The Physical Constraints on Congregational Songs
Congregational singing is a physical activity, this is an inescapable truth which has practical consequences. It impacts the songs you write and choose. It impacts how many songs you sing at a Gathering. It impacts the progression of songs you might sing at a Gathering.
You wouldn't have a mixed-ability, multi-generational exercise class all do the same programme. So you divide them up. In Church, we don't have that option, nor do we want it.
We want, as a Church, for everyone in the congregation to sing when we gather. Of course, there are good reasons why that doesn’t always happen. But we certainly don't want people to have to stop singing because we've simply made them tired or bored. The last thing I want to see from my piano is people starting to sit down and opt out during corporate worship simply because the physical demands of singing aren't a good trade for the quality of the melody.
So here are some thoughts. They don’t cover lyrics, and they’re not intended to be exhaustive.
IF YOU'RE GOING TO SING HIGH (OR LOW), MAKE IT WORTHWHILE.
In general, it’s good to avoid going too high or too low.
But if you must go high (like above D) make it the best bit of the tune, so that people want to hit it. Comments about a tune being 'too high' are, as often as not, really those moments where people, in their pain, have noticed that the tune isn't very good. I've often noted that two songs with a comparable tonal range have been sung, but people only 'notice' how high one of them is. The one they notice as 'too high' is probably just not as good a tune.
So if you go high, make sure it's worth it.
HIGH BRIDGES ARE SCARY
There are some songs which along with an appropriately high chorus also have a high ‘bridge’ section. This can often lead to singing something like this: high chorus, high bridge, high chorus and then (if you’re really unlucky) high chorus final repeat with the instruments dropped out. This is a physically painful experience for most congregations. So be careful of writing or using a bridge which is ‘up there’ with the chorus.
LOW-HIGH CONTRAST AS A SHORTCUT FOR EMOTIONAL INTENSITY
Some songs have bridges (or a verse - chorus) contrast which relies too much on one being at a low register and the other being high. Superficially, this can create contrast and emotional breadth. However there are a couple of problems with it.
Firstly, it’s lazy: a tune that works its way up to the heights using an interesting or arresting chord progression is more beautiful, and better reflects the journey we usually want people to go on lyrically and emotionally. To borrow an analogy used by writers, it’s the difference between telling the congregation how they are to feel, and creating a tune which makes them actually feel it.
Secondly, and more practically, the low/high contrast means that people seldom get to sing in the register which is most physically enjoyable and sustainable. Just as walking down a steep hill is just as exhausting as walking up one, singing at a good volume in the lower registers is almost as demanding as the higher ones. Yet we too often end up hanging out in these physically challenging areas.
A FINAL NOTE:
All of these problems can be reduced by having a bigger, better band with more sophisticated arrangements, technically accomplished lead vocalists and an expensive, skilfully-used PA. But then we can start to get dangerously close to not needing the congregation’s voice at all, which defeats the purpose of being gathered to sing. If the song won’t work in our church, we should review the song before we review the skill of the musicians or the quality of our equipment.