Worship 101: Song Keys
Choosing worship song keys for a service is one of the toughest jobs a worship pastor has.
Men and women alike can struggle when a worship leader chooses keys that are either too high or too low for them.
Many male worship leaders from the late 90’s to 2000’s have cut a career on emulating Chris Tomlin, therefore leading congregations to sing every song about 3 octaves higher than the hearing range of a human.
I believe that the advent of skinny jeans in churches is directly related to Chris Tomlin’s influence on worship leaders. How else can men sing songs in keys that high?
All kidding aside, the truth is that wisely choosing song keys that fit your people can encourage congregational singing. Choosing unwisely can also discourage it. Here are a few tips about song keys that can help get your people singing in worship.
Sing in Lower Keys
Guess what? Most men can’t sing high. So stop putting songs into keys that double as an audition for the Bee Gees. They were cool and all, but we’re kinda over it now (you hear me For King and Country? I love you, but guys…come on).
Singing in higher keys is not only difficult, but sometimes it makes most of us feel silly. Listen, you might be Tomlin-curious, but we’re not…especially early in the morning. Not everyone can sing a full 5 octaves on the piano like Shane here.
If the song is too high to sing, men especially are going to drop out. If the song is led by a female and in a key that works for females, then it’s no problem for men to adjust. Lord knows women have to do that all the time since the majority of worship leaders are men.
However, most songs can be played in a key that works for both men and women and is comfortable enough for the leader to sing.
Pick a Key Your Band can Play In
Hillsong United might be able to pull off a slick guitar riff, but Joe Bob, who’s been playing guitar since last month, can’t. You’ve got to make it simple. Your congregation won’t mind either.
If your band is a typical, volunteer, guitar-led band, then a terrible way to start practice is to declare a song will be played in the key of B-flat. After that, you might be flat….(rimshot).
“Aw man, playing everything in G or A is so boring!”
So your ego being stroked is more important than connecting people with God in worship? I wonder if those who say this understand what worship is? (rimshot?)
Bad music is distracting, so why add to the chance your band can’t play it? Pick a key that they are familiar with if you can and play it well. Better to play successfully simple than complicatedly crappy, I think.
Key Changes are a No-No.
Very rarely do you hear a key change on the radio. There’s a reason for that: most people think it sounds stupid. At best, it sounds silly.
“Well, we have a traditional service, so it works in our context.”
Not really. What I think you mean to say is that “It will be tolerated in our context.” Tolerance doesn’t equal acceptance.
Key changes rarely incite an emotional excitement anymore. Plus they are sometimes hard to pull off well. How many times can you pass “slide up till you find the right note” off as “I’m a budding country star?”
The reason music changes over time and styles go in and out is because the vast majority of people have stopped enjoying it and begun enjoying something different. That’s not their fault, either, that’s just the way people are. Roll with it. Everyone else is rolling with it.
If you play the keys, don’t drag your finger across them in a moment of excitement.
Jerry Lee Lewis called and he wants his move back. However, if you can’t control your inner demons, then at least start from a seated position so that you can kick the piano bench over while you light the piano on fire. Have some conviction, man!
Song keys are a tough area to master, but if you’re truly listening to your congregation instead of the ghost of 60’s pop stars, then you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t.
I poke a lot of fun, but I truly love worship leaders. I’ve been one for many years! It’s a tough line to draw between playing a song like it’s written and changing or simplifying it for your context.
What else about song keys do you think needs to be said? Sound off in the comments and please share this if you thought it was helpful. Till next week, friends!