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Choosing the Right Key (Q & A)

Choosing the Right Key (Q & A)

By Barry Westman on March 14, 2013

This article is a part of a new feature on our site. It is a series we call "The Leadership Roundtable" - where a team of "experts" take a question that was submitted and answer it here on our site so that it may help others out there that may have the same question. If you have a question you'd like to submit, contact us!

When worship leading, should you choose a key that suits the worship leader or the congregation? If it should be the congregation, what keys do you suggest?

Choosing the right key for a song is a critical decision that worship leaders need to make week after week.  Of course our first instinct is to choose a key that matches our own range as a singer, or just to keep it in the original key. However, both of those decisions may lead to choosing a key that’s not the best for the congregation. As a worship leader, our goal is to lead the congregation in worship, so we need to choose a key that will allow the majority of those in the congregation to sing out.

A Sunday morning worship service is not a concert. In a concert setting, it makes perfect sense for the lead singer to choose a key that will best highlight his/her voice. However, in a worship service, the congregation is not the audience, but the performer, prompted by the worship leaders on the platform, and God is the audience. We want to choose keys that will allow the congregation to sing to the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

So what do you do if the key that would allow the congregation to sing out doesn’t match the range of the worship leader? That is the beauty of a team. Utilize other members of your team to sing the melody on those songs, and you sing a harmony part that is in your range. Make sure to work with your sound team to communicate who has the lead part on each song. Or, depending on the song, sing the lead part of the verse, and have someone else take over on the chorus.  

As far as what keys to choose, that really depends on the range of the song. As a general rule, I try to keep the highest note in a melody no higher than a high D or maybe Eb. If it gets any higher than that, people start jumping octaves trying to find a note that works, or they just stop singing. On the low end, try to keep the melody above a low Bb.

Usually, I end up lowering the key about 1 to ½ steps from the original; Tomlin songs usually end up getting lowered a minor 3rd to 4th. Of course, you also need to consider what would be a good key for the band to play. I may keep a song a ½ step higher, just to be able to keep it in a good key for the band. Play around with the key choices for a song, trying to find a key that will keep the melody range with those parameters and also provide a good key for the band. With online tools such as CCLI’s Song Select, and other resources, you can print out a chord chart or even a lead sheet for any song in just about any key.

Just remember to keep what’s best for the congregation in mind. We are there to serve them, and plan a service where they can express their adoration and praise to the Lord, not listen to a concert. Be creative in your song choice, key choice and arrangement of each song. With a little extra planning, you can plan a worship set where everyone gets to sing a part that soars!

Barry Westman

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Barry Westman

Barry Westman

Barry has served in worship ministry for 20 years, currently serving as Worship Pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Janesville, Wisconsin. He was born and raised in Minnesota, husband to Tina, and father to three beautiful children - Chad, Emily and Olivia. He usually leads worship from the keyboard and loves to play board games!