Singability for Music – Elements of Worship Series (Part 5)

Congregational singing must be accessible and participatory.  We should make efforts to be sure that all within the group worship experience are encouraged to sing, as well as not DIScouraged from singing.  The discouragement experienced by attendees is becoming more and more a problem in public worship because we have not thought carefully about the songs chosen and their singability.  I have attended services in which more than half of the congregation does not participate.  They stand, they wait for the songs to be finished, and they sit back down – but they do not sing!

In last week’s post on music I noted a number of important ideas regarding the selection and planning of music for the worship service.  As I planned some worship sessions this week, I realized this to be another vital point must be made regarding music intended for congregational (or large group) singing.

What can be done to encourage singing and participation?  Let me suggest that introducing new songs is NOT the problem, unless too many new songs are introduced too quickly.  There must be a balance of familiar and new.  What IS the problem?  Primarily singability, by which I mean the ability of a large group to actually sing the song together.  There are a number of important aspects of this we must remember.

First, many modern songs are boring because the vocal range is limited.  If you sing several songs with limited range in a service, the result is boredom – plain and simple.  A melody line that only spans five or six notes up and down a scale is too limited to remain interesting, even for those who know little about music theory.  The range of songs should be more diverse.  (Granted, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” doesn’t go much beyond this limited range, however, there are no Beethoven’s writing worship choruses today!)

Second, some modern songs have ranges that are too broad, as do some older hymns.  When you ask untrained vocalists (the congregation) to sing in a range more than an octave, or just beyond that, it’s more than most can produce.  This will discourage many from continuing, as the song goes beyond their ability to sing the whole melody.  I have heard this lately in a number of songs that start in a lower vocal range, while the song continues to climb higher and higher, until it goes as much as one and a half octaves beyond the lowest note.  Sometimes the original artist sings part of the song an octave higher to add emotion or feeling, and worship leaders and congregations think they must do the same – although it breaks down in translation.  These kinds of songs are fine for a solo artist, but do not fit in the repertoire of congregational song.

Third, we must also be careful that the melody is not too high or too low.  This is a bit different than my second point, though they are connected.  It does not seem to me that a good melody remains singable for most people going below a “C” or above an “E” (just over an octave up).  If we are seeking to encourage signing and participation, then remaining between these notes (an octave plus a third) is one of the best ways to do so.  That means using the readily available options to change the keys of songs to stay within that range.

Finally is the issue of rhythms that are too complicated.  This may be even more difficult for people than melodies that are too high or low.  The evidence that this is a problem is to note that many songs with syncopated rhythms in their original form have been altered for congregational singing.  Interestingly enough, often the music shows a different rhythm than what the worship leader or group actually sings.  When this is the case, I wonder why we don’t write the originals in a more accessible rhythm.

These four ideas are a good starting point for encouraging the fullest participation in the congregation.  As worship leaders and planners, that is your responsibility.  Be sure to plan accordingly.


For more of Mark’s writing, see his book list at


Posted on February 9, 2015, in Christian Worldview, Content of Worship, Corporate Worship, Leadership, theology, Worship Leader and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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