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Awkward key signatures

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  • #16
    Originally posted by Wannabe a Worshiper View Post
    But if you ask the pianist or organist to play 5 sharps, look out!
    That reminds me of my favorite church organist (aka my grandmother!). Even though she knew the names of the keys, she always called them by how many sharps or flats. No such thing as A-flat; it was 4 flats! But she called "C" "C".

    And I remember another organist talking about "the glory of B major", or as my grandmother called it: 5-sharps!

    And I remember a musical program where there were 2 pages in B major. I practiced those pages for weeks before I got them.


    • #17
      Hi Sax2worship,

      Great thread as highlights the practical nature of playing in worship. I play the guitar (main instrument now), piano and alto sax so it's interesting to see the different perspectives. I used to play the alto sax for years and was also stuck in E & B major as the leader (on keys) never seemed to appreciate transposing instruments! It meant I had to adapt my whole style as we usually weren't told the keys until 1 min before a song started. In the end, however, I found playing the 'harder' keys such easier than the 'easier' (e.g. knew the runs and arpeggios in Csharp major better than in C major!) The best thing is to make sure that the leader appreciates the 'mechanical' complexity of additional instruments and allows enough room for either extra practice or better communciation.

      As to songwriters' range and favouritism to guitarists both are true to a large extent. Certain songwriters, however, like Chris Tomlin, openly say that congregations could singer at lower keys than recordings. As for guitarists, as some of the guys point out there are cycles/phases for few years. We're definitely in a season of plenty for guitarists, which has overtaken pianists compared to the 90s/noughties.

      My humble advice is to be armed ready to play scales fluently in any key (but especially the 'harder' keys), as unless you are leading worship you will on average find playing more sharps & flats. Good luck!


      • #18
        Hi I was reading this this morning and I just wanted to say. I believe that as musicians and worshipers we must be skillful at what we do. The Bible talks about Kenniah being chosen as the leader of the singers because he was skillful. I attend a church where it's not uncommon for my pastor to start singing a worship song, hymn, or whatever and he's not a singer. Headache waiting to happen, he will start singing wherever he is comfortable and we have to go with it. So I agree preparation is key. As a musician on any instrument in the church learn your scales and primary chords and be ready. It's just a part of the call of God! As far as the song being key friendly for the congregation once you have figured it out run with it! But I don't believe any of the keys are harder than the others we just have to be ready for them all. And I say this as someone who has been playing piano and keyboard for about 20 years.


        • #19
          Just 2 cents here

          I have little two different takes on this thread:Since I am a pianist, classically trained and my education is music theory, I could care less about the key of any song, and I require my guitarists to be ready for any key possible as well. Guitar players typically hate me at first when they seen keys like Ab, Db, etc, but they have always adjusted. I don't believe there is such as thing as an awkward key signature - although for a tenor sax player, I would have given you the enharmonic Db major chart - it's just an opportunity for players to expand their comfort level. I do typically attempt to keep things inside four accidentals on either side, but it doesn't always work, especially taking into account the number of modulations we use. At the end of the day, I will use any key that I feel works best for a song and allows the smoothest transitions between songs, which means we may use a different key for a song each time we play it.

          In terms of vocal ranges, this is where I have recurring problems. "Congregational-friendly" keys is really code for "we hate tenors". What a lot of people don't get is that for true tenors (lyrical or dramatic), the congregational range of C3-C4 is pure death. I am every bit as uncomfortable stuck in this lower range as other people are once the range ventures above C4. Zero projection, zero intensity. This has led me to adopt a modified range for our church that essentially runs up to F4 in order to allow me to lead from a place of stronger projection, but allows most people to hang and push them a little. Each church I have worked at has adjusted to this within a year, and this eventually allows me to venture higher than that on occasion, primarily in the uptempo Israel Houghton songs.


          • #20
            I was a jazz guy. My teachers always told me there were no such things as bad keys only new adventures. We often get soft in our knees when we have to play in uncomfortable keys. That is where woodshedding for the Lord comes in to play.

            I used to tell people that I could not kick left handed bass. I swore by that because splitting my brain into two parts seemed crazy. When I switched from sax to keys so I could lead, I found that I HAD to learn. This was no longer an option but a requirement as we do not have a bass player and I did not want to have an anemic sounding set. It took practice.

