The Golden Key

I rarely hear people complaining about the range of a song when they are genuinely excited about Jesus and overflowing with a passion to worship Him corporately

Many of my “heroes” have said it – all men I admire and respect. I’ve read their books, listened to their teaching, and sung their songs. Many worship songwriting “experts” teach that there is an ideal range or “sweet spot” for worship songs. And I used to believe it – I really did. In fact, I still use their suggestions as a guide, but I’m not convinced it can be applied universally, and here’s why:

Example 1.) I have historically lead worship for middle-school and high-school students more than anything else. I’ve found that, especially with the middle school youth, if I re-key a Tomlin song down from Tomlin-range, they – even the guys – usually mumble rather than sing. I once did an experiment using a local Christian School that I lead Chapel worship for, simply using the song “Our God” by Chris Tomlin and friends – which was already a very familiar song. Now, at church on Sunday we usually sing “Our God” in G (which is actually painful for ME), but when I led this favorite in an “adult key” for this group of middle-schoolers: near silence. You would’ve thought I’d asked them to recite a section of the constitution: a low, imprecise rumble and scattered murmurs throughout the room. The following week, I sang it in A, and the level of participation was significantly greater. A few weeks after that, I sang it in Tomlin key – B – and the room was a literal ROAR. The “RIGHT key/range” simply didn’t work for them.

Example 2.) Conferences. I think I could end right there – you probably know what I mean. Sure, we could say, “When you get that many worship leaders together – they’re mostly singers anyway – they can handle the higher keys!” That’s not what I’m talking about. Go to ANY conference, retreat, or special event – not just worship conferences. No one cares what keys the songs are in – in fact, the higher, the better (within reason, of course): the higher the key, the harder you need to push to hit the note, and that striving – giving out that emotional energy – effects us on many levels. And, often, that’s a good thing. I rarely hear people complaining about the range of a song when people are genuinely excited about Jesus and overflowing with a passion to worship Him corporately – I just hear a lot of really excited – and hoarse – people talking about how powerful the worship times have been and how good God is!

Example 3.) I have a high vocal range. Most of Tomlin’s original keys are not at all a strain to me – in fact, they’re quite comfortable. As a worship leader, do I not only have a responsibility to – yes, sing the song within a range that the congregation can potentially reach as well – but also to lead a song as strongly as possible – so I can sing the melody confidently and even – yes – with passion and energy? If I’m mumbling notes and slipping consistently off key aren’t I potentially a distraction and not as effective worship leader as I can be? A personal example: it is a serious struggle for me to sing the verses of “Everlasting God” by Brenton Brown in the key of A with any passion or conviction. I struggle to lead that song in the “Sweet Spot” – it works for me best in B, but I can still pull it off in Bb. And when I lead the song well, others are more likely to join in and follow my lead.

Example 4.) I’ve been to many “worshiping churches” where the worship leaders have done an excellent job of teaching and training their congregations in the area of singing to God, and the keys they sing songs in their seem to be of little to no consequence: they just LOVE TO SING! I mean, I’ve been in environments where the worship leader (a guy) sang “How He Loves” in D! D! You heard that right: D! Even I lost my voice trying to keep up, but the room was a ROAR with passionate singing. Honestly, that’s when I first took note of this issue.

So, I know this will be controversial: I understand the heart behind wanting to key songs so everyone can sing comfortably, but I’m not convinced of it as a hard and fast rule. In fact, there are instances when I wonder if we are keying ourselves down to the lowest common denominator, trying to make worship “easy” and “comfortable”, when that’s not the point – sometimes we NEED to reach – to be called to discomfort in order to offer a “sacrifice of praise.”  In fact, experience tells me that we are hard-wired to do so: it alters my experience of God when I give everything to Him in worship – I have a greater sense of both His presence and I even feel His “smile”.

I consider prayerfully how I key each song, and try to consider all of the factors involved – but in my case, the “sweet spot” is only one factor of many.

Here are two different threads over at that both touch on this very issue: “A View from the Pew” and “The Elusive Key“.

As my friend Ryan Egan stated, one “Golden Key” is not a key at all, rather it is knowing your community and keeping them in consideration when choosing songs and keys.

Can you think of any other “Golden Keys” to consider when preparing for leading a song corporately?


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