Format: Sound Plus Doctrine PodcastDownload Session
What are some guidelines for choosing songs that will serve your church? And what should a church member do when their leader is choosing songs they don’t think are that helpful? We’ll talk about these questions and more in this episode, What Kind of Songs Should the Church Sing?
Referenced in this episode:
“What Kind of Songs Should You Lead in 2014?” – Worship Matters Blog
David Zimmer: Hello, welcome to the Sound Plus Doctrine Podcast. I’m David Zimmer.
Bob Kauflin: And I’m Bob Kauflin.
DZ: And it is so wonderful to be together.
BK: It is.
DZ: But in our last episode, we were talking about instrumentalists growing, opportunities for them to grow. And I… You have been in ministry longer than I have, but there have been so many…
BK: I’ve been in ministry longer than you’ve been alive.
BK: But who’s counting?
DZ: True. Well, there have been so many conferences that you have hosted. WorshipGod conferences that are equipping worship leaders in…
BK: Trying to. That’s our goal.
DZ: Trying to equip worship leaders in how to grow. And so, like you said, this is an exhaust… This is like, you can’t exhaust this topic as you’ve done conference, after conference, after conference. But I just wanted to think practical ways that worship leaders could grow. Can you talk about song choice, keys?
BK: Oh, okay.
DZ: Yeah. So picking musicians in your band, we talked a little bit at the last podcast, but yeah. How could we… How could we grow as worship leaders? Where do we start?
BK: Oh, well, I’m assuming we’re… I’m assuming a lot about a person’s heart. ‘Cause that’s where you start. Why you’re doing this? And what’s your motive? And those kinds of things. But we were restricting ourselves more to practical skills. So I wrote a post on my blog, Worship Matters, years ago. I think it was called, “What Kind of Songs I’m Gonna be Singing in This Year.” And whatever year it was. It applies really to any year. But it was… You wanna choose songs that people can sing, that people want to sing, and that people should sing. So if you’re responsible for actually picking the songs, and you know a lot of those… A lot of people who lead the music are, but some aren’t. They have the songs chosen for them. But I would stick to those three categories, that it seems to be a simple way of saying, “What’s our goal?”
BK: First, songs that people can sing. Now, depending on your demographic of your church, that’s going to vary. So there are traditional churches that only sing hymns, traditional hymns, that… Everything’s mostly on the beat, not a lot of syncopation. You bring a syncopated song into that church, they’re not gonna sing it, or they’re just gonna straighten everything out. But a lot of times, they just don’t even do it. It’s just too hard. On the other hand, you get a young congregation who are used to just singing stuff that they’re streaming, and what’s popular, and they can sing syncopation pretty easily.
DZ: In complicated melodies and…
BK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So it’s hard to just put a general guideline out there.
DZ: That’s good.
BK: Although I think you can. I think you can say some things. You need to know your congregation. What is… Songs they can sing. There are things that are generally true about voices that would be true anywhere, I would say throughout the world, but maybe not in every language, every people group. But generally true, the vocal range that the voice has is generally… People say from C to C, C to shining C. Now, for a guy, that’s an octave lower than a woman.
DZ: Yeah. But you’re talking in octaves.
BK: Yes, about an octave. That’s ideal. A lot of nursery rhymes, when kids are first starting out, they don’t have these massive ranges. They’re…
BK: They’re just right in this small range. Generally, you could go from a D to an A, expanding that a little bit. But that’s qualified by two things, and that would be… Well, yeah, one’s the range, that’s one qualification. The other’s what they call the tessitura, which is where a song basically hangs out.
DZ: That’s good.
BK: So if you just… Take the song In Christ Alone. In Christ Alone, it has an octave… Has a range of an octave and a fourth.
DZ: And a fourth? Wow.
BK: And a fourth.
BK: That’s low… If you’re in the key of C…
BK: I don’t know what key I’m in, but that would be a G.
BK: That’s the high C, that’s an octave and a fourth. Well, yeah, but you only hit the high C once.
DZ: You hit it and get off of it, yes.
BK: Yeah, and so it’s not a bad idea. I would say to do that song in D because… Or even E. When we do it, we do that in D and E.
DZ: You’re key-changing then.