            No to the direct point of sax... Scales my friend. You will never defeat the keys that guitar players enjoy jamming in, it is best to practice in those keys so you are no longer feeling awkward. Consider it a rosetta stone for their worship language to God.

            All in all, if it was easy, it would not be worthy of God. We should have to work to the best performance levels we can give in worship of Him. Never take the easy way out when the end result is to honor Him.



            • #21
              "Congregational-friendly" keys is really code for "we hate tenors". What a lot of people don't get is that for true tenors (lyrical or dramatic), the congregational range of C3-C4 is pure death.
              I hear that- the times I do sing, it's usually in a tenor style. I can do some baritone and some alto, but I sing as a tenor normally.

              This whole 'congregational friendliness' thing gets me sometimes- I have yet to see any quantitative or even subjective data that identifies certain keys as 'congregation friendly' while others aren't.

              Can someone point me in the direction of some kind of data, study, survey, anything that spell out this whole 'congregational friendliness' criterion we use to pick songs and keys? I'd really like to see it.
              If we want to go places we haven't been, we will have to do things we haven't done.


              • #22
                From my experience... Ab is a kiss of musical death for male singers. Bb through F seems to fit everyone with an untrained voice unless the hymn you are singing is disjunct and then no key is truly friendly because all become a true vocal workout. My own vocal preference is C - F. I can sing a song in Bb but it is low and I can sing a song in G or A but it splits me from chest voice to throat to almost head voice and I am not really a good BeeGees singer. ) These of course are only opinions...


                • #23
                  Originally posted by Mike on Bass View Post
                  Can someone point me in the direction of some kind of data, study, survey, anything that spell out this whole 'congregational friendliness' criterion we use to pick songs and keys? I'd really like to see it.
                  There is no such thing as a "congregational friendly key" that will fit all songs. There are ranges of notes (someone on here referred to it as from "C to shining C") that are comfortable for untrained singers. The congregation is generally untrained.

                  In our services, we try to keep the congregational melody notes (for women) between Ab below middle C and the E about an octave and a half up from that. Of course, the men should be an octave down from that. That's a broad enough range that you can find a key for almost any song. That's actually about the range of "The Star Spangled Banner" if you sing it in Ab. If you think about it, most people struggle with the national anthem, either with the low notes or the high ones.

                  Sometimes worship leaders forget that they are supposed to be leading the congregation in worship. This is a time of service, not just your own personal worship time. If the goal is congregational participation, then a true worship leader will plan a service that the congregation can participate in. If the goal is a high-quality performance on the stage, then the leader should plan the highest quality performance his/her team is reasonably capable of, given the resources available. These goals are not mutually exclusive, but there is usually a trade-off between the two.

                  And all this stuff about "I expect my .... to be able to play/sing in whatever key I want to be in" is great if you have the talent to pull it off. But when you have a team of volunteers who wear multiple hats in the church and outside the church, you learn to make reasonable adjustments. Why do something in D-flat when it's much easier for the group to do well in C or D? And, yes, when we're in A-flat (oh, so rare these days!), I will write out the bass chart in G-sharp, because the bass player gets it better that way, and I will expect the guitarist to capo up from G. And when I used the organ for "O God Our Help in Ages Past" in A a few months ago, I played it in C and let the transposer take it to A. All reasonable adjustments!


                  • #24
                    HI, I'm new here, but I have some experiences that may really go along with this topic. I must preface this with the disclosure that I play guitar, so I have that bias, although I try to be flexible!

                    We started with a male worship leader, who did the songs in the key of the recording almost all the time, unless he just couldn't sing it due to the range. After he left, we got a wonderful female worship leader who plays keys and sings alto. So to be able to sing the songs, she had to change the key of many of them. This was often problematic for me - I had learned all these lead parts and now I was having to relearn all of them in a different key. Plus, those keys didn't always make it easy because the guitar "works" in a certain way due to the interval between the strings. I couldn't expect there to be a half-step with an open string, or a drone note, in these keys.

