« Why Should My Modern Church Add a Choir? by Dave Williamson (ThinkJump Journal #50 with Kim Gentes) | Main | "You Are" St. Francis of Assisi ~1224 (ThinkJump Journal #48 with Kim Gentes) »

Vocal Range: Engaging Your Community (ThinkJump Journal #49 with Kim Gentes)

Local congregations use music in their services in most Christian church contexts. This is true of almost every denomination and facet of Christianity. Even the minimalist approach of using no instruments still requires attention to vocal operation of music concepts. In fact, those using extensive instrumentation must be even more wary of accomodating instrument and musician preferences that compromise the ability of the vocal engagement of the congregation.

But before we talk too technically about music, let's step back and begin with some clarifying foundational points.

PART I: FOUNDATIONS- WHY CARE ABOUT VOCAL RANGE?

Before getting to work on practically establishing and using a vocal range in your local church worship, Let's talk first about the values and issues that make this an important topic to be looked at seriously and implemented by worship leaders. 

Worship Connected to Vision

In many cases, the primary goal of worship and music in your local church will often be connected to your church vision, such as - 

  • to glorify and enjoy God forever
  • to make God famous
  • to love God and love others
  • to build a community of love where Christ is lifted up and people are set free
  • to reach the world of Jesus

You may insert your local church vision statement above to the list. When we look at these kinds of statements we must draw from them a sense of honesty about how people in our local churches will actually participate in what you intend, and how we believe God is leading our congregation within that purpose. Regardless of what your vision is, you must find a way that your worship and music fit into it.

Vision Connected to Community

Some people will say "it is all just for God's glory". This is true enough, but if we stick strictly to that statement, each one of our church community members can stay home, pray and worship God with no need for any community gatherings. We could trace through scripture and build a clearer understanding, however, especially through the book of Acts, and on through most of the New Testament (Paul's writings, John's writings and even Peter). The truth is that the New Testament church formed into community based not only on cultural forces, but based on the model of Jesus, who lived and declared he would build his church (his community) through the faithful obedience of his apostles and followers that would come after them. Jesus treatise of prayer and community in John 17 is a powerful expression of his divine community (in the Trinity) and his explicit prayer for our own unity and community that reflects his love (towards the end of chapter 17). This is synopsized well in his statement in John 13:35 "By this eveyrone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another".

On that basis, we find Paul expounding on Christian church and community throughout almost all of his letters, constantly encouraging people to love one another, wait for one another (in communion gatherings), defer to one another (related to husbands and wives), honor one another (younger and older people) and on and on. The writer of Hebrews says its succinctly- 

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:24-25)

The point of exploring all this (very briefly) is that we can see a theme of "prefering one another" that resonates through the entire New Testament, from the teaching of Christ to the applications of the apostles and writers of scriptures. As we look to pursue the vision God has given our local congregations, we must find ways to encourage all our people to engage, if we are to pursue God and give Him place to accomplish his mission through us.

Community Encouraged Through Engagement

If you believe that community is a necessary value in our mission for the church, then you must find ways for that "community" to be manifest in reality. That reality could mean many things- gatherings, prayer groups, support systems, pastoral teaching, counseling and much more. But the clear nuance across it all is engagement. If the history of our two thousand years has taught us anything as a people of faith, it is that we must engage with God and with one another if we are express our love.

If you do not believe that we need to engage with one another to be in the community of love (we call it the church), then you will not agree with rest of the premise of this article either. But if you do believe that we must engage with one another to live in a communit of love, read on.

Let's assume for a moment that you have properly addressed the heart issues of what worship and praise are, why it is a part of individual lives and congregational gatherings, and why music and singing are woven into those patterns. This article is intended to address specifically churches who use music as part of your worship and praise activities within your community gatherings. Moving forward from there, and reaching back to the initial points already made about church and community and engagement, I offer this essential premise-

The music performance and leadership in the congregational gathering is primarily intended to engage and support congregational participation in the singing.

