What to do when a Worship Song Requires too Wide a Vocal Range

Bono of the world-famous band U2 has not been very nice to worship leaders.

Not intentionally of course. But one of his trademarks is to start a song in a middle range then sing the same melody an entire octave higher.

Which is great if you’re Bono. The problem comes when worship leaders and worship songwriters attempt the same thing.

Back in 1987 U2 released Joshua Tree. The album became an icon. It has since influenced not only rock music but worship music too.

Think I’m making it up? Check out this tweet from David Crowder.

Wow not that subtle, right?

If you’re not sure what the octave-jumping technique sounds like,  watch this video. I’ve cued it up to the right spot.

Here’s the same musical device in Hillsong’s “Cornerstone”. I’ve cued it to start right at the vocal jump.

While writing a song in a large vocal range is fine musically, it’s murder on worship leaders. The sad truth is that 99% of worship leaders and congregants can’t sing like these vocal phenoms.

Over the past  five years I’ve seen more and more songs that incorporate the octave-jumping technique. They are typically written by high-profile worship leaders with massive vocal ranges.

I’m not talking about songs that are simply written and recorded in a high key. That’s easily navigated by transposing the song to a lower key.

I’m speaking of songs that employ a wide vocal range and are difficult in any key.

The following are just a few examples.

  • “I Am” – David Crowder
  • “Always” – Kristian Stanfill
  • “We Believe” – Newsboys
  • “This is Amazing Grace” – Jeremy Riddle
  • “Here’s My Heart” – David Crowder

Don’t get me wrong. I love listening to these songs. They are artistic masterpieces.

But news flash – these songs are not singable for worship leaders, let alone for congregations.

Keep reading for solutions for these kinds of songs.

But I Really Like the Song…

As a worship leader I’m really tempted to use these songs for corporate worship. But I can only eek them out vocally. The first part of the song is too low. By the end I’m singing too high.

The congregation tries to follow along but isn’t comfortable in either range. The song might become a spectator event rather than worship – and would completely miss the point.

Ways to deal with Songs that Jump an Octave

Here are some practical ways to deal with songs that are written in too wide a vocal range.

Tip 1: Raise the low part or drop the high part

Take the low range of the song and raise it up an octave. In other words, start and end the song in the same octave.

Then transpose the song to a mid-range key. (According to Worship Together, you should keep the lowest note of any song above a Bb and the highest note below an Eb.)  Basically put the song in a narrower range that the average person to sing.

For instance, verse one and chorus one are low. Then verse two, chorus two and the rest of the song are an octave higher. Simply sing V1 and C1 at the higher octave and lower the key of the song.

Tip 2: Co-lead the song with another vocalist

Men and women sing in different vocal ranges. It’s possible for a woman to start the song in one octave and a man to take the lead vocal at another octave or vice versa.

This technique doesn’t solve all the problems – the congregation will still find it difficult to sing the whole song. But at least the women and men are more likely to be able to sing with the worship leader of the same gender.

Tip 3: Don’t do the song

There’s a great thing called choice when you’re a worship leader. As the director of the song service you can simply rule out certain songs as options for your church.

It’s very tempting to try a song that other churches are doing – or one that everyone knows or hears on the radio. Part of leadership is guiding your church toward true worship instead of doing what’s popular.

Tip 4: Create a medley

You could simply snip the verse or chorus out of the song you like and do a mash-up with another song. Only sing the part of the song you feel comfortable with.

For instance, you could take the chorus from Crowder’s “I Am” and put it at the end of another song that talks about perseverance in the faith.

You cut out the big vocal jump but still get to use the essence of the song. It’s a win-win.

Tip 5: Don’t do this

Did you know it’s against copyright laws to change the tune, words or other major elements of the song?

So it’s not an option to write your own lower melody for a verse, chorus or bridge because the original one is too high.

If this is your only realistic option to do the song, refer to tip 3.

Plenty of Worship Songs in a Narrower Vocal Range

The style of writing songs in too wide a vocal range could be a passing one. I think worship songwriters will soon realize that us mere mortals can’t sing their songs.

We are their market. If we’re not buying – so to speak – they will start writing more reasonable melodies.

In the meantime, the majority of songs being written are totally singable. Choose ones that both you and your congregation can sing and everybody wins.

Featured image by Joseph Young.

7 thoughts on “What to do when a Worship Song Requires too Wide a Vocal Range”

  1. I am so happy to have come across this. Pet peeve validated. I came here after googling “Jeremy Riddle vocal range” while ranting and raving internally that it is not reasonable to expect anyone BUT HIM to sing all the notes in “All Hail King Jesus” correctly. It starts in the middle of one octave (“So/Sol”) and right there in the first verse, it goes down to the “La” below that, but by the bridge, we are up to the “So/Sol” that is an octave higher than the one on which it started! I’ve been annoyed for some time because where I worship, I am often left with only one of three options: (1) screech; (2) growl; or (3) spectate.

    1. Glad it helped. Yes, as people who actually put time into singing ability, if we can’t hit those notes, there’s no way the congregation is going to. Hopefully the tips in this post helped find a solution. Sometimes there are songs I’d like to do but I have to either pass on them or figure out a workaround!

  2. Margaret Ebenal

    Can you post a list of good worship songs that only use one octave, or may be two lists – one for female voices, and one for male voices? They are hard to find! I would really appreciate it!

  3. I started really thinking this past week about how the singing range in worship music has evolved. For centuries of hymn-writing, the standard range was an octave, plus or minus one note. Then in the 80’s-90’s a commonly used device of songwriters was to stretch the range to an octave and a 3rd, or even an octave and a 5th (same range as the Star Spangled Banner, and a challenge for a majority of congregational singers). Now it’s all about the two-octave range, a trend which has spread from the songwriters into congregational worship. Very few male worship leaders, and far fewer females, can do vocal justice to this range, and the average churchgoer is left to figure out which notes they can hit without straining.
    This is reminiscent of Olympic ice-skating — a few decades ago the first triple axel was performed, to the amazement of all. Soon it became standard, and skaters with only a double were no longer competitive. Now the triple is just ho-hum, and those who don’t have quads in their repertoire will lose to those who do. Is this the same attitude that has fostered the “octave jump” which is so pervasive in today’s worship songs? The Olympics are supposed to be about doing whatever you have to do to win a competition–it’s sad to see something as sacred as worshiping the Lord in song reduced to a competition to see who can croak out the lowest notes in order to scream out the highest notes in one song. The biggest loser in this effort to create commercial-hit worship songs is the congregation, who often feel excluded from participation in these too-high/too-low vocal ranges. It’s time for the songwriters to read (and take to heart) Psalm 115:1 — “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto your name give glory” – and to realize that the octave jump is not a “required element” for making a song resonate with its audience.

  4. I googled this up because we did “Cornerstone” Sunday, and it was a bit of a fail with the low start and octave jump. I think in the past I have transposed this song to control the melody, since I really like the re-mixed hymn thing and thematically the song was right. I say key up the beginning on these and then don’t leap up. Even if you have to take time to arrange the song for accessibility. One of my goals is to increase congregational participation. With that in mind, we need to steer clear of inaccessible arrangements. Lesson learned.

    1. Joe,
      Yes, Cornerstone is a tough one because of the octave jump. I actually stopped doing it because it was too tough vocally, so I know the congregation was struggling with it. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Pingback: Don’t Make The Jump | Worship Links

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