                    There are three things I found to address this:
                    1. Use a capo. This requires a special, different capo chart for the guitar, though. And it doesn't always work, because it caused some of my electrics to go out of intonation due to fret heighth. Also, it was impossible to use the whammy bar with a capo on. It just doesn't work well.
                    2. Alter the pitch or tuning of the instrument. One way to do this is with a guitar that can do it - a Variax that has the "virtual capo", a Gibson "robot" guitar, the Fender VG Strat. I personally use a Tyler Variax. There are also several pedals that can do that too. Of course, this isn't always an option due to cost, but it does work pretty well.
                    3. You sing the song in the key that works. Seriously, I did this on "Everlasting God" because playing it in G just didn't work, lead-wise. It works better in B, so I started singing it. B is the original recorded key too. The lead sounded weird in G.

                    Any other ideas?


                    • #25
                      I would love to add more to this conversation, as I'm a singer, guitarist, and a sax player, and I've spent years dealing specifically with transposing music on paper and in my head. I will think about it at work, and hopefully have some helpful input by the time I get home today! It can be very frustrating at times.

                      (edit- I'm home!)

                      As a worship leader and/or songwriter, there is a constant dilemma as to what key to play (or write) the song in. Do you go by the melody line? Vocal range? convenient key for the pianist/guitarist/orchestra? Congregation?

                      The answer, of course, is it depends. It depends on who needs help with the key the most, starting with the congregation.

                      Congregation: If the church body can't sing along because the song is either difficult or too high/low, then at that point, they are watching a concert, not being involved in worship. Whether the song is high or low isn't as important as the song having a simple melody and a normal range. 99% of people will just switch up or down an octave to be able to sing along, so it's not that big of a deal. If they have to switch octaves a couple time every verse, though, they are working too hard to follow along. Consider changing songs, not keys.

                      Pianist/Guitarist: This refers to the primary instrumentalist. It depends on their musical ability, really. I know pianists who can play in any key, and I know some self-taught pianists who can only play in keys that start on a black key. Use a key they're comfortable with, otherwise they will be miserable.

                      Likewise, I know guitarists who play any key with open jazz chords... they are incredible. I also know some who can play in the key of G only! I'm more towards the higher end, but still, I use a capo. With knowing only about ten chords (plus a few bar chords), I can play in C, A, E, D, G, and a few others. With a capo, I can hit every key without having to go up more than a couple frets. Sometimes I'll play songs in C by putting a capo on the 3rd fret, and using all those nice A2 and D2 chords makes the song sound so much nicer! For me, it's easier than playing in open C. If you learn a few more chords, it's not too bad. I've used pitch shifters, but the cheaper ones sound horrible. If you can afford a nice one, more power to you! But you'd be better served by learning just a few more chords.

                      Instrumentalists: Since almost every instrument family is in a different key, it's nearly impossible to play songs that everyone's okay with, unless it's Bb (because all the beginner band pieces are in Bb concert, which is open on most brass instruments). However, as time goes on, you can't be limited to playing in one or two keys with a group of instruments. The only solution to this for instrumentalists is scales, scales, scales! It really is that simple. I spent 20+ years playing sax, and the majority of that time was spent doing finger exercises and practicing scales. All of the scales. Even the hard ones. If you stick with them, they will become easier and easier, and eventually it won't matter what key a song is in, because all the scales will be equally easy to play in. It takes time, but it works!

                      Hopefully that helps a little bit.

                      Sent from my GT-P1010 using Tapatalk 2
                      Last edited by JeffHendricks; 06-28-2012, 06:23 PM.


                      • #26
                        As a keyboard player who leads, I'm surrounded by a bunch of guitar players every Sunday. They're super about the flat keys though (most of the time)! I think that it just depends on the players that you have, and their comfort with certain keys.

                        We did an all Ab set this morning (I try to not make this habit!), and I put one acoustic Capo 1 in G, and the 2nd acoustic in A, tuned a half-step down. The 1st electric (lead) tuned half a step down in A, and the 2nd electric (rhythm) barred it out and was great with it!

                        It's amazing how songs have a "just right" tonality in certain keys. I guess that's the fine line when thinking of your congregation. You want the songs to be as accessible as possible without sacrificing the dynamics that certain key signatures bring to a song. Every song and set is different! There are always those "exception" songs that you can play up in the stratosphere, and nobody in the congregation cares because they're so engaged. I'm a big fan of those!