Last Sunday my worship team cornered me and complained that I’ve been choosing songs that are too high for congregational singing. But they feel fine for me. What should I do?
I sympathize with you. I’ve heard my fair share of frustrations about the keys of songs. Some greet me immediately as I step off the platform, others on the car ride home. This is an ongoing conversation as congregations continue to sing songs straight from the radio or Spotify playlists.
Many of us are aware that the recorded keys of songs are outside the range of the average congregation. Popular songs are sung by professional artists: a tenor sings the brightest tones at the top of his range; an alto sings the richest tones at the bottom of her range. But how do we discern what is comfortable for a congregation?
I mentor student worship leaders at Calvin University. Weekly, I observe them choosing keys for songs. Most of them pick up a guitar, test with their voice the range of a song up and down, and ask, “Is this comfortable for me?”
But they forget their years of singing and the hours they’ve practiced to stretch their voices higher and lower. What is comfortable for them may not be comfortable for others. We lead singing for untrained worshipers who outside of worship sing only occasionally in the car or in the shower.
A 2008 study of music therapy majors discovered the same trend. Students reported that they played songs for patients that best fit the students’ vocal range and were easy to play (Cevesco, 4). One out of four songs, however, fell outside of the range of older adults, and for younger adults, two of every five songs missed the range (Cevesco, 4). Extend this to public worship, and it is easy to see how many worshipers find it difficult to sing one or two songs in every service.
With this mind, I challenge my students to be objective about their range choices. I ask them to look at the melody line of a lead sheet or plunk out the notes on a keyboard. What is the highest note of the song? What is the lowest note?
An “Objective” Guide
In his book The Art of Worship: A Musician’s Guide to Contemporary Worship, Greg Scheer suggests a comfortable range for a congregation is B𝄬3 to D5 (Scheer, 61). Higher voices would sing this range at pitch, while lower voices would sing an octave lower.
This vocal range corresponds with the chosen keys for most hymns and songs published in recent hymnals and, I might add, fits conveniently well within my lowest and highest notes. This “objective” range has always been my rule of thumb.
But in recent years my students have balked at choosing songs that sing in the upper part of this range. They complain that a D5 is too high, and they prefer songs that are much lower, dipping down to G3, G𝄬3, or even F3. What’s going on here?
This led me to explore research on the topic, particularly among music educators. A seminal study in 1979 tested the range limits of 597 undergraduate non-music majors (Kuhn et al., 68–75). Students were asked to match pitch with a hum, identifying whether they sang at pitch or an octave lower. Moving upward by semitone, students named the highest note they could sing comfortably. Students followed the same procedure moving downward. The results surprised me:
- 98% of students comfortably sang B𝄬3 to G4.
- 84% of students comfortably sang G3 to B4.
- 75% of students comfortably sang G𝄬3 to C5.
- 50% of students comfortably sang E𝄬3 to E𝄬5.
The range for 75–85% percent of young adults is much lower than I had believed. This study confirms that my students who have complained about singing above a C5 are in good company and not, as I had assumed, merely altos and basses wanting songs to suit their voices. I was no different than my students or the music therapy majors referenced earlier—I assumed what was comfortable for me must be comfortable for others!
Insights for Choosing Songs and Song Keys
This study leads to several insights. On one hand, the range that will comfortably suit nearly everyone is incredibly narrow—just a sixth. For comparison, the melodies of “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace” both span an octave. This is discouraging for someone striving for inclusivity. If we want to always include everyone, we will need to rewrite our canon of songs.
On the other hand, this research does provide a reliable guide for most congregants. For 84%, the octave and a third from G3 to B4 is a reliable range. This covers most songs and hymns. Moreover, we can be confident that at least three-fourths of the congregation can stretch up to a C5.
This is encouraging. It lifts the burden of meeting the vocal needs of every singer on every song. We can accept that sopranos and tenors will occasionally be frustrated by the lower range of songs. Additionally, a few basses and altos may “drop the octave” if a song becomes uncomfortably high. Our best key choices will always have their limitations.
Older Adults and Children
Does this apply to older adults and children as well? The answer is yes—mostly. As we age, our vocal range does drop. But a study of the vocal ranges of people over 65 found that their average range was between F3 and C5 (Moore et al., 236–52). But this is an average, like the 50% of students above. The range including 80% of older adults is narrower.
Studies on the vocal range of children have varying results. But a comparison study of children’s and adults’ vocal ranges showed children singing one to two semitones higher at both the top and bottom of their ranges (Moore, 13–22).
Older adults will sing a little lower. Children will sing a little higher. The comfortable range for young adults, therefore, is a reliable reference point for intergenerational singing.
When we choose keys for songs, we won’t always match the perfect range for every congregant. But as we strive to be considerate and inclusive, a few practices may be helpful:
Consider the range of songs throughout the service. Select a key for a song that explores the upper part of the vocal range, which will encourage those who hate to croak out those lower notes. Later in the service, select a key that ventures to the lower part of the vocal range. Basses and altos will thank you.
When using a hymnal, encourage part singing. Sopranos and tenors will delight in singing higher, while altos and basses will rest comfortably in their vocal range. Recognize, however, that melodies in hymnals are pitched for sopranos. It is common for melodies to reach D5 and occasionally an E5. When not singing parts, consider lowering the key so that the melody drops below the upper limit of C5.
Experiment with songs with wider vocal ranges. I am finding more and more popular contemporary songs with wide ranges equal to or greater than an octave and a fifth (e.g., G3 to D5). Consider the possibility that these songs may not be best for congregational singing. Leave them for the concert stage or personal Spotify playlists. Alternatively, you might adapt them for congregational use. Choose a key that allows the chorus to sing comfortably and invite a soloist to sing the lower verses on behalf of the congregation. Or omit altogether a bridge that stretches well beyond the upper limit.
Be mindful of your musicians’ abilities. The perfect key for the congregation may have five flats or six sharps—not friendly for many of our church musicians! I recall learning the guitar and having three or four keys at my disposal. With wisdom, weigh the needs of congregational singing against the abilities of your team.
Complaints about vocal range will always be with us. Research shows us that the range suitable for everyone is too narrow for most worship songs and hymns. Even so, we can strive to be as inclusive and considerate of as many people as possible. Research gives us an objective range to target. This means we can grow beyond our personal preferences, and it also gives us grace and assurance for those critiques after worship.
- Cevasco, Andrea M. “Preferred Vocal Range of Young and Older Adults: Implications for Music Therapy Majors’ Clinical Training Experience.” Music Therapy Perspectives 26, no. 1 (2008):4−12.
- Kuhn, Terry Lee, Gustav Wachhaus, Randall S. Moore, and James E. Pantle. “Undergraduate Nonmusic Major Vocal Ranges.” Journal of Research in Music Education 27, no. 2 (Summer 1979): 68–75.
- Moore, Randall S. “Comparison of Children’s and Adults’ Vocal Ranges and Preferred Tessituras in Singing Familiar Songs.” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, no. 107 (Winter 1991): 13–22.
- Moore, Randall S., Myra J. Staum, and Melissa Brotons. “Music Preference of the Elderly: Repertoire, Vocal Ranges, Tempos, and Accompaniments for Singing.” Journal of Music Therapy 29, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 236–52.
- Scheer, Greg. The Art of Worship: A Musician’s Guide to Leading Modern Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006.