Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out this way. Below, you’ll find one of my favorite videos on the Internet. It’s about two minutes long and is worth watching before you continue reading.
Now, we have all had a similar experience to the police officer above. We have all reached for a note that we couldn’t quite hit, and we can empathize with this officer. We are not laughing at him, we are laughing with him. Seriously. At the 0:55 mark in this video, the officer tries to hit the high notes on “rocket’s red glare,” and when that attempt falls short, he laughs at himself. You’ll notice that this natural belt of laughter registers at least an octave lower than the notes he is trying to sing. In other words, his speaking voice is a bass, but he is trying to sing like a tenor. Do you know anyone who struggles with this? Do you know anyone who speaks like James Earl Jones but tries to sing Phil Wickham songs in the original key?
In the background of this video, you can see a female officer standing with her hand over her heart. When the song reaches its pinnacle—“the land of the free”—the male officer wisely stops singing, but you can hear the female officer singing this part of the song comfortably. He picked a key that’s easy for women to sing! Does this mean that he chose the right key? Of course not. He needed to pick a key that worked for his own voice. If he had started this song seven half steps lower, the women in attendance would have gladly adapted and sung in a different octave.
Does this mean that lower is always better for corporate singing? I don’t think so. The task is to choose a key that works best for your range. This means that you need to be able to sing on pitch, and it also means that you need to be able to sing passionately. For example, Phil Wickham sings “This Is Amazing Grace” in the key of Bb. In this key, the highest note of the chorus is a G. Ironically, a high G is the same note that our police officer friend was trying to hit on “rockets red glare.” The difference? Phil Wickham can sing this note on pitch and with confidence, and although Phil sings higher than most men, his vocal leadership inspires people all over the world to sing passionately to Jesus.
As a vocalist, I personally fall somewhere in between the police officer and Phil Wickham. I think most of us do. My voice sounds most passionate when I am hitting a high F on a chorus. This is the note that my friend Aaron Ivey sings on the chorus of “Center My Life” (see the 1:44 mark of this video). Can every man, woman, and child hit this high F? No, but look at the congregation in this video. They are all passionately singing to Jesus. Aaron is leading them in such a way that they are inspired to belt out the truth of this song. Some may be singing in the same octave as Aaron, some women may be singing an octave above, some men may be singing an octave below, some may be singing a harmony, and some may be singing entirely off-key. But they are all singing passionately! This is the goal for worship vocalists. Find the key that works best for your range, and lead people in singing passionately to Jesus!
A common response to this line of reasoning is, shouldn’t you choose a key that works best for your congregation instead of choosing a key that works best for yourself?
To transpose a song from a male leader key to a female leader key, go to the circle of fifths, find the male key, and move one letter clockwise (moving one letter clockwise on the circle of fifths = moving up seven frets on a guitar). If a male vocalist sings “Come Thou Fount” in the key of D, that means that a female vocalist will likely sing it in the key of A (one letter clockwise from D).
This principle applies in reverse, as well. My friend Jaleesa McCreary sings “You Never Change” in the key of E. So if I want to lead that song, I check the circle of fifths, find the letter E, and move one letter counterclockwise (moving one letter counterclockwise on the circle of fifths = moving down seven frets on a guitar). This tells me that I should sing “You Never Change” in the key of A.
Consider these general rules when picking a key:
E is the highest note that most male leaders should consistently hit throughout a song. If you are a baritone or a bass, this note may be a D or C.
A is the highest note that most female leaders should consistently hit. If you are a soprano, this note may be a B or C.
G (realistically F) is the highest note that most male leaders should ever sing, even for one passionate exclamation at the end of the bridge.
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