Music for Everyone: Choosing Worship Songs Part 1

It happens to me pretty frequently.  Someone contacts me either in person or by e-mail to tell me about this amazing worship song that would be perfect for our church service.  Usually it’s something they heard on the radio or at a concert.

This is a behavior I strongly encourage.  Seriously, I appreciate it when people give me song suggestions because as connected as I try to be to new worship music, there are times that I miss out on songs that would be great for our congregation.  However, whenever people recommend a new song I always give them the same caveat:

“I’ll definitely check it out, but I have to warn you that we still might not use it.  It has to meet the criteria I’ve set for new songs.”

In my post earlier this week I made the case for being selective about what worship songs are included in a church’s repertoire.  I believe every worship leader should have a set of criteria that they use to help determine which songs will be most effective in their context.  There are 4 aspects of a song I use to determine if it will work for us.  I’ll unpack each of these over the next week.

On a small side-note I don’t think it’s important that everyone uses the same criteria that I do, but rather that each worship ministry finds the ones that work for them.

The first criteria I use when choosing new songs is accessibility.

singing-18382_1280Accessibility refers to how easy it is for people, especially non-musicians, to learn and sing a particular song.  As I wrote in my last post, one of the common themes about corporate worship in scripture is that it is exactly that; corporate.  It is meant to be participatory and inclusive of as many people as possible.  The congregation isn’t meant to be spectators, but rather they’re the core of the worship team with God as the audience.

How do I figure out if a song is accessible? Primarily I analyze four specific musical elements.

Range: For those with a limited musical background range simply refers to the distance between the lowest note and the highest note of the melody.  In general if a song’s range is much larger than one octave (the distance of one major scale) the song will either be too low or too high for most people to sing.  The average person with no vocal training can sing between a middle C4 and a C5 on the piano (with men an octave below).  Any song that isn’t in that range, or can’t be moved in that range, is not accessible for people to sing. (There is a little flexibility but the C4-C5 standard is a good benchmark)

Tessitura: This is a fancy word that simply means where the notes sit in the range of the melody.  If most of the notes sit in the very top or very bottom of the range of the song it becomes difficult for people to sing well without pain or discomfort.

Part_of_sheet_music_from_arbanMelodic Simplicity: A simple melody is one where the notes move stepwise or in small intervals that are easy for untrained singers to follow.  Songs with too many strange leaps (mostly larger than a perfect 4th) can be difficult both mentally and physically for the average person to sing.

Rhythmic Simplicity: Rhythms that are straight are easier to sing than syncopated rhythms.  Or another way to think about it is that rhythms that are easily divided (half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes) are easier to sing than ones that are harder to divide (dotted eighth notes, sixteenth notes, triplets).

The thing to remember about these four elements is that they work together and can compensate for one another.  So a song with a high tessitura isn’t necessarily a problem if the range is smaller.  Likewise a song that uses a lot of syncopated rhythms can still work well if the melody is simple.  At the end of the day the question needs to be, “Can my congregation learn and sing this song easily enough for them to engage with God?”

Unfortunately not everyone views accessibility as a priority in worship. Sometimes I’ll attend a church service where very sincere, faithful worship leaders are doing their best to lead worship, yet the songs are either so complicated or unpredictable or high that the congregation can barely keep up.  This has been especially true in the last few years as more and more songs are using musical elements like octave leaps and complicated rhythms to create a dramatic effect.  They sound great on the radio but are impossible for the average person to sing.

I’m not calling into question the motives or hearts of those writing the songs or leading the music, as I’m sure they all mean well.  But I do believe that in order for worship gatherings to give God the glory he deserves, it takes the voices and presence of each member of the congregation.  Worship music is music for all to the glory of God.


About Stephen Wilburn

I am a worship director at a suburban Philadelphia church and currently a doctoral student at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA
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