BK: Yeah, yeah. In the third verse we do that. But we get up to an E. But you only do it like once.
BK: And people can generally hit that. So the tessitura is kind of lower, so you can afford to do it a little higher. Now, in other songs, actually a lot of songs, modern songs that are written, it’s really hard because the verse is down here, and the chorus is up here. And it just makes it really difficult to do a song that everybody feels comfortable in.
DZ: Yeah, and I’ve… I’m sorry…
BK: No, go ahead.
DZ: I’ve also noticed a lot of trends, and this is new to me, this could have been a trend.
BK: It has been for the years…
DZ: But a lot of verses will be an octave low, and then you’ll sing the chorus, and then you jump the octave.
BK: Yeah, then you jump the octave, yeah.
DZ: And you sing the whole verse in the… In a higher octave. And then you’re adding the chorus into that upper octave. So it’s really interesting. It’s… It can be kind of effective if you have this low verse and this lift, but sometimes it just gets out of control, where you’re like… You’re taking that tessitura, you’re staying up in this range for such a long time, that I feel like people tap out, they’re like, “We can’t breathe.”
BK: And they do. And I don’t know if we’ve talked about this in another podcast or if we will, but I think that kind of writing and that kind of singing feeds adrenaline junkies. We get an adrenaline high because the only time that you’re really emotional about the music is when you’re singing at the top of your range.
DZ: That’s interesting.
BK: And the rest of the time, you’re down here. So we’re kind of building into people this mindset that, “I’m just down here, talking about things, singing about things, but I’m just waiting, I’m just getting ready for the time when we’re up here and we’re… ” And I think that can be really unhelpful because what it does is it moves our attention away from what we’re actually singing. And we can’t actually sing anything that’s meaningful down low.
DZ: That’s interesting, yeah.
BK: We can’t be passionate about things that are down low. So that would be the first thing, sing songs people that can sing, the range is a factor in that. The complication. Does the melody kinda stay the same from verse to verse? Or how many parts in the song are there? There’s no absolute guideline and whatever I would say, even in the thing about range, there are songs that break the rules. But that’s okay. There will be songs that breaks the rules. But there are reasons that a majority of songs tend to be of a certain kind. So you find a song has a range of an octave and a sixth, and it works great in your church, great. I just wouldn’t make every song an octave and sixth. So when I’m working with songwriters at Sovereign Grace, when we’re working together, I encourage people, try to keep your ranges octave and a 10th max, maybe an octave and a fourth, but even lower than that, smaller than that, try to keep it there, smaller because we want to sing songs people can sing. So if you may know the song, it sounds great with your voice, but if it’s hard to pick up, you’re not singing the song that people can sing. So that’d be the first thing.
BK: So songs people can sing. Song people want to sing. And they’re kind of related, people generally want to songs they can sing. But that would include having interesting melodies. Not incredibly complex, but just interesting. There are some people who believe if you have great words, Biblical words, you can just kind of put any tune to it, and it’s fine. And that’s not really true. That’s not how God made us. God made us to respond to melodies. And what some people might not know is that for a lot of the hymns, traditional hymns, they were written originally just as lyrics. And then they were sung to popular tunes. In fact, I have in my office a hymnal that’s a split hymnal. So the top half is just tunes, and there’s… They’re cut, and the bottom half is lyrics. And you just match the lyrics to the meter of a tune. Well, they did that, and then the tune that was most popular became the one that we know today. So Amazing Grace would be a good illustration. Amazing Grace wasn’t written with the tune. It was just written as a lyric. John Newton wrote it to begin the new year, just to… Just as he did every year, or number of years, to mark the New Year. That was sung to a number of different melodies, and the melody that we know didn’t come till, I think, 70 years after the lyric was written.
BK: So sing songs that people wanna sing, that move their hearts, that are… Yeah, that are compelling. So songs that are memorable aren’t bad. Before the Throne of God Above, remember Vikki Cook heard that tune… Those lyrics sung to Jerusalem. “Before the throne of God above I have a strong and perfect plea. A great High Priest whose name is Love who ever lives and pleads for me.” Just the melody goes everywhere. It’s beautiful.
DZ: But isn’t that so wild? That it’s so hard to disconnect.
