Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Musical training is vital for individuals tasked with leading congregational singing in church (worship leader, worship pastor, music leader, music pastor, etc.). Their preparation does not entail simply practicing to learn a song, but training in the structure and notation of music as well as how to effectively lead other worshippers. The need for training is evidenced in a recent blog post that offers advice to worship leaders on choosing the right key for congregational singing. The stated goal of the post is to promote congregational participation in singing, a worthy goal indeed. The author first recommends choosing a key that works best for the worship leader's vocal range. He then suggests that the key may need to be transposed depending on whether a male or female leads the singing. If the song needs to be transposed, the author recommends transposing the song up or down a perfect fifth, and illustrates this point with the “Circle of Fifths” diagram. The author concludes that if the worship leader is able to sing passionately, the congregation will be compelled to join in. In the comments section below the post, several worship leaders remarked that this advice was revolutionary to them and vowed to start implementing this approach in their own churches.
Unfortunately, the method the author recommends is at odds with his stated goal of promoting active congregational participation. First, by choosing a key that best fits the worship leader, he or she may make it difficult for the majority of congregants to sing a portion—or most—of the song. It is possible that a few congregants may be able to work out a harmony part that suits their vocal range, but that assumes congregants know how to harmonize. If the worship leader has a vocal range that sits within the vocal range overlap between the various voice types (C4-D5 for sopranos and altos and B2-C4 for tenors and basses, according to the New Harvard Dictionary of Music), then the key the worship leader chooses will likely work well for everyone to sing, as long as the song's melodic range is also within that overlap. But if the worship leader is a high tenor or low alto, the key that he or she finds comfortable could put the melodic line well outside the vocal range overlap, hindering or preventing active participation by many in the congregation.
In addition, transposing a song by a fifth to accommodate a female or male vocalist is not a practical way to determine a good range for the congregation. As an example, the song “Amazing Grace” is typically presented in the key of G (some newer hymnals present it in the key of F). If one transposes the melody down a fifth to C, or up a fifth to D, the result is either a very low or very high melodic line. The “Circle of Fifths” is used in the music classroom as a tool to understand modulation, and to identify closely related key areas. It is not a useful tool for identifying keys for transposition. A more effective approach to identifying whether or not a song should be transposed is to look at the melodic line to determine if a portion of the melody lies outside the vocal range overlap mentioned above. If so, the song should be transposed up or down to bring the melodic line within or as close to that overlap as possible.
When presenting a song for communal singing, music leadership entails more than just singing passionately and sounding good. It requires knowing musical structure and notation in order to effectively present the music to the congregation in a way that facilitates their active participation. This knowledge comes through adequate musical training.