The conundrum of keys, capos and congregational singing

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Most of the songs we now use to gather Christ’s body together in praise and worship are not written for that specific purpose – for singing together. Rather, they are written to be performed and recorded (for God’s glory), while satisfying the vocal range of an experienced soloist, who most often has a fairly high male (tenor) voice. The melodies are therefore shaped and situated in a vocal range that few of us can manage. Sure, we can sing along with the best of them on our iPods, but unconsciously we do a lot of octave jumping, or harmonising, so that we can sing along. This doesn’t work too well when the congregation is singing together.

Choosing the right key is quite tricky. The default or original key on SongSelect rarely works well. It can end up with a really high melody section in the chorus that no one can sing (bar the tenors) or else the whole thing is too low when you jump down an octave. This low singing equates to really quiet singing, and when we can’t hear each other we are discouraged from singing at all.

You also have to consider the musicians: is this great key the guitarists are happy to play in one which will induce a mild psychosis in the keyboard player, as they scamper around playing on only the black notes?

Here are just four rules of thumb that I find work well when selecting singable and playable keys for church singing (on SongSelect (CCLI) or a similar website).

1. Keep the vocal range between A (below middle C) and D (8 notes above middle C). Remember that D signals Distress for many people, so ensure the transposed melody only has a few passing notes of the high D (and the low A as well, for that matter). If the song ends up with a low G as the anacrusis note in the melody of the verse then teach it as a B instead (it should fit the chord, and won’t really be noticed).

2. Try to maintain the original shape and development of the song, starting with low verse notes and moving to higher chorus notes. If you sabotage the ‘chorus lift’ by a poorly chosen key, or by forcing people to jump down an octave, it can all fall seriously flat.

3. Don’t choose keys that have too many sharps or flats. Stick to maximum of four sharps (E major) and max 3 flats (Eb major). There are a few major keys that work well for both guitar and keys: C, D, E, G and A major. Keyboard players generally don’t mind keys with flats (one flat F major, two flats Bb major), but these will probably make your guitarists unhappy. This leads to my next point.

4. Understand Capos and get your guitarists to understand and use them. The keyboard and the guitarists can play in different keys quite effectively. A guitar capo effectively shortens the guitar strings and produces a higher sound. This enables the guitarists to play in comfortable keys (mostly ones with sharps) while the pianist can play in a key with flats that may mean a better vocal range for the congregation.

For example, if I want to use Matt Redman’s Ten Thousand Reasons in a flat key (Eb major, with three flats), then the guitarists can play in D (with their music in key of D) and capo on the first fret. (Each fret raises the guitar’s pitch by a semitone. So, the guitarists playing in D major want it to sound Eb major. Placing the capo on fret one moves the sound up by a semitone. Success! It sounds in Eb major but they don’t have to play in a key with flats.)

Another example would be Trevor Hodge’s No Other Name (Listen below!) in Bb, which has two flats. The guitarists can play in G major, but sound Bb by placing the capo on fret 3. There are 3 semitone steps to get from G to Bb (go check a keyboard) which is why the guitar must use capo three.

Remember that the guitarist needs to be playing in a key slightly lower than the keyboard player, so that the capo will bring their sound up to pitch, and they will only need to use capo 1, 2 or 3.

Next time: let’s look at a case study and decide what to do with Tomlin’s ‘Jesus, Son of God’ which has a huge vocal range! I’m still working on this one myself.

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The blessing of songs from across the sea!

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12 Apostles – Great Ocean Road Victoria Australia

Thanks to Tim Challies for a recent post on his blog entitled “Songs we sing that you probably don’t”. His aim was to share some lesser known songs that have greatly blessed his church. This got me thinking, since most followers of SevenNotes are not from Australia (and I am) there are probably many songs that have become popular here that you are missing out on! What follows is my attempt to cover the best offerings for congregational singing which we have enjoyed from Australian songwriters in the last decade or so. Most of the lead sheets will be available through Song Select (CCLI) and part or full recordings of the songs are on the net. In fact, I have compiled a playlist on Spotify called Church Songs Australia where you can find them all! I will start with most recent and work backwards (and if I have already shared something on one of them, I’ll send you to that post to explore). Clicking on song titles below will take you to an mp3 and sheet music (most of the time). (NOTE: I’ve just discovered EMU’s homepage is down at the moment so some of the links may not work! Sorry – should be fixed soon.)

OVERFLOWED, NO OTHER NAME, SEE THE MAN (all 3 by Trevor Hodgehttp://www.trevorhodgemusic.com/

MY SAVIOUR’S CROSS (Rob Smith 2013)

GRACE HAS NOW APPEARED (Rob Smith 2012)

THIS LIFE I LIVE (Michael Morrow)

UNDIVIDED (Rob Smith)

STRONGER (Reuben Morgan)

HOLDING ON TO ME (Garage Hymnal)

COME HEAR THE ANGELS SING & WE BELONG TO THE DAY (Michael Morrow)

NEVER ALONE (Phillip Percival and Simone Richardson)

HALLELUJAH TO THE KING OF KINGS (Marl Peterson)

SEE HIM COMING (Mark Peterson)

WE ARE HIS PEOPLE (Phillip Percival)

HIGHEST PLACE (Mark Peterson)

MAY THE MIND OF CHRIST MY SAVIOUR (Words: Katie Barclay Wilkinson 1859-1928. Music: © 1997 Mark Peterson)

Praying through the songs 500+ women will sing tomorrow

grow2013_bannerI’m spending some time reflecting on the 9 songs (titles in bold) I’ll be leading tomorrow at the GROW Women’s Conference at Brisbane’s Convention and Exhibition Centre. The cool thing is that as these women sing, they are also declaring God’s greatness to each other, and praying publicly to Him! I’ve just woven the nine titles into a prayer. May it also be your prayer today:

Dear Loving Heavenly Father
Blessed be Your Name! There is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved. We have more than 10 000 Reasons to praise you for the blessings you have given us in Christ, the blessings that reveal your faithfulness to us, your trustworthy character, and the fact that you keep your promises. We See the Man, Jesus, the man you sent to reverse the curse we brought on ourselves by our disobedience to you. He is the man who destroys death and now reigns, the righteous one who died for the unrighteous, that we might know You. Jesus is all we need in this changing and uncertain world, because he is the unchanging promised Saviour. Help us to realise that all we need is Christ. Indeed, All I have is Christ! We cannot keep any of the glory this world offers. neither do we need it! Thankyou for this confidence! Whatever our circumstances you have taught us to say It is Well, It is well with my soul. We have this peace like a river, peace that we have come to know if we are in Christ. He is an anchor for our souls and we can say “it is well”, the victory is won. I will rise on eagle’s wings because Jesus has overcome the sin that kept us dead to you. Oh the Deep Deep love of Jesus which is vast, unmeasured, boundless and free! It is an ocean full of blessing in the midst of every test. You will bring us home to glory. Great is Thy Faithfulness – in fact, nothing can reach the end of your faithfulness. If all the plans I make go wrong your love stays the same. You light will guide me through every shadow, every storm. I will hold on to you because you are My Hope, a hope built on your great love and righteousness. Keep me walking in your way, keep me trusting your heart and trusting your name.

Amen.