Before forging on too quickly here, let me point out something here- I am speaking strictly related to the musical considerations of your worship and praise. I say "singing" and "music" in the above point, because I don't want you to confuse singing with worship and praise. In this context I am assuming that you understand and nuance the heart aspects of this topic. My goal heretofor is about explaining the practical musical aspects of helping congregations engage in the singing. Heart and foundational understandings of worship and praise are not part of the intention of this article.

Engagement Connected to Access

So then, assuming we want our churches to be a place where our community can engage together in the corporate act of worship and praise we must find, as best as possible, the most helpful ways to assist them in engaging with the congregational songs. One very basic task that a worship leader or music minister has in this regard is to select songs that allow the congregation to actually sing. The goal here is to set a musical context in which most of the people can participate together vocally. Simply put, we encourage engagement in the music by giving them access to it vocally. If we wish to have the congregation sit and listen, then we needn't concern ourselves with vocal range. This kind of example I dealt with extensively in another article (more..). But if we wish them to engage, vocal range must be a deciding factor in our evaluation of songs to be used.

 

PART II: PRACTICAL APPLICATION- FINDING AND USING A VOCAL RANGE

 

Vocal Range Factors

Vocal range is simply this- the range of notes (from lowest to highest) that a person can sing. A person's vocal range varies by individual and is impacted by several factors. A commonly presented range for congregational singing often accomodates the fact that both men and women will be present to sing, as well as children and adults. These are important factors, since they limit your vocal range significantly.  Women's voices are typically able to sing much higher, and men's typically have the ability to sing much lower in a vocal range. Children can often sing higher than adults. All this is due to simple physiology, the size of the throat and voicebox of the person and their accumen in using it to sing notes.

Common Practices

One common practice related to vocal range considerations in congregational music is to limit songs primarily to the range between Middle C (fixed sofege "do", or scientific pitch notation of C4) and the next C (called Tenor C, or scientific pitch notation of C5). Specifically, in the key of C, the range looks like these notes:

What I would recommend is that you review your songs against this type of range as a guideline to see how much of your music is accessible for your local congregation to actually sing most of the time. Like any "guideline", sticking to it too strictly will remove some added flavor and interest in your music. If you never allow a song to be used in congregational worship that has any notes outside of this range, you will be ignoring a solid slice of very good songs. You may keep the "meat and potatoes" songs that help everyone engage, access and sing along, but you may be leaving out some "spice" that will help keep things interesting to your congregation. But if you vary too far or too often from this type of guideline, you risk loosing engagement of your congregation.

If you are in a well trained musical culture, perhaps you can expand the range a note or two on either end. For my personal guideline, I use a range that is from Bb to D when I lead worship. This is partly because I use mostly modern contemporary worship songs in my repertoire and many of the congregation have learned some these of songs by singing along to them on the radio, and the songs often have broader ranges than the simple praise and worship choruses of the 70's and 80's and 90's. Additionally, the groups I lead for are typically between teenage years to 60, and I very rarely have the opportunity to lead for older congregations who are primarily just 50+ in the age group. If I led groups of just 50+ age ranges I would adjust my vocal range down to the standard Middle C to Tenor C (at the highest).

Again, this is the place where you must use good judgment and take the input of your congregation. Yes, worship leaders, listen to your people. Not each and every suggestion will be applicable, but taken as a collective, you will find wisdom in talking to them about how accessible the music is for them as it is being sung. I typically never hear the young people say "that was too high", but I occasionally hear that from older people. 

There are a plethura of other side notes and commentary that relate to this point of vocal range, including such things as song familiarity, male/female melody leading, harmonizing, and such.  For those growing muses who would like some additional information on vocal ranges, I actually do recommend the WikiPedia page on this (here), since it is fairly accurate (unlike somethings on there) and helpful for folks needing more details . But remember, if your goal is engagement in singing during your praise and worship time you will help your congregation gain access by establishing a vocal range guideline to your song selection- a range that is comfortable to them. The key here is that you must return to the goal of preffering others above yourself. What can they sing, not what can you sing. Without making it a monotonous and letharigic exercise, find a way to occasionally spice your service with exceptions to your guideline, while still keeping every song accessible for the congregation.

