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.
Many less experienced worship writers do a bad job of this, however. They draw their examples either from coffee house singer-songwriters or from professional pop, country and R&B artists, many of whom pack their lyrical lines with too many words for the average person to follow. It’s like they’re saying, “Listen to what I can do.” The delight is in hearing how deftly the singer can bend words around notes, without getting tongue-tied. Whatever the appeal might be in performance music, it doesn’t work in congregational song.
The Right Key
Find the right key for yourself and any other singers on your team, and think about the right key for your congregation. Let’s consider your team first, because if they can’t lead the song well, the congregation will have trouble learning it.
We all know that Chris Tomlin has a higher voice than most males. If you can’t comfortably hit Tomlin’s notes, change the key! Don’t try to be someone you’re not. In fact, even if you can hit the notes, consider whether many people in your congregation can (but we’ll get to them in a minute).
This is where it helps to play by ear rather than by sheet music. At Sojourn, we’re blessed with many vocalists from both genders on our team, so we change keys all the time. If one of them leads “Rock Of Ages” one week, there’s a strong chance that another vocalist will lead it the next time, who may need to change the key.
For your congregation, remember that men and women have different ranges and pitches. And of course even within a single gender, some voices are relatively high and some low. Gather a group of men and women (ideally with a mix of baritones, tenors, altos and sopranos) and have them sing together. If everyone is able to sing along, you’ve probably found a song with a good melody, and the right key for the larger congregation.
My wife Kristen recently sang at a conference that was mostly attended by men. She and the band spent a lot of time working out keys for the songs that worked for her, but that would also work for the predominantly male audience. You have to think about things like this.
Consider the demographics of your worship team and your congregation. What do they listen to? What do they like? What is their musical background?
Location has a lot to do with it, but don’t overplay this. In our modern age of TV and Internet, genres are cross-pollinating and regional influences are loosening their grip. For instance here in Louisville, even though we’re in the “bluegrass state,” shows like American Idol and The Voice draw many more viewers than do airings of bluegrass performances on the local PBS station. And yet many pop music fans are exposed (and open) to bluegrass music as its own style, as well as bluegrass instruments invading “their” style.
Location still matters, of course, even within genres. Chicago blues doesn’t sound exactly like Memphis blues. The rock music of Seattle differs from rock in Atlanta. The country music of the Carolinas differs from Texas country. And the New York folk scene isn’t exactly like the California folk scene. So be aware of the subtleties of your local music culture. Just don’t rely too much on your conclusions of what people in your town (or church) are supposed to like and dislike.
And don’t be the pastor who assumes you won’t draw young people by singing hymns, or that no one over 50 ever wants to hear anything new. Trends, demographics and common assumptions can work against you. There’s no substitute for knowing your people, and more importantly, there’s no substitute for the biblical picture of people from every tribe and tongue, praising God in song together.
To sum up, the first four points are always crucial, if you want your songs to be singable:
Space and symmetry
The right key
The final point, style/genre, is variable depending on your local context. It deserves your consideration, but should neither trump the first four points nor become an idol in the midst of your team or your congregation.