Picking The Key Of A Song

For A Singer And For A Guitar Player


    I wrote this document to help those who are new to leading a worship team or choir pick the key in which they wan to sing a song.

The Congregation

    The congregation plays a major role in what key you put the song in.  You do not want the song to be too high for them.  Listen to them some time when you are leading worship or participating in worship: do they seem to start singing an octave below you?  Then the song is probably too high.


      If you have studied hymns or sang them for a length of time you have noticed that the melody line of a hymn is in the soprano, and that the soprano doesn't often go above a high E (basically, never touches the top line of the Soprano clef).  More often than not, it is limited to a D.  This, and the fact that the tenor line rarely goes above a D either points out that the writers of hymns were very intelligent in how they wrote the four parts.  I have had years of good experience placing the melody line so that the highest note is limited to a D above middle C (since I am a tenor).  You'll note that most of Paul Baloche's songs also limit themselves to this note, approximately.  He had made a statement once to the effect that he was writing not for himself but for the congregation, in terms of how high the melody line was written.  I usually try to aim for "highest note is a D" also, and I've had good experience with it.


    This is an Italian term used in music to tell where the notes within a song lie.  This is important because where the majority of the notes are determines how the song feels, which may play a role in the key you want to sing the song in.  If the highest note is a D, which is on the edge of your range, but the D gets repeated quite often, you may want to drop it down so that the highest note is a C, etc.

Lowest Note

    Some more modern songs have quite a range.  You may run into songs that, if you arrange the key so that D is the highest note, you find that the song is now too low to sing comfortably.  Congregational songs don't do this often because it's not often that the average person has a large range, but some might.  in this case, move the song so that you are comfortable with the lowest note, and that it actually comes out clear and not muddy.
a bit of help though with your keys.
    First, you want to try to pick something that has a lot of open chords.  Open chords are distinguished from bar chords by the lack of necessity to place the left index finer entirely across all six strings and press them down.  After a while, playing bar chords a lot causes hand fatigue and possibly hand cramps.  Here is a list of open chords for guitar:  Am, Dm, Em, A, B (only B7), C, D, E, G.  Most of those (with the exception of B) include common "deviations" like (for example) 2, sus4 (suspended: 4th), 7 (minor 7 is usually written "7" and major 7 "maj7"), etc.
    Now if your acoustic guitar player has a capo, they can usually play fine in whatever key you need them to.  But you ought to provide them a copy of the song in a guitar friendly key, with a note "CAPO II" or whatever so they know where to place their capo.
    Depending on your electric guitar player, you may need to provide them with more than just chords, especially if they have a complex part to play in the song.
    Some of this may come across as a rant but as a "lead electric guitar player" in worship bands for a long time, there are things I have learned along the way that I want to make clear, especially considering that most of this I had to learn the hard way because there wasn't really anyone to tell me some of it, or that I wasn't paying attention if they did.
    Most keys will be fine on electric gutiar, especially if they are playing so-called Power Chords.  Power Chords do not require a capo, and most decent electric guitar players should at least be able to play power chords in any key (this is one of the most basic requirements before one can be considered a good rhythm guitar player).
    Some songs are not as simple as they appear at first glance.  Some songs, such as "I Will Boast" by Paul Baloche and "My Savior Lives" by New Life Worship / Desperation Band, are built around a ringing open string (D and B, respectively).  Changing the key (D and B respectfully) of the song is not going to work unless you either want to accept the lead guitar parts sounding a bit different then they do on the original recordings, and/or unless you do not mind the leads not being present.  Or, one could detune/retune their guitar to fit the new key, but this can cause other problems.
    Another consideration is originality: do you want the songs played the way they were recorded or do you want to give your guitarist(s) free reign to try new ideas?  Some guitarists can come up with new good ideas and the Spirit of God can bring those ideas to them.  Some cannot.  Not all guitarists are created the same.
    I would recommend against playing what I call "rambling" leads (or "doodling").  An electric guitar player in a worship setting is not to assert himself during congregational singing.  If there is a break in that for a solo section, or he is playing a cooperative lead that is written to do this (such as "Glorious God" by New Life Worship / Desperation Band), this is fine.  However, all musicians in the church exist primarily to support the singers and the words.  Do not let the word "support" or "submit" sound negative: Jesus Himself said that He submitted to God the Father in all things.  The words carry the message.  A lead guitarist in a worship environment does not exist to show of their talents (although talent and skill are good things).  If your lead guitar player cannot do anything but play leads constantly, they need to seriously re-evaluate their role on the worship team and may need to look elsewhere.  A worship guitarist must be able to give up their pride and individuality if necessary to support congregational worship.  "The focus is not me but God."  I have been around guitarists like this before.  Pride and self-seeking can destroy a worship team, no matter who it is coming from, guitarist or singer.
    One also needs to keep in mind: what is the goal?  Congregational worship is not Church Guitar Hero or Christian Karaoke.  We have entered into the presence of God to seek His will, His face, and to bring to Him an offering worthy of acceptance: ourselves.  I have been in churches where there was no electric guitar player at all but worship was definitely in full force.  Comments like "that guitar player knows how to bring the presence of God" or "that singer knows how to bring the presence of God" are pagan and foreign to the God of the Bible.  Our God is not conjured by spells or summoned by the rubbing of His lamp.  God is everywhere: He doesn't show up on Sunday.  He is everywhere at all times.  It is rather that we sense Him or don't, and if we do not sense him the problem is always within us, especially in light of the many scriptures which show us that God seeks us.