Listen to Your Congregation

Find your own way to reach into your local church by asking people you trust who do not have your musical/vocal abilities about their ability to join in. I occasionally ask my family about the singing with this in mind. Our family has a variety of range abilities. Two of my sons can sing well and have extended higher ranges, while one son has a limited range. My wife, likewise, has no musical training and limited vocal range. Like most people, all of them could expand their range with vocal exercises. But that is the point- like most people, they aren't musicians or singers, and they don't have time to spend on expanding that ability. So let's help them find a "home" in our worship and singing by giving them a repeteroire of songs that they can engage and access. My wife will often just stop singing, and start humming when she can't reach notes. My sons will sit down. Some times they will just mouth the words when it is too high or too low. Looking for congregational participation may help you see if your vocal range is actually working in your local church.

 

Solutions!

So what do you do if a song has notes out of the acceptable range you've established as a guideline?

Change Key- The first thing to try is to move the song key to see if that places most of the notes inside of the range. For example, us guitar playing worship leader guys might select a song in a key such as G that might be best sung in E, because the notes allow a range that fits within our guideline.

Leave it in - if the song has one or two notes that are out of the vocal range guideline, but they are sung only once in the song, you can probably get away with using the song and most people will not feel left out in the singing. If the song repeats those out-of-range notes many times, then you may have a problem. Use your judgment, based on others abilities, not yours. The goal here is not to show off your abilities as a worship leader and vocalist, but to engage your congregation by giving them access to the song.

Drop it out - Some songs are best used for performance, allowing people to listen and be inspired by it. But using those songs in congregational worship may have the effect of making them feel left out, or worse, that the leader is showboating their talents. If the song can't be accessed by most of the people in the time of worship and singing, why are you including it in your set list?

 

Summary

This article is intended to give you basic thoughts on vocal range, how it should be considered as a component for granting access to your local congregation, to help them engage in your singing and worship.

This kind of topic is often considered, and often discarded by many worship leaders and musicians because the musical abilities of those leading will almost certainly exceed the abilities of those being led. This is where the pastoral overseer of your worship minsitry must teach and lead the ministry into humility, helping them learn they are servants to the people, not performers for them to listen to (primarily).

I am sure there are many considerations and additional points that could be made in this regard. I encourage you to join the discussion and leave your thoughts and points here, so others can benefit from reading them as well.

 

Joining with you,

Kim Gentes


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (14)

Thank you!
I've been trying to get worship leaders to consider this for years.
Two other considerations are mood and time. If you want to change a rousing well known hymn or chorus to a different mood, a key drop (along with a speed drop) can be helpful. The second consideration is time of day: groups can bat at those higher notes better in the evening than first thing in the morning.

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarry Ladan

Hi!

Some great thoughts here! Regarding some technical musical stuff, I think you mean "scientific pitch notation" everywhere you've written "scientific notation"; the latter may evoke nightmarish flashbacks to high school mathematics and science classes, and those could have been 3.50x10^1 years ago for some people.

It would also be good to clarify that you mean pitches an octave lower for men. "Tenor C", C5, is an operatic tenor's high C, and you wouldn't want your head usher trying to pull that off! Bb2 to D4 (nearly "filling" the bass clef) should be comfortable for all untrained male voices, and correspond nicely to the Bb3 to D5 range for women, an octave up.

I think an important musical/leadership consideration regarding range is the vocal energy you are able to convey in the various parts of a song. Modern worship songs are generally recorded in keys that put the loud and strong part of the song (generally the chorus) right in a range where the singer's voice can be most loud, clear, open, bright and powerful. Too often I see church worship leaders change the key for the sake of range, but then lose the ability to effectively perform the contours of the song, because the chorus is now in a range that is either choked in the singer's "break", or simply has no energy.

