3 Points to Consider When Choosing the Key for a Worship Song

When a worship leader asks about choosing the right key for a song, the underlying question seems to be, how high is too high for a congregation to sing? In response to this question, I would ask, “How high is too high for a crowd to sing The Star-Spangled Banner?” The answer is, it depends on who is leading the song. If the singer who is leading the national anthem sings in a key that works for their own voice, then the crowd will adapt and sing along.

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.

 

1. It’s important to find the key that works best for your range.

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?

I love the heart behind this question, but here’s the problem: 60% of my congregation is women, and I am a man. Most women cannot sing higher than a high A note, and most men (tenors) will sound bored if they never sing higher than a middle A (one octave below the women). In other words, the best key for men is usually different than the best key for women. Also, in a typical church congregation, there are bound to be children and low-voiced men who have limited ranges, so if your goal is to choose a key that is comfortable for everyone, you will usually fail. You will eventually end up like our police officer friend, singing in a key that works for others but not for yourself. You will try to sing higher than you are capable of singing, or you will try to sing below the bottom of your range and it will sound like you’re doing a bad Johnny Cash impersonation. This is more distracting than it is helpful. 
If you lead a song confidently in a key that best fits your voice, then people of all vocal ranges will sing along. I’ll reiterate that this probably means you should sing lower than Phil Wickham.
Here is the “circle of fifths.” We are going to get practical and technical here.

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.

The need to find the key that works best for your range still applies here. If you can belt “What a Beautiful Name” like Brooke Fraser and Phil Wickham, then you should sing it in the key of D (Brooke) or the key of A (Phil). If not, the key of C (most women) or the key of G (most men) are better choices. As a male leader, I use the circle of fifths principle to help choose keys for female-led songs, but I always defer to the female vocalist when making a final decision about key selection. Every voice is different! As a worship leader on staff at my church, it’s my responsibility to help other vocalists find the key that works best for their range.
3. A few high notes to keep in mind: E, A, G, C

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.

C is the highest peak note for most female leaders.
We have a worship residency program at The Austin Stone, and I always tell our residents, “Sing within yourself.” This means that you need to know your range, know the notes that you are capable of hitting, know the notes that you are not capable of hitting, and choose a key that allows you to sing on pitch and with confidence. If your voice gets tired, strained, and flat by the end of a song, choose a lower key. If your voice sounds lifeless and bored, even at the peak moments of a song, then consider raising the key to help you sing passionately. The goal is to lead everyone in your congregation in singing to the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. Let’s keep this goal in mind as we choose keys for the songs in our upcoming Sunday set lists.
Logan Walter

About Logan Walter

Logan Walter serves as a worship leader at the Downtown and North Campuses. As an extension of his ministry at the Austin Stone, Logan also travels to lead worship, teach and learn from other churches. He lives in north central Austin with his wife, Maddie.