for girls to sing (it was challenging to say the least!)!
If it’s a weekend service, ideally we do want to respect both the male and female ranges in our congregation. How? Co-leadership. Raise up male and female worship leaders so that there can be some songs in a set that sit really well in a male range and some in a female range.
Age is also a factor—is it a youth service? A senior’s gathering? Older people typically prefer lower keys. Younger people love the energy of high keys!
4. When is the service?
If it’s an evening service, everyone’s voices are naturally warmed up from being awake the whole day, so you can put songs in slightly higher keys than in the morning!
5. What size is the group?
If it’s a small congregation, I would lean toward songs that don’t go super low or super high… and probably very few (if any) octave jumps. If there aren’t very many people in the room, they’ll feel much more confident singing loudly if the songs sit comfortably within their range (I made this mistake leading worship at a small home group awhile back… I chose a challenging song and pretty much nobody sang with me because it was so vocally demanding… awkward!).
If it’s a large church and the worship is super contemporary, I would lean more toward lots of high notes… and bring on the octave jumps! The bigger the room and the more people in the room, the more you can afford to push the energy and push the keys higher!
6. What’s the goal?
Is the goal to lead people in worship or lead people in singing? They’re not synonymous.
Worship is a natural response to beauty. My husband and I live about an hour from the Rocky Mountains, and when we drive in… it happens to me every time… as we come closer and I see the snow-capped peaks and the ruggedness and the beauty… I feel my heart start to beat faster, I feel the tears welling up… I feel the majesty of God.
Maybe you’ve sat in a service listening to someone deliver a special performance song or you’re just at home listening to a song… and you’re overcome by the beauty of it… maybe it meets you exactly where you’re at… the lyrics sink deep. Maybe you just sit there in silence in awe of who God is… that’s worship. Your mouth doesn’t need to move to respond to who God is. You’re responding to beauty with worship.
Martin Luther once said,
“When man’s natural ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His gift.”
When we create something beautiful with our voice, we’re not stealing from God’s glory—we’re reflecting His glory and His beauty!
Here’s something beautiful… a worship leader going for (and nailing!) those really high notes!
Sometimes beauty is… a killer octave jump (“you are good, good, OHHHHH!!”)! That build and release of energy. A dynamic journey that starts low and builds and builds to something really dramatic.
There’s something that happens when we bring our voice to that shouting place… singing at the “top of our lungs”—at the top of our range—that ignites faith… not just for the person shouting and singing but also for the person who’s listening. The Bible says over and over to lift up a “shout of praise” and “shout joyfully”… it doesn’t say, “sing in a dull tone in your mid-range all the time”!
If you listen to “No Longer Slaves”… you hear that emotional depth when Jonathan Helser goes to the top of his range… it’s beautiful. It’s raw and vulnerable. Sometimes the beauty lies in the fact that there’s an inherent struggle to it! Obviously as a vocal coach, I’m all about vocal health… but the moment that we sacrifice passion and authenticity and energy for being slick and technically “perfect”, we’ve lost too much.
Energy is one of the most important things that you can bring as a leader. And here’s the thing—the higher we sing in our mix voice, the more energy a song has, because of the brightness and punch that pharyngeal resonance brings to the voice (check out my “Discover Your Voice” lessons if you’re not familiar with this concept!). Chest voice pushed up doesn’t have much energy… it just ends up sounding dull and pitchy… and even though we can go high in head voice, a pure head voice sounds classical and doesn’t have the same energy as a mix because we’ve lost the brightness of the pharyngeal.
When you go for those high notes, when you do that octave jump… can everyone in your congregation sing that high? No. And that’s ok. They might sing down the octave. They might not sing at all. But if it’s beautiful… if it’s authentic… if it’s energetic… if you lead it confidently and boldly and on pitch… you can trust the way that God created us as humans… He created us to respond to beauty.
7. What’s the journey of the song?
It’s so important to think about the dynamic journey of a song. A general rule of thumb is that we want to build our songs so that the chorus “pops out”… we want it to be that high point of the song that we come back to over and over. If we change the key too much, we lose that journey. For example, in the song “Forever” (Kari Jobe/Bethel)… which typically females do in the key of G or G#, the verse starts low, then it builds higher in the pre-chorus, then even higher for the chorus, then back down for the start of the bridge… then jumps up high again. The song is so inspiring because it builds to the high point of that chorus!
But… perhaps a female singer feels uncomfortable with the high notes in the song, so she moves it to the key of C. Here’s what happens… the verse starts out higher… and instead of building from there… the pre-chorus goes low, and then the chorus and bridge stay in a dull, mid-range place in the voice. There’s no build. We’ve lost the beautiful, inspiring journey that the original key took us on—which is not a sacrifice that should be made!
For every song you sing, think intentionally about what the dynamic journey should be—and make sure the range of the song builds to the chorus!
8. What’s the journey of the worship set?
Balance is important. If every song in the worship set is super high, that’s problematic, and if all the songs are easily singable but lacking energy, that’s problematic.
We want those big, dynamic moments in our worship sets… but we also need songs that are in a comfortable key for people. Songs with narrow ranges (typically staying within a one-octave range, from C-C)… especially if they’re slower—these are great to create those moments in your worship sets where everyone can sing out strong! Songs like Build My Life, Good Good Father, What a Beautiful Name, Holy Spirit—these all have smaller ranges, so congregations tend to love belting them out! If you have a 4-song set, make sure at least one of the songs is designed with this moment in mind. It doesn’t have to sit “perfectly” in both the male and female range (in fact, it’s rare that a song will!), but a narrower song range allows for people to more easily sing up or down the octave—wherever feels best for their range.
Remember… it depends.
The answers to the above questions will be different from person to person—and even from service to service! That’s why it’s so important for us as worship leaders to be intentional about our choices. That we take the time to think through, pray through and worship through our set lists. Remember that we’re here to serve our congregation—we’re not here to show off our voice. We have a responsibility to create an atmosphere where people can engage in worship, and the more authentic and confident you can be as a leader, the more people will enter in!