This is the final blog post in a series of posts dealing with selecting the right key in worship songs. The objective, of course, being singularly focused on getting the congregation – esp. guys – to sing.
It’s one of the most difficult tasks that every worship planner/leader must do well – week in, week out. There are so many variables with which to contend, but in my experience, here are the seven most common:
- top note of the melody
- melodic range of the song
- vocal range of the worship leader
- skill set of band members (esp. guitars)
- demographic “makeup” of the congregation
- song tempo
- where the song is positioned in the set
Today, let’s examine #4 and #7.
Although this is (admittedly) less important in key selection for congregational participation, the skill set of your band members, and the instrument they play does play a part in the decision. As a general “rule,” the greater the skill, the less concerned a worship leader needs to be about picking keys for band members.
However, that’s not always the case. Here are some things to consider:
- As an accomplished keyboardist, it doesn’t matter to me which key any song is in. But less skilled/experienced players will struggle in keys with a lot of flats/sharps. If this is the case, select a key that is easier (ex: avoid F#, and, depending on the other factors discussed in previous blogs, go with F or G). Using this same example, another trick would be to provide the chart in Gb. Keyboard players are more comfortable playing in flattened keys. The reasons for this are flattened keys are more common and easier to read (Major flat keys easily allow each letter A-G to appear with no repeats or omissions. If you wrote in A#, it would be A#-C-D-Eb-F-G-A. If you really wanted to get A-G you can write some funny enharmonic notes: A#-B#-Cx-D#-E#-Fx-Gx. But it’s just easier to read and communicate in Bb: Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab). Also, many transposing instruments are flat transpositions. Even if your pieces are for solo piano, they may be arranged for piano from pre-existing scores that may contain some of these instruments.
- Guitar players are a bit more restricted – especially acoustic players. Although they don’t like it, very skilled players can play in Eb or Ab or Bb without much problem. However, these keys have a tendency to pinch off the open, more resonant sound of the instrument. As a work around, guitarists will often use a capo to play in an easier key, to avoid this “muted,” closed-off sound (it’s also easier to play higher upon the neck since the frets are closer together), and, in some circumstances, to replace barre chords. But, unless it’s a desired affect (like, for example, when two acoustic guitar players are playing to compliment one another), using a capo too far up the neck will definitely change the tone – sometimes, depending on the guitar, quite dramatically. So, using the top note and melodic range as your guide, when possible, choose “guitar-friendly” keys (i.e., no flattened keys).
- For many orchestral arrangements, transposing instruments is a big reason why certain keys are avoided. For example, a song in E or B would put Bb instruments in F# or C# – creating an entire section of unhappy campers.
- Does your bass player use a 4-string or 5-string instrument? This can have a significant impact on the sound of the band. For example, playing a song in the key of D on a 4-string bass forces the bassist to work around the tonic and play higher on the neck. The song can lose some of its punch and depth. If the melodic and vocal range allow it, pitch that same song in the key of E. You’ll be amazed at the difference. Even changing the key to C will give you a touch more low end. If your bassist uses a 5-string instrument, a song in the key of D can be much more powerful. However, if you pitch that song in the key of E, your player can drop to the low B (on the 5 chord) and rattle the rafters. Songs pitched between the keys of B to Eb will move some serious air in your sub-woofers. But, be careful not to fall too much in love with the extra bottom end. It can sometimes “muddy-up” a mix pretty fast.
- Where a given song is used in the song set may influence the key it’s performed in. When planning song sets, sometimes it’s important to sustain momentum and create a seamless experience by pitching back-to-back songs in the same key (or relative keys like the 4 or 5 chord).
Bottom-line: selecting the right key for band members should always work in tandem with the other, more important, determinants. I would consider it a “refining” musical factor, not a primary consideration. Also, it’s critically important that every worship leader leads their congregation on a journey. One way to do that, musically speaking, is to maintain the worship “flow” by selecting the right keys for each song in the set so that they will play together nicely.