January 5, 2015

Singability Helps People Sing on Sunday (Part 6)

I read an article the other day about the rise of the “dones,” a generation of people who are, quite simply, “done” with gathered church. Which is a huge shame, but it’s entirely understandable. So many churches have lost the vision of what it means to BE the church gathered and sent. White, black, urban, suburban, rural, mainline, evangelical … it doesn’t seem to matter the ethnic or socioeconomic or denominational makeup of that church; many have lost the point of why we gather in the first place, and are paying for it as people give up on gathered communities entirely and simply leave.

Last time we talked about doing what we do on purpose, and that nearly everything else we’ll discuss follows from this premise. If you don’t know WHY you’re doing what you’re doing or can’t communicate the reasons for why you do what you do, you can’t expect those who follow you to buy into what you’re doing, even if you’re doing it with some semblance of excellence. Without vision (which is another, slightly ‘buzz-wordier’ way of saying “doing what we do with purpose”), your project (church / business / whatever) will die. It might die very, very slowly, but it will still die all the same.

Singing is clearly not the only thing we do when we gather, of course, but it’s a part of the MEANS of the main thing, and so it’s very important that we get it right (obviously that’s the reason I’m even writing this series in the first place). One of the biggest reasons for singing as a gathered body is participation; as I’ve said before, worship leaders are not here to sing FOR people, we’re here to help people sing WITH us. Which means the music we choose must be singable. But … what does that actually mean?


This one is a point of contention among many worship leaders. There’s a lot of music out there, which means there’s the potential for a lot of good music and a lot of bad music. Some music is really good for singing as a congregation - good theology, yes (which, as we’ve discussed, has nothing to do with whether people sing it or not), but also interesting (but not overly difficult) melody lines and rhythms, clever chord progressions and harmonies, poetry that challenges the congregation (but can still be understood), careful use of dynamics, and a compatibility between lyrics and melody, timbre, mode, and tempo. Worship leaders who choose music simply because it’s on the top 50 on whichever radio station they prefer are not only missing a TON of good (sometimes better) music found elsewhere, but also choose too much music that’s simply not meant for an entire congregation to sing.

One oft overlooked detail on singability is the relationship between the song itself and the worship team’s ability to actually sing it. A congregation can generally sing more difficult music if the worship team is able to lead it effectively. Since the worship team is tasked with helping the congregation engage, it’s important that the team itself is able to sing and play the music. Don’t pick music you can’t play or sing if you want people to sing with you. 

A caveat here, mostly for those in “modern/contemporary” cultural settings. I’m often told that it’s important to find a key in which the whole congregation can sing each song, but here’s the thing: I’ve yet to find this magical key. A congregation is usually made of at least four different voice type, but when you pick a key for a song, you automatically eliminate at least two of those voice types. No matter what you do, you won’t find a key in which everyone will sing comfortably. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t key your songs carefully, but instead of the worship leader struggling to find the elusive perfect key, it would be better to have multiple leaders who can lead songs for several different voice types throughout the worship set. This is about keeping a bigger picture when planning music for our gatherings; the music is part of a story that spans the entire service, and sometimes an entire series. If you think big-picture, your storyline isn’t just the arc of one song; it’s multiple songs and liturgical elements, from prelude/live-intro to benediction. You can pick a key for each song that targets different voice types, and as a bonus, spread out the leadership so no one person is “spot-lit.” Feature men, women, even (maybe especially) teenagers and children of different voice types - you'll show the whole family of God partnering together in leadership and in participation.

This won’t work in every church (not every worship team has all four voice types represented, let alone people who can lead from that voice type), but it’s something toward which to strive. No matter what your teams look like, when leaders lead with confidence, a congregation is more likely to try to sing along, even if it’s not an ideal key for their voice. Clear evidence of this is any concert you’ve ever attended: the audience is just as a congregation, and many of them who know the music will sing along … despite the fact that the band never consulted the audience as to their preferred keys.

Which points us to another part of singability: the congregation has to know the song. By no means does this mean we should never introduce anything new (the scriptures themselves argue the contrary) but it does mean we have to be careful to teach the song to our brothers and sisters if we expect them to join us. Different communities will take different amounts of time to learn new music, so don’t be discouraged if, on the first week you choose to lead a new song, your congregation doesn’t join you. Some singers will learn it very quickly, but most will require some repetition. My personal guideline is to repeat the song for 2-3 weeks to get it in peoples’ heads, and so if I want them to know a new song for a specific service, I’ll try to introduce it a few weeks earlier so that they don’t have to think as hard about the melody. However, I’ve been in churches where it took longer, and I’ve been in churches where it took one week. Every congregation is different.

Lastly, consistency is extremely important for singability. Don’t do the same song five weeks in a row in five different ways; sing it the same way each time if you expect the congregation to sing with you. This doesn’t mean you have to do it the exact same way as the artists who wrote it do (within proper CCLI restrictions, of course), but it does mean that your version should be melodically consistent. If people constantly wonder what note is next, they’ll eventually stop singing and start listening, which in this case, is a problem. Chris Tomlin, for example, is not just a good worship leader because he writes a lot of good music; he is a good worship leader because when he leads, his voice is precise, predictable, and consistent. Every note he sings is easy to hear - you’re never left wondering what note he’s on or what he is going to sing next, because he sings it the same way every time. He is such a big part of the modern worship arts culture because he has written a lot of extremely singable music, and can do it well. This is not to say that we, as leaders, can’t take certain liberties with the music - ad libbing or improvisation - since "predictable" varies from culture to culture. It is to say that a worship leader’s first purpose is to lead the people in song, and leading the people means setting a followable example.

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