And that's the biggest hurdle to overcome, I think. The "power range" for men doesn't correspond to a "power range" for women an octave up. So, when a tenor leader nails that climax of the song, the women are up in their (stylistically incompatible) head voices, or drop down an octave. And when an alto is in her "power range" as she leads the same song in a different key, the men singing along are half an octave down from where they would want to be to really belt that chorus out!

I usually find a harmony when women are leading, but I realize that many people around me can't simply do this.

All this to say, there's more to consider than whether the leaders and congregants can physically hit the notes. How can they hit them? Is the energy/intensity that the voices can deliver appropriate to the lyrical and emotional content of the song?

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrett

Barry & Brett-- both, well said! I knew that if I posted this initial core, that the nuances and things I had left out would be brought out by good discussion. Thanks for chiming in! You are both right, range simply in the world of "can they sing the notes" is the general statement-- your thoughts are needed.. emotion, energy, context... well done...

thanks for contributing..

also, I did change the scientific notation to scientific pitch notation as suggested-- good catch.

blessings
Kim

February 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterKim Gentes

Another thing to consider is the style of the music and the expectations therein. If one were to grow up in a church that has a strong gospel music tradition -- and by that, I'm referring to the style, though of course, by definition I'm also referring to the content of the music itself, but that's a separate topic altogether -- then one might be accustomed to "finding your spot" so to speak. In a vocal ensemble when many contemporary choruses are sung in three-part harmony, sometimes the melody itself is not particularly clear... and even if it is made clear by the contours of the arrangement, the execution might be a different story... maybe the mix is off and so you're hearing more tenors or altos than you are sopranos, who are most likely carrying the melody.

And then there's the issue of many contemporary gospel anthems have choruses, vamps or chants that are designed to be sung in perfect unison -- that is, not with men singing an octave lower. So then it becomes a question of how high is too high for the men but not too low for the women??

For an example of this, check "Still Standing" by Israel Houghton and Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff.

Nevertheless, I think the overall point is quite valid and a good reminder for us to de-emphasize performance and production value if those things do not facilitate a sense of empowerment for the congregation to sing along.

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJelani Greenidge

Pristine point Jelani. You are right, we can't reduce everything to a neat package without the danger of blunting some force of creativity. We can anesthetize anything to its most common denominators-- at which point brilliant art becomes dull geometry, music becomes frequencies of untextured notes and even our experience with truly giving our hearts to God is a rote recitation of some luminary we secretly admire (such as Tomlin, Baloche, McClurken or Houghton, depending on your penchant for a certain style).

We must give way, in some manner, to the real communities and expressions that make us unique. But, as you noted, we must do so with others in mind. To bring along our community in one voice is (in my opinion) the more pastoral choice than dazzling them with the skill of our voices.

Btw, Jelani, I checked out your site.. so glad you chose to stop by here today and contribute.. I love the fact that you were one of the "first" on the net back in the day... I was too, though in my "praise and worship" world.. Good to meet you !

February 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterKim Gentes

In my estimation, people always have and always will, be able, and enthusiastic about joining in with a GIFTED and CALLED Worship Leader. This is completely regardless of any vocal range analysis of the worship leader, or "the people" (if it were even remotely possible to accurately assess that).

We ALL automatically and instinctively drop or add an octave, or even grab a rough harmony when we are singing along with someone who has a different vocal range than us; weather we are musical, or not. In really simple terms, for example, a male will naturally drop an octave to sing along with a female - even if he has no idea what an octave is! He will instinctively do it; aware or not. It will not ruin or hinder his worship experience if the Leader he is following happens to be a soprano (or anyone completely out of his personal range). He will, on the other hand, absolutely be inspired to Worship God through the gift of any anointed Leader regardless of any vocal range assessment on either end of the equation ... But wait, that is UNLESS he has been taught (knowingly, or unknowingly) by his culture to scrutinize or "rate" the Worship in that way. ;(...