BK: It’s… Yeah.
DZ: From that melody that we’ve gotten so familiar with.
BK: Yes. “Before the throne of God above.” And one of the reasons those words are being sung more around the world today is because of that melody. So it became a song that people want to sing. So then the third aspect would be sing songs that people should sing. And that gets more into the theological component of what you’re singing, and are you singing words that are rooted in scripture, that are theologically driven, not just theologically aware. Meaning, you don’t just pull verses out of the Bible or scriptural phrases and throw them in your song, but you are actually seeking to communicate a progression in your theology, a progression in your song. There’s this big story that this song is a part of, and you’re trying to communicate that through the words you’re singing. So that would be songs that people should sing. Includes your diet, like over a period of time. Do you ever sing songs that talk about suffering? Do you sing songs that talk about the return of Christ? Do you sing songs that talk about confession? Do you sing songs that talk about our need for repentance? Do you sing songs that talk about the evil in the world? Do you sing songs that talk about the word of God? We should be singing songs about all of those.
BK: So, we are thinking, “Am I singing songs that people should sing? So, those would be… And of course, those guidelines are ones that are… They’re guidelines. It often comes down to an individual song. Will this song really serve my congregation? And hopefully, a leader, a music leader’s working that out with their pastor and others who they might be serving.
DZ: Yeah. The list that you just said at the end of “Are you picking songs with these themes?” I think it’s so helpful because you’re sort of rounding out the human experience, suffering, and joy, and loss, and fighting with sin and repentance…
BK: It’s what the Psalms do. It’s just exactly what the Psalms illustrate for us. It’s just that God wants to be involved in every area of our lives, and as we sing, we can help people do that. It’s one of the ways we can help people do that.
DZ: Yeah. I’ve heard of people talking about deathbed songs, like the songs you wanna sing on your deathbed.
BK: Yes, yes, yes.
DZ: And yeah, it really refines the choices you make as a worship leader week to week.
BK: Oh, it does.
DZ: Because you’re thinking, “How are we feeding our congregation?” I think that’s so helpful. Just to pivot, Bob, what would you say to someone who attends a church where they do not like the music or the worship leader, they would say, is not very good?
BK: Does that happen? I’ve never heard of that.
DZ: How would you encourage… So, we’re talking to worship leaders, okay, how can… These are the ways you can grow. What about a person that goes to a church where they have a worship leader that they think needs to grow.
DZ: How would you encourage them?
BK: Well, it depends on how they need to grow.
DZ: Okay. So, what if we say…
BK: If you could be little more specific.
DZ: Just musically. Musically the things we talked about, the songs that they’re picking are confusing. They don’t feel like they’re connected in any way, and maybe the keys… Kind of the points you said, the keys are too high or the keys are too low.
BK: Yeah. Yes, yeah, yeah, yeah.
DZ: How would you speak to… How would you speak to that?
BK: That’s a great question. Well, I’ve been in those situations where I have been led by someone who I don’t think is doing that great a job.
BK: And the first thing I’ve learned to do, ’cause this would not have come naturally, is check my heart. It’s so easy to stand in judgement over the people who are leading us musically. And if you’re someone who is involved in leading the music, you know that, you know you have people maybe regularly who come up to you and say, “I don’t get this as much, maybe because… ” I don’t know why. But I talk to people who every week, they get notes. Some people have a way of sending notes to the leaders, and every week it’s a note about, “Yeah, the drums so loud! Yeah, when are you gonna start doing hymns? Yeah. That you are off key.” And just like this, this barrage of criticism. So, it does come. If I’m the person in the congregation, I wanna check my heart and say, “Am I just looking for excuses?” Like the saying, “I want this served up the way I want it, and you’ve gotta be as good as what I’m hearing on the radio or on my iTunes, you wanna… I want you to be as professional as all the other people I hear.” And worship music has become that kind of market-driven…
BK: Genre which is in some ways great ’cause it’s getting out to more people, but in other ways it’s not great because you cannot market the encounter we have with God…
BK: As we sing His praise.
DZ: Well, and those aren’t the majority of churches.
BK: No, that’s true, yeah.
DZ: The majority of those churches don’t have the budget and the video cameras and the lights, and the… They’re just trying to serve their local congregation.
