Do you, as a music leader, ever ask yourself: What is the best key for congregational singing? What key should hymns be sung in? or, How can I know the best key for unison singing at church?
Finding the best musical key for group singing can be a challenge, but it can be a pleasant and rewarding challenge. Numerous factors determine the best key for a given song, but once you know several important principles, finding it can be a snap. Keep in mind that these principles apply to unison group singing, not solos. (More about that below.) While these principles are especially appropriate for use in Christian worship, either singing psalms and hymns or with contemporary worship styles, they also apply to any situation where people sing together in unrehearsed groups.
The first important point to note is that it is not actually the key of the song that matters, so much as it is the range of notes to be sung, and the range is actually totally independent of the key. You may have seen some old sheet music or voice repertoire books that show a staff and two notes; they are giving the range of the song, to alert the singer to the lowest and highest notes that will be required.
To Find the Key, First Find the Range
This (noticing the range of notes) is a concept I first learned from an old Baptist pastor, and he was talking about singing the beautiful traditional psalms and hymns found in hymnals, not the praise singing of today's contemporary worship styles. But the idea is the same. He said that most people – all voices – can sing fairly comfortably in the range from middle C to the C' above (for men, it's the full octave lower, of course). We were sitting in staff meeting when he said this, and I have to admit that I, a trained musician, bristled a bit at the thought of some little old preacher teaching me something about Christian worship music! But as I have observed this principle through the years, I have developed great respect for him in this matter; he was absolutely right.
So, go for the key of C, right?
Wrong! Range and key really have very little to do with each other. To find the range, look for the lowest and highest notes of the song. Those notes and the ones in between make up the range. A song with a range of C to C' can literally be in practically any key. [Of course, in some keys the range would technically be C# to C#' or Db to Db'; another alternative would be to aim for B to B'.]
Just look at a couple of extreme examples. The old praise chorus "Sanctuary" has a range of only five notes. In the key of D, they are D-E-F#-G-A. So, if we follow the principle of observing "range," we can find six different keys that would allow five consecutive notes to be sung in the congregation-friendly range between C’s: the major keys of C, Db, D, Eb, E and F. These keys are not equally amenable to congregational singing and to guitar accompaniment, but the notes do all lie within a good congregational range.
The opposite extreme is the national anthem ("Oh, say can you see"). It is notorious for having an unsingable range: a span of twelve diatonic tones – an octave and a half. No matter what key it is played in or sung in, it will have an atrocious range, so the problem with that song is to find the key where MOST of the notes fit the best congregational range, and where the lowest and the highest notes are more or less acceptable – that is in the key of Ab, which is the key most hymnals use for it. In Ab, the range covers Ab below middle C up to treble Eb, with most of the notes ranging from C to C'.
Notice Where Notes Are Concentrated
The second important point is to observe the actual number of notes that are sung at a given pitch. Even if the range of the song is between C and C’, if most of the notes being sung are at the high end of the range (B's and treble C's), it will still be uncomfortable for the lower voices, and even for some of the higher ones. The same goes for the low notes. If most of the notes sung are around middle C and middle D, it will be uncomfortable for higher voices and for some lower ones. The best bet is to aim for a small percentage of notes at the upper and lower ends of the range.
So, for example, the song "The River Is Here": when in the key of G, the range is F# up to D – not a wide range. But, since it's a little bit high, let's pull it down a step to the key of F. That brings the range down to E up to C. A lot better. BUT, if you count the notes for one verse, one chorus and tag (and I swear I don't normally do this!), you find that one third of the notes are at the high end of the range. That's a lot. It gives the song great energy, but it's hard to sustain, unless those notes are comfortable in your own voice. So, for that song, it may be good to pull it down further to the key of E.
A similar consideration is to check how long the voices need to hold the highest or the lowest notes; and to check whether the verse or chorus starts either with a lot of very high or very low notes. Both of these factors may shift the usable range slightly away from the “ideal” C to C’ range.
Be Kind to Your Instrumentalists
The third important point is the question of instrument-friendly keys. If you are changing the key anyway, it's good to keep the instrumentalists in mind. Generally, the keys that have sharps in their key signature, but not their name, are guitar-friendly (therefore G, D, A, E and, to some extent, B). Wind instruments, as a rule, are happier with flats than with sharps, but they open an entirely different discussion, because of the strange notation that some winds use.
Some pianists (and by extension organists and keyboardists) prefer flat keys too. I learned this little bit (about keyboardists) the hard way. I was playing piano along with an organ in worship, and I heard the most awful, just awful, tones coming from the instruments! I was playing what the hymnal said. Since we were in the middle of a service, I couldn’t ask anyone about it, so I just stopped playing. Later I learned that the organist there always transposes to flat keys. Who knew? Now I do. A coda here: keyboard players of all types are often better at transposing to different keys than other instrumentalists are. Therefore, they are often the most flexible at working around all of these other considerations and developing a workable key along with other musicians.
A Great Music Source
A great source for Christian music, for soloists, instrumentalists, choirs, and more, is Sheet Music Plus. In fact, there you can find just about every kind of music that exists. Think of it as the "Amazon" of the music world.