I think when we look at the idea of people "singing along" and participating in Worship, we should affirm that it has so much more to do with the cultural values, and atmosphere set forth by a Worshipping Community, or leadership structure, than trying to figure out what an "ideal vocal range" is - although that's definitely worth looking at - I have a feeling we're not going to find the hard fast answer that we may be looking for.

I think it's overly subjective to form any sort of rule about "what range is best" as this may actually hinder things a bit in getting to the heart of the matter of constructively isolating which factors REALLY make a worship atmosphere conductive to participation.

Of course, if a Worship Leader is singing out of THEIR range, and sounds unpleasant, or distasteful (distracting) - this is an obvious problem ... BUT that is more of an issue of training, skill, and taste on part of the Worship Leader themselves.

All said and done ... the thought that certain elements can make songs more singable is COMPLETELY VALID and worth talking about ... but hold up ... let's not get the "vocal range police" too fired up in our communities, or create a misplaced argument built on an easily misunderstood premise, because we all know, things like this can create strong and even untruthful paradigms. Sadly, we can establish slightly slanted opinions if we're not careful, and those are not helpful in the overall goal to remove a hindering mindset, rather than forming a new one.

That's my two cents! ... Arguably "right" to some ... and maybe "wrong" to some others, but I hope it helps, and gets us THINKING ... ;)

February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTD

Well said TD. I agree with much about what you said.

I would challenge however, your premise about a "anointed worship leader" being the true crux in this equation. I have heard many, many anointed worship leaders who leave their congregations standing with blank stares, watching because they chose to use their gifts to the kinds of "inspiring" heights that you describe. And I think this is where your statement "we should affirm that it has so much more to do with the cultural values" is dead on. The truth is, most churches are not filled with musical people, not even singing people for that matter. They sing comfortably whatever is sung, and just try to mimic what the leader is doing. What this means is that when a leader is singing too high, they stop singing. In my experience, people do not just drop down an octave- they don't understand or even know how to do that. Only in musical cultures and contexts do you find it where people do that naturally. Most of American churches are not like that. Again, that is just my experience, across the churches I have had contact with personally ,and professionally from helping hundreds and thousands of them in the past years.

But you are right about what you are saying in some contexts, which is why this isn't a "rule" or should be used as such. What it was intended to be was a wake up call for churches to consider. Some, like anything, will use it as a guideline, others as a club and still others will ignore it claiming they don't want to be restricted. I would challenge the last assertion on the basis of what I call the assumptions of "musical elitism". We can, as leaders, musicians and vocalists, get to the place where we misunderstand the common person in the local church. We can ascribe to them far more understanding, skill and even interest in the music than we have ourselves.

In my experience (again subjective, as you say, because it is anecdotal to me) the local church member ultimately just want to be invited in to be a participant in the worship event and life of the church. They want it to be accessible to them without thinking about it. They would lift their hands, sing their praise, and surrender their hearts if only the worship leaders and teams would invite them in at a place, at a skill level that any wholehearted lover of God could jump right in.

The rest, as you say, is culture and context...

February 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterKim Gentes

Hi,
As implied in Brett's comment, it would not be an easy task to satisfy all the voice ranges represented in a congrigation by making voice range the primary criteria for song selections for worship. I totally agree all the same that community paticipation is a key issue.Again it has been noted in this article that the choice of songs will be seriously limited ,if vocal range becomes the basis of song selection. But you want to select songs in line with the direction of the Holy Spirit in a service don't you? The inevitable choice therefore will be to work around a change of key,if the vocal range of the song will ristrict the perticipation of most people, which will in turn diadvantage some people in some sections of the song, either within a few bars,or within short section. The only rescue the songleader can perform is to try to see to it that minimising such sections inform his/her selection of songs.
Let me also quickly add that what should mostly inform the choice of songs for worship is what can be done to get the people to worship by whatever Holy Spirit inspired means. Set the people up so to speak, and get out of the way, leading them , and leaving them to worship God spotaneously. At this stage, even conciously trying to make them sing 'mordern songs' so to speak,at all cost, in the name of 'getting them ' to sing a 'new song', even when the preoccupation of learning the songs rubs them of true worship,has to be minimal.

