As the new year began, three thoughts came to me about the kinds of songs we should be leading in our churches or ministries. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but it might serve as the bare minimum for how we choose our songs.
1. Choose songs people CAN sing.
This should be obvious. But important things often are—obvious and neglected.
In one sense, people can sing just about anything. I’ve been in a concert setting where crowds are belting out high Gs, complicated rhythms and obscure lyrics with unbridled enthusiasm and gusto. Even though it might not sound that pleasant, there’s no question that they’re singing along. But it’s because they’ve listened to it a gazillion times.
In the church (and even at a conference), we shouldn’t assume people have the same songs on their iTunes. Or that everyone even uses iTunes. That’s due both to our individualized musical culture and the multigenerational nature of the church. In the church, we haven’t gathered to use the key that makes the leader sound best, because the entire congregation is singing!
So here are some suggestions for how to know whether songs are “singable.”
—They can usually be picked up after the first or second hearing, primarily due to melodic or rhythmic repetition.
—They typically fall within a range of a low A to a high D. You can get by with higher or lower if the song doesn’t stay there long.
—They don’t have melodies with a lot of unexpected twists or ones that are so bland no one can remember them.
—The leader sings the melody consistently and doesn’t add stylistic variations every other bar.
2. Choose songs people WANT TO sing.
I’ve read thoughts from well-meaning individuals that make it sound like God cares nothing about musical likes and dislikes. That may true in some sense, but not categorically. Singing is meant to be pleasant (Ps. 135:3, 147:1)! Of course, the primary reason it’s pleasant is because we’re meditating on and proclaiming the works, word and worthiness of our great God and Savior. But it can be musically pleasant as well. A great lyric can go unheard for decades, if not centuries, because it’s wedded to a poor melody. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” was around for decades before it started getting traction when it was set to an American tune.
Here are a few thoughts on determining whether people want to sing a song:
—People comment on how much they enjoyed singing it.
—The majority of the congregation is actually singing the song with enthusiasm.
—The melody grows on you rather than sounding old or tired by the end of the song, or after the second week.
—The melody emotionally affects you and the people you lead.
—The rise and fall of the melody correspond with the emotional rise and fall of the lyric. In other words, when you want to belt out some truth about God, you’re in the higher range of your voice.