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Worship leader, Jamie Harvill, explores what might be causing those awkward silences in your service.

It’s Monday, and you look over your shoulder to Sunday’s service, making the observation that nobody sang along with you the during the worship service you led yesterday. It’s so easy to blame the congregation — after all, the songs you chose were top-charting worship choruses, and you even sprinkled in a few hymns. But they just stood there looking at you, mute and seemingly uninterested. Of course it was the congregation’s fault: They are spiritually immature and musically unsophisticated … or are they?

The problem usually isn’t the congregation, it’s you! It’s time to address a problem that seems to be increasingly more prevalent in churches: People can’t sing the songs because they are in a key that is out of the congregation’s singing range.

We pick certain keys because the song was originally recorded to promote the lead vocalist on the recording. The original sounded so cool with all of those high notes and licks the singer put into the performance on the CD, and it’s our desire for the song to capture the same energy and excitement of the recording. Also, we choose keys to suit our own singing range and comfort zones.

Below is a chart that illustrates conventional singing ranges, across the spectrum, for most people. Some have low voices, and others medium or high. Usually in choirs, we label singers either soprano, alto, tenor or bass, in order to find a part to sing. But when we sing the melody together in a congregational setting, we must find the average range in which most people can sing. This range is considerably limited, but we must consider the congregational range as our priority when choosing songs for a service.

Determining the correct vocal range in advance helps our people to engage in worship. The audience is the lead singer!

You’ll notice in the first diagram, the tenor and soprano (in a higher octave) sit comfortably within the congregational singing range. This is why, when altos and baritones choose keys for a worship set to suit themselves, it’s usually too high or too low for the average congregation.

Don’t scold your congregation for not singing with you, worship leader. Most likely they are silent because you haven’t done your homework to find the correct key. You’ll find that sometimes songs will have a low verse and a high chorus, and vice-versa. I led a song yesterday that had to be rekeyed for the congregation. The verse was very low in the melody, but by the time I sang the chorus it was fine. I’m not sure if I’ll do the song again, even though it’s by a major artist and  big radio hit!

The congregational singing range principle is also a helpful tool in writing songs. Don’t go below the Bb in the diagram, or above a D in the melody. If the song is written to sing in the congregation’s range, chances are, people will be quick to join in with you (there are many other factors to consider regarding a song’s success — more for another time)! It’s really about being a servant to our congregation and not taking an opportunity to show off our vocal abilities.

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I am currently writing an instructional book for worship leaders. This is an example of some of the nuggets that will be included in the book. I’ll keep you posted on the progress!   

Jamie Harvill I am a native of southern California and grew up in the shadow of Disney, Fender guitars, Hollywood and the Pacific Ocean. I am best known for writing worship songs such as Ancient of Days, Firm Foundation and Because We Believe. Now I live near Nashville, TN, where I continue to write songs, play guitar and lead worship at a wonderful church.

More from Jamie Harvill or visit Jamie at http://jamieharvill.com

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  • Brandon

    so where’s the diagram?

  • LogosAletheia

    We have had a lot of problems with the pitch/range issues in our worship band. The lead singer is a low alto voice who things everyone ought to be singing throughout the song or they’re not “entering into worship” (whatever that is). Pretty tough to do when 50% of the congregation can’t even sing the melody – they either have to sing an octave higher or octave lower, or –which mostly happens – they just quit singing.

    Worship leaders have to get it through their thick heads that just because a song is on the top of the song charts, and they like to sing it, a song may not be right for the congregation to be able to sing all the parts of the song all the way through the song. When a song leader still wants to “do” the song because they like it, it turns the worship time into a partial rock concert time that begins to disrupt worship because the people can’t sing along.

    We think we now have a better system of worship rather than the tried and true SATB arrangements of the past, but this new system leaves too many people unable to participate. Time to get forward with the basics so all can sing, not just the song leader.