February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSam Amusan

Hi Kim,
Great article! We are constantly working through this issue as we introduce new songs. To make things a little more interesting for my situation we have both male and female worship leaders. Sometimes the keys have to be adjusted to accomodate the differences between the male and female vocal leaders ranges. We try to keep it to a minimum but it happens. I had always used the rule of thumb of not exceeding E...I think you would call this E5? Learned that years ago from Kent Henry material back in the 80's.

Thanks again,
Steve

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Miyamoto

This article on vocal range was totally useless and wordy.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrstatenrose

Sam- I agree that vocal should not be how we pick out songs. We should pick them by the guidance of the scriptures, vision and calling of the church and leadership, and direction of the Holy Spirit. The use of topics like this, dealing with practicalities of music and voice, is to help us refine and and support the direction we are given (by those other means) "playing skilfully" so as to provide the best opportunity to allow everyone to join in God's praise as one voice. So, yes, direction first, then try to consider points like vocal range as something that might help you adjust the key or order or selection to still follow the direction but make it accessible for all.

rstatenrose - thanks for your feedback. Sorry it wasn't what you hoped for. The article was long, and could well have been broken into two (as indicated by the sections). I could have just posted the second section on my use of the vocal range details, but since many would wonder why I am even concerned about it, I felt posting the first section was important. If you don't accept the premise of the first section (why vocal range is important to consider), then yes, the second section would seem inapplicable to you.

February 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterKim Gentes

Thanks for this imporant article. I, too, am grateful to see you dealing with the technicalities of facilitating broad congregational participation. If our people are not participating in singing worship, then we are not truly leading worship.

I am a Worship Pastor and a Music Development Specialist, specifically focusing on vocal issues of non and unsure singers. Singing is a physical activity, and there are both physical and cultural constraints that must be considered for maximum, heart-engaging participation.

I agree fully with the important distinction between performance and participation. Our culture has become a performance-focused culture, especially in singing. Yet God has both created and called each individual to fully connect with Him using their unique, intimate singing voice. We need to help our congregations break through the perfect-performance expectation, and instead encourage us all to come to him as we are, with our limited, imperfect singing voices.

I agree with most of your range assesments. I have some further thoughts. If anyone is in a worship setting that includes the unchurched, it is very likely that they are only comfortable using their speaking voice range, unless they had the privilege of participating a school choir growing up.

Very few "non-musical" individuals have any idea there is a head voice, and feel silly using it even if they did find it (male and female, young and old). This, then changes the bottom line of accessibility from C up to about Bb at the very most. I, too go a little lower and higher, but my bottom line is, "can the congregation join in easily?" Children fall into the same framework, especially if schools are not providing any singing encouragement, which is more and more common.

I am also a singer/songwriter, and have to discipline my congregational writing to keep within singable constraints. Sometimes I hear a hook, or a lick that is so powerful, so perfect....but I've learned I can't use it if it excludes full and meaningful participation. I think our ears are prepared for heaven, but our voices are still in this broken earth. Someday......!

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuth King Goddard

Thanks for the great articles and site!!

I have been struggling/praying about this topic for some time now. I like that you included adding "spice" in regards to certain songs. There is obviously a wide, wide range of vocal ranges across a congregation. If we narrow everything down, we can make the songs singable for the great majority of our congregation.

But...what about the minority who's range is "different"? Even though a minority...they are a part of our body also! And Jesus did say to leave the 99 to find the one lost sheep, right? So I find adding in a song in a higher or lower key every once in a while actually helps ALL the congregation be able to participate! No one can sing everything....but no one is completely left out either!

Now individual songs that take a Mariah Carey-type vocal range to sing are another topic all together!!!

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Taylor

Hello, Kim, Thanks so much for sharing on the much needed, and often overlooked subject of vocal range and collective vocal accessibility! Your insights are right on the money.

April 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSandy Hoffman

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>