The Golden Key


Many have said it. We’ve read the books, listened to the teachings, and sung the songs. Most worship songwriting “experts” teach that there is an ideal range or “sweet spot” for worship songs. And I used to believe it. I did. I towed the line.

However, now I’m not so sure – here’s why:

Ex. 1.) I have historically led worship for a younger crowd – Middle-School, High-School, & College 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 few local Christian Schools that I’ve led Chapel worship for on occasion, using the song “Our God” by Chris Tomlin. Now, at church on Sunday we usually sang “Our God” in G (which is painfully low 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 so-called “corporate” key simply didn’t work for them.

Ex. 2.) Conferences! I’m tempted to mic-drop & just walk away. If you’ve been to one, you know what I mean. It’s not just worship conferences, either. No one cares what keys the songs are in – in fact, usually the higher, the better. The higher the key, the harder you need to push to hit the note, and that striving – giving out that emotional energy – affects us on many levels. And that’s a good thing. I’ve never heard anyone complaining about the range of a song when they are genuinely excited about Jesus and overflowing with a passion to worship Him. I just hear a lot of excited – and hoarse – people talking about how powerful the worship times have been and how good God is! I don’t imagine any of us have asked Journey to change the key of “Don’t Stop Believing” when belting along to every unreachable note – that’s because we don’t care when our hearts are truly in it.

I’ve never heard anyone complaining about the range of a song when they are genuinely excited about Jesus and overflowing with a passion to worship Him.

Ex. 3.) I have a higher vocal range. Most of Tomlin’s original keys do not strain me – they’re comfortable. As a worship leader, I have a responsibility to – yes – sing the song within a range the congregation can reach, BUT ALSO to lead the song as strong as possible. Part of my call is to sing it confidently, with passion & energy. If I’m mumbling notes and slipping consistently off key, I am a distraction & not as effective a worship leader as I can be.

Ex. 4.) I’ve been to many “worshiping churches”. Places where the worship leaders & teaching pastors have done an excellent job of training their congregations in the area of corporate singing. There, the keys they sing in 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) led “How He Loves” in D! You heard that right: D! Even I lost my voice trying to keep up, but the room was a ∫ˆ with passionate praise. Honestly, that’s when I took note: the key didn’t matter too much – we need to TEACH the whos, whys & hows of worship. That’s when we’ll see our people sing.

We need to TEACH the whos, whys & hows of worship. That’s when we’ll see our people sing.

So, if this is controversial, so be it. I appreciate the heart behind wanting to key songs so everyone can sing comfortably, but I’m not convinced it is a hard and fast rule. There are many instances when I wonder if we are keying ourselves down to the lowest common denominator – trying to make worship comfortable when that’s not the point. Sometimes we NEED to reach – to be called to a little discomfort – to be stretched – when offering 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.

So – yes – prayerfully consider how you key each song, but consider other factors as well – the “sweet spot” may be higher than you think. It may be a good moment for your people to stretch a little.

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


Shannon Lewis is “The Worship Community Guy“. Passionate about helping others respond to God, & training people who are passionate about the same, Shannon also blogs at SaintLewisMusic, where you can grab his free eBook, UNSEASONED: How to see Godly Growth in an Inexperienced Worship Team.

  • Micah Brooks

    This is a very interesting article about keys in worship. At my church we have found the same to be true. Younger people enjoy belting and being hoarse after service. Older folks like to keep it between the C’s. What is cool is that we have both older and younger in the same church. Blessings! -Micah Brooks

  • Mathew Garrett Reames

    I haven’t explored enough yet, but I have noticed that each Key seems to have a distinct emotion behind it. So, if I plan a set around a certain Key I tend to be planning around a certain emotion. For instance the key of D seems to cause people to hope. so they are more receptive to messages of Love and hope. Dm/F seems to evoke a bit of introspection which works well prior to a convicting sermon about dealing with sin in our lives.

    I am not sure, but I want to take the time to test this theory soon.