John 4:23 "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.

God deserves nothing but the best, and He wants the only thing we alone can give Him: ourselves.  He is seeking us: if we do not feel His presence then we are not seeking Him or we are relying on human emotions which are unreliable.
    These concepts combine to produce a guitar player that is 100% different from Guitar Heros in pop music.  The guitar hero in pop music is all about their image.  The worship guitarist cares only that he reflects the image of God to those in need of Him.  The guitar hero in pop music practices long hours.  The worship guitarist prays long hours (although practice is good and should be emphasized).  The guitar hero can amaze you with his notes per minute.  The worship guitarist cuts to your heart because the Holy Spirit speaks through him.  The guitar hero has a clothing line, a signature guitar, etc.  The worship guitarist may never be known by name, but impacts hearts and lives more positively than anyone in Rock music.  The guitar hero does it for the chicks.  The worship guitarist does it for the Lord.  The guitar hero spends his time worshiping music and art.  The worship guitarist spends his time worshiping God.   Church music is the last place one goes to become rich.  Church music exists to impact hearts and lives.
    Anyways, your lead electric guitar may only be distinguished at times from your rhythm guitarist(s) by the octave he is playing in.  But that doesn't matter.  Hillsong's guitarists seem to do this a lot and it works out great.  Church music is more of a cooperation than a performance.
    Some people ask how many guitarists are enough in a church music group.  I say it depends on how they are used.  Hillsong seems to be able to have five or six (this remark is intended to be funny) but not all are prominently featured nor does that matter.  One important consideration is actually the sonic landscape: you can't have a lot of instruments playing in the same range and be able to hear them all, especially if they are routed a cooperative effort: if the keyboard is playing around middle C or so, try to avoid that octave.  Rhythm guitar should be fine (since it functions both as a percussion instrument and as a musical instrument) especially if playing open chords or power chords.  The lead guitarist should probably not play power chords with the rhythm guitarist at the same time because if may become difficult to tell the two apart (unless they don't mind).  Being able to play up the fretboard, a few octaves above the rhythm guitarist, and one octave above the keyboard, will probably work good (this is basically the "Hillsong" trademark "wall of sound" effect).  Harmonies are actually good at this point.
    Another example is the "interlocking" guitar parts of Follow The Son by Hillsong.  This song is written around the rhythm and lead guitar's parts and how they fit together.  Not all songs can do this unless written this way.
    Having more than one guitarist is a blessing in a church.  One can have them alternate and so only task each with half the load.  This also helps in case one of them goes on vacation: the other can pick up the slack.

The Bass

    Usually the bass player can play in any key you want them to if their focus is only one note at a time.
    I would recommend that the bass player learn to read music, however.  This is especially for hymns: playing the vocal bass line on a hymn supports the congregation and also, to be quite honest, sounds so much better than guessing based on the chords.  Consider that hymns are written so that they can be done acapella: they wrote the bass intentionally that way, and it makes very good sense to follow it.  The main problems I see in any worship teams playing hymns is usually either trying to simply play the hymn but faster (which almost always sounds strange) and/or trying to simplify chords in the hymn (which then tends to clash with anyone who is singing the traditional vocal harmony parts in the hymn, much less it makes the hymn sound different).  I would recommend playing hymns strictly as written or a total rewrite.  Some bands have had success with a complete rewrite ("New Doxology" and "Come Thou Fount, Come Thou King" by Lakeview are, I think, good examples).  But I do not think any worship team should be scared nor should they feel reluctant to play the hymn as written ("old school").  Just because you are wearing an electric guitar doesn't mean you can only play Rock music.
    I see the encouragement in Psalms to "Sing to the Lord a new song" not to imply that we ought to only sing new songs, but more as an encouragement to let God write songs through you.  Truly we could sing a million songs (half old and half brand new) to God and still not have written enough songs to contain all of the wonders of God's love and grace.