A Scoring System to Determine if a New Song is Congregational-Friendly
How does a worship leader evaluate a piece of sheet music in terms of congregational singability once the lyrics have been approved by the Pastor?
After evaluating music for a number of years, I have come to the conclusion that there are about eight different criteria that need to be considered. Just considering these criteria are usually sufficient to evaluate music. However, some people prefer a more methodical and logical approach. For you mathematicians, a scoring system from 1-9 might work, with one being the easiest and nine being most difficult. A song that does not have any of the below listed trouble spots would be scored a “1” and would be considered very easy for congregational singing. One trouble item would score a “2”, two trouble items a “3”, three trouble items a “4”, etc.
These scores can then (for example) be classified as:
1 – 2 = OK for congregational use without any teaching required
3 – 4 = Must first be sung by a band or choir so that the congregation can hear it before attempting the piece
5 – 6 = Must first be taught and should only be attempted by a congregation that has many gifted singers
7 – 9 = Band or choir only
Personally, I do not take my song evaluations to this quantitative level, but I do keep the following criteria in mind as I select music:
- Watch for the high notes. Almost all people can easily handle a high C. Moderate songs would stretch this range to high E. Most people can reach these as well, provided that those extreme notes are few in number. Anything beyond this pitch is difficult and should be left to soloists. As an aside, higher notes are easier to hit on songs having faster tempos.
- Watch for syncopation. This is especially important for contemporary music because it’s what people like Chris Tomlin thrive on. It’s a hip sound but it’s difficult to do. It’s basically singing on the off beat. You will notice it as lyrics without any notes printed above them, or as lyrics slipped in between musical notes. This is not used often in hymns. Hymns have a regular meter with a lot of quarter notes. This however is not the case for a lot of contemporary music. A little syncopation is OK for corporate singing but it can be troublesome if the song has a lot of syncopation, for example either the verse or the chorus is totally based on syncopation. As an aside, a good band can play a syncopated song and lead the congregation without using the syncopation.
- Watch the tempo. Upbeat sounds that move quickly, like over 130 bpm are difficult for the congregation to get all the words out. They also require a lot of vocal energy.
- Most contemporary songs have different parts like verses, choruses, bridges, CODAs, tag lines, alternate endings, etc. This is confusing to the general membership. Avoid highly convoluted pieces and always include a few instructions in the bulletin to help people know the song flow. For example, print something like this in the bulletin for each song: “Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, End.”
- Watch for songs that require singing over showy musical passages. This is fine for solos but it throws the congregation if sung corporately. I don’t see a lot of this in congregational music but if you try to use something in worship that sounds great on the radio – then this might be an issue.
- Kind of related to item 1 above, you also need to watch songs that have a big vocal range. An octave is an 8 note range (low C to high C). Songs having over say 12 notes in range (referred to as an octave and a forth) are going to be difficult. The Star Spangled Banner, which most people can’t sing has an octave and a fifth range (13 note range). Practically speaking low C to high C are easy, low A to high E are difficult but doable, anything outside this range should be left for the pros.
- ¾ and 4/4 time signatures are easiest. There are a lot of 6/8 signatures in contemporary music. These are a bit more difficult but are usually doable. Similarly, 5/8, 9/8, 12/8 and other compound meters can be difficult.
- Watch for music that has large jumps in pitch from one note to the next.
Here’s a few scoring examples:
- “Amazing Grace” by John Newton would score a “1”.
- “Amazing Grace – My Chains are Gone” by Newton / Chris Tomlin would score a “4” with the difficult items being pitch (item 1), syncopation (item 2), and complex song flow (item 4). This song should therefore first be taught to a congregation and then can be used corporately.
- “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty would score a “2” with the only difficult item being the time signature (item 7 above). This song is congregational friendly as is.
- “Resurrection Hymn (See What a Morning)”, also by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty would score a “4” with the difficult items being pitch (item 1 above), range (item 6 above) and timing (item 7 above). This song is congregational friendly but must first be taught.
- “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher would score a “6” with the difficult items being pitch (item 1), syncopation (item 2), complex song flow (item 4), singing over difficult musical passages (item 5) and range (item 6). This song should therefore be taught to a congregation and then used corporately only if the congregation has several gifted singers that can carry the tune.
And yes, I am an engineer by trade.