Think of the Song's Energy and Its Purpose
Finally, you must consider the energy of the song. When choosing a key for group-singing, the range is the first consideration, but not the only one. Sometimes the sound of the song and the energy it generates will be important enough to keep the song in a slightly higher key. Take, for example, the hymn "Victory in Jesus." It is often notated, played, and sung in the key of G. That puts the start of the chorus higher than consideration of the range alone would recommend. But there are only four notes in that spot that are outside of the C-C' range: three D's (two of them fairly quick) and an E (rather quick) – normally too high to consider for a congregation. This pattern is repeated twice in the chorus (the second time without the E.) But, the vitality of the song and the energy that it generates usually make it possible for everyone to reach those notes – or at least to enjoy trying to reach them. The rest of the song falls in the comfortable area of the C-C' range. If the song is lowered to F, the high notes become C's and a D – not too high. But the song is now in a guitar-unfriendly key, and it has a more relaxed, calm sound. It can be played on guitars in the key of E and capoed up one fret to F. But it still does not have quite the energy of the key of G. (In fact, one hymnal that notates it in the key of F also includes a final chorus in the key of G – just to get that energy back!).
Sometimes a key that works well for a solo is not all that great for a group. When a group sings a song in a too-high key, the result is a strained sound (and perhaps some strained feelings along with it); and when a group sings a song in too low a key for them, then it sounds depressed, downhearted and discouraged.
The best vocal range for a specific congregation may be a little higher or a little lower than would be used in an average setting, depending on several factors – their age (older people need lower keys); the size of the group (smaller groups probably do better with lower keys); the time of day and the time during the service (much higher keys should probably be used after voices are well warmed up); and the energy level of the group, the energy level of the song, and the focus of the service or that portion of the service (higher energy can go with higher keys).
Not to contradict myself, but one thing I have learned recently – from a voice professor at a major university – is that it is actually better for a voice to warm up with higher notes (rather than lower ones – as I was taught, way-back-when), because doing so engages correct breathing earlier in the process of warming up. Just thought you might like to know – but use this knowledge judiciously!
Who Is Singing the Song, Anyway?
Unless the original key was chosen for a super high or super low voice (and that actually includes a lot of contemporary worship music), most songs should be transposed no more than a third up or down. But since that leaves out a whole lot of contemporary worship music, that may not be something you need to think about at all.
The real first question in finding the best key needs to be:Who will be singing the song? Is it actually truly intended for congregational singing and participation? Or is the goal to have a polished band performance that will enhance worship and also allow a little bit of participation by anyone brave enough to sing along?
Whatever the case, keep on singing! And use these tips to find the range and key that will allow for the best use of your song wherever and whenever it will be performed.
Rookie on June 08, 2016:
You did a great job of describing the many things to take into consideration. Thanks. It's implied in your article that an F is to high for congregational singing, and an E is do-able, but a D is a more comfortable limit.
Aficionada (author) from Indiana, USA on October 04, 2013:
That really is fascinating! I wonder what it is that makes it easier. In formal lessons I was introduced to sharp keys first and so I often find them easier to read. The bottom line, I suppose, is to make sure every instrumentalist is reading and playing in keys that they can manage and that enhance the congregation's singing - sometimes a tough balancing act.
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 08, 2013:
As a largely self-trained keyboardist, I can tell you that for someone like myself playing in flat keys is much easier than playing in sharp keys. I don't know why, but it even helps me to "think flat" - playing in F-sharp would be a challenge, but G-flat is no problem. Thanks for an informative hub.
Aficionada (author) from Indiana, USA on August 15, 2011:
Aya, I would be very happy, delighted even, to look at the sheet music and share my insights. Since the piece is in parts (SAB), the issues will be somewhat different from what I have described in this Hub concerning unison singing. But the matter of finding the right range for each voice is important, no matter who is singing.
Sometimes there can be a work-around by moving the melody to a different voice and shifting the harmonies, and of course other types of revisions can help. In my years as a choir director, I have come up with a whole bag of tricks for adjusting printed music to the specific voices I am working with at a given time.
Aya Katz from The Ozarks on August 14, 2011:
Aficionada, you have covered a complex topic very well and clearly here. I am not a musician -- only a lyricist -- but even I have seen how things can go wrong when the music is outside the singing range of too many of the singers. An SAB arrangement of one of The Debt Collector songs made it all the way to Israel, and they really did try to rehearse the song, but it was too hard for many of them, due, I think, to range issues.
Would you be willing to look at the sheet music and offer advice?
Aficionada (author) from Indiana, USA on February 25, 2011:
Thank you for reading, carene. I agree that we often fail to pay attention to the range and just go with whatever key the song was written in originally. I hope worship leaders will notice it more after reading this.
carene on February 08, 2011:
Thank you for sharing this important aspect of singing and worship leading that is often neglected.
Aficionada (author) from Indiana, USA on May 03, 2010:
Thanks for the comments, Judah's Daughter! And thanks for harmonizing when you can. :) I love the sound (prefer it) myself. Maybe I should have added in this Hub that the idea of watching the range relates primarily to times when people are all trying to sing the same pitches.
Also, good job with transposing by chords to suit the best range. Thanks for all of your contributions!
Judah's Daughter from Roseville, CA on May 03, 2010:
Sounds like you have a lot of valuable music knowledge to help vocalists and instrumentalists. Range is so very important. Some people get discouraged early on in life that "they can't sing" simply because of the inappropriate ranges of hymns and praise songs. Anymore, I choose to harmonize when the range gets out of range for me!! lol
When I played piano for worship I would analyze what the best range would be, then simply write the chords above each section of the sheet music (or type out the words and write the chord chages above). I wasn't so talented as to read the hymnal (and, by the way, it's nearly impossible to play what's printed with just two hands! ~ lol) and simply change the key.
Great information! They're lucky to have you!! God bless!!