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Thread: Awkward key signatures

  1. #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.

  2. #22
    Join Date
    Aug 2009


    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...
    Every way of man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the hearts. Proverbs 21:2

  3. #23


    Quote 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!

  4. #24
    Join Date
    Apr 2012


    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?

  5. #25
    Join Date
    Dec 2010
    southern Louisiana


    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 at 06:23 PM.

  6. #26
    Join Date
    Jul 2012


    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!

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