Bobby Gilles discusses the fundamentals of singability.
Most worship leaders agree that songs for congregational worship should be “singable,” a made-up word that means “easy for a congregation to sing together.” But it is tempting for many of us to subtly change that definition to “songs I want to sing.” And so worship leaders who dislike hymns – whatever the reason – say that hymns are not singable. They’re too wordy, and the tunes are too difficult.
And worship leaders who dislike the style (or lyrics) of the top contemporary worship songs may say those songs are not singable. They are performance oriented. They have too many different melodic movements instead of just being verse-verse-verse.
Of course enough classic hymn tunes are unsingable, and enough contemporary songs are unsingable, that any of us can cite examples to reinforce our argument. But if hymns in general are unsingable, how have countless Christians across several centuries been able to sing them? And if contemporary songs in general are unsingable, why can I go to YouTube and view stadiums full of people singing along with every word of the songs led at Passion conferences?
Musical style does have something to do with whether or not a song is unsingable in any particular church. I’ve witnessed mega churches with contemporary praise bands trying to lead up-tempo soulful gospel songs, while the congregation couldn’t figure out how to clap to the beat, let alone sing. And “traditional worship” churches that hired a new pastor who suddenly made the switch to “contemporary,” to disastrous effect within the worship team and congregation.
So what are the fundamentals of singability? What makes a song more likely to be singable? Here are five things to consider:
This is simple, so we won’t belabor this point. Most people in your congregation have a vocal range somewhere between one octave to one-and-a-third. If you’re choosing or writing songs that routinely go beyond this, you’re going to leave your congregation behind. It doesn’t matter if you or someone on your vocal team can hit the big notes – this isn’t a talent show or concert.
Also pay attention to the intervals in a song’s melody (the number of scale steps from one note to the next). If the intervals leap all over the place, your song will have a roller-coaster feel that is difficult or unpleasant to sing, even if the melody is confined to one octave or less. Most of your intervals should be step intervals (up or down one scale step). Good songwriters usually reserve the leap intervals for spare moments when they need the music to swell.
Space And Symmetry
The most lasting hymns and praise songs tend to contain concise, symmetrical phrases. In classic hymnody, writers like Watts and Newton wrote their lyrics in tight “metrical” patterns – it’s why every line in “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” is eight syllables long, and why the lines of “Amazing Grace” alternate between eight syllables on the odd numbered lines and six syllables on the even lines.
Few contemporary worship writers count syllables, but the better ones are great at keeping their lines symmetrical, and their phrases short. They also do a good job of matching the lyrics to the music, so the congregation doesn’t have to cram too many words into a tight musical phrase.