Worship songs are a bit rubbish at serving the local church
Our worship songs don’t work
Many of our congregational worship songs simply aren’t congregational. There, I’ve said it! But if you’ll forgive my hyperbole I’ll defend myself. Recently I was recording tracks for our Worship Backing Band Multitrack project at Musicademy. These tracks are designed for churches with missing musicians that want a full band sound. Basic criteria; they need to be newish, well known CCLI top 150 songs that small to medium sized churches want to sing. We then put them in congregational keys with arrangements that average volunteer worship teams can handle without over complex intros, outros and instrumentals. I.e. take out Lincoln’s Freebird solos. Nothing in any way to do with me not being able to play said solos in the first place you understand of course…
But my problem is this; many of our best known worship songs simply aren’t congregationally singable in their original format, and sometime if you change the format the song just doesn’t work at all. For instance out of the ten songs in that batch, only one, Paul Baloche’s ‘Offering’ works in its original key congregationally. The rest were up to two full tones above where they should sit given that a stereotypical untrained male and female vocal range is from low A to high Eb.
Can’t we just change key?
But it’s not simply a matter of changing key. Lots of big songs written in the last few years have a range up to a 15th meaning that in whatever key you place it in, parts are going to be too high or too low for too long, and then people just stop singing!
Recent hymn rewrites can be equally congregationally tricky. In order to get that big climactic lift the newly added chorus jumps up a couple of tones from where most of the hymn is sung. So retaining the original key renders the new chorus unsingable but lowering the key to fit the chorus makes the main body of the hymn too low.
Octave leaps for effect
Another way to get big climactic lift is to jump up and octave in the final chorus and many newer songs use this idea. Again it works brilliantly on record and in huge gatherings but simply isn’t usable in average sized churches. Matt Redman’s ‘Here For You’ is a good example of this. It’s a fabulous song but the original is in C which creates huge congregational difficulties when you hit the octave jump. In practice many churches place it in G and forget the octave jump altogether but that doesn’t make for nearly as an inspiring recording or even backing track. Bizarrely one of the most difficult areas of the backing track production is when we change key, even by a small amount, because changing key changes the voicings and often the feel of the track. So by changing key you can loose some of the dynamic sense of the original; which leaves worship teams in a kind of sonic stalemate. Conversely it’s no mistake that another of his songs, 10,000 Reasons won two Grammy’s. Most of its range spans a 9th and the melody is stepwise enough to be easily singable. That said most congregations still need to bring the key down a minor third to keep it in range.
The roots of the problem
If this resonates with you it’s easy to blame the song writer or artist, but I think the problem is much more complex. Many current popular worship songs are written for larger gatherings and mega churches, and promoted primarily through tours and albums, conferences, festivals and of course, radio. That’s really the only way for songs to be heard widespread and the problem is we require a worship song to be too many things to too many people. On radio it’s got to grab you with an upbeat hook, big lift and be entertaining. On album it’s got to best suit and push the artist’s vocal range, have fresh interesting arrangements and in large gatherings it’s got to be anthemically inspiring. All these things make for fabulous recordings but don’t necessarily translate to ‘off the peg’ usable material for the average sized church.
Should songs primarily be serving the local church?
Now I’m not saying we should get rid of creative arrangements, radio promotion, festivals or anything. Keep it all! But I am saying that if the goal of worship song writing is to truly serve the church at large first, then all involved in the production and promotion of worship songs should take more of an active role in showing the average volunteer worship team how to make their songs more congregationally singable, playable and useable.