BK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I’m in the congregation, and I’m hearing someone and I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s not very good.” I think I told this story in Worship Matters. About the time I was in England, and there was a breakout session at a big… At a conference, and so there are about a couple hundred people, and the person leading the music just wasn’t doing a very good job, in my opinion. And you know, kind of average guitar player, the songs didn’t seem to connect. Just the things we’re saying. I didn’t know the songs. And I’m just thinking, “Wow, if I was mentoring him, I would… I’d be saying this to him and… ” I just didn’t really have that great a time. I get done, we get done, and the guy standing next to me, he may have been in his 50s, and he just looks at me and says, “That was simple lovely, wasn’t it?”
BK: I’m thinking, “No, it wasn’t lovely.”
DZ: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t.
BK: I can give you five things, ten things I would have changed about it. But what I saw was that he really worshipped the Lord while this guy was leading, and all I did was criticize him. So I don’t wanna belabor this point, but you’ve gotta… You’ve gotta look at your heart and ask, “Am I just being critical?” Probably the next thing I’d do would be talk to them, don’t just fire off in an email.
DZ: You should listen to the Sound Plus Doctrine podcast.
BK: Yeah, well hey, that’s always a good idea, and subscribe if you… No, just try… Get grab lunch with him, grab a coffee with him, or you know, grab him in the hall or grab him on zoom, however you may wanna do it. But just say… First you wanna communicate your gratefulness for what they’re doing. “Thank you for serving.” People who serve every week, they need encouragement, it may not feel like it, they benefit from encouragement, so thank ’em for what they’re doing, things that you can appreciate about what they’re doing. And then find out how they’re doing what they’re doing. So you might say, “You know, I wanna meet with the Lord when we gather, and I have to confess, sometimes when we’re singing, it’s hard for me.” And you may say something like, “Just the song feels so high. How do you think through that?” And just put it on their plate, just how do you think through that?
BK: I’m familiar with a lot of the songs here, and I just… How do you think through that? I get those kinds of questions. You know, we will do… I don’t choose Sovereign Grace songs on Sunday morning, but we do a lot of them because they say the kinds of things that I wanna say, that I think the church needs to say. But we do loads of other people’s songs. But there will be people who say, “Hey, I’ve had a hard time just getting adjusted here and… How do you think through that?” I so appreciate that. Rather than someone say, “I can’t sing anything here. This is ridiculous. Why don’t you do… ” And immediately, I’m put on the defensive because it’s just like, “You’re doing everything wrong.”
BK: “Well, I’m trying to do right. I’m taking baby steps. I’m doing what I can. I’m just doing what I can.”
DZ: Exactly, yeah.
BK: But it’s so helpful when someone comes up and says, “Hey, I really appreciate what you’re doing. I just wonder how you’re thinking through this.” I get it even from my family. They’ll tell me, “Yeah, that song felt a little high.” Or those kinds of things. I wanna know, and that’s… It may be that you just offer a comment like that, or if there is a pattern. If it’s really like you really don’t understand how the songs are being put together. I would just ask ’em, “How are you putting the songs together?” What drives that? ‘Cause I really wanna engage. I really wanna be fed. But I’m really, I’m just having a hard time. So can you help me? I think that could produce a good conversation.
DZ: I think that’s great. I think it encourages church members to be gracious…
BK: Oh, absolutely.
DZ: And thankful, and honest with their worship leader. But it also encourages worship leaders to receive those questions in a spirit of humility. I think, as a worship leader is just planning week to week, week after week, and they already have a full-time job. And they’re serving and volunteering, you can feel so discouraged. That, “Am I doing anything right? I’m trying to pick the right songs, or I haven’t taken guitar lessons, or I haven’t taken piano lessons or whatever.”
BK: Well, that’s another issue entirely.
DZ: So I think, yeah, I just think that’s really encouraging advice for both parties.
BK: Yeah, and we need to be gracious. Ephesians 4:29 talks about how our words need to be… They need to be edifying, they need to build up. That’s not coming to me right now, but it’s… “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths. But only such as is good for building up as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” So as someone in the congregation, that’s what I wanna be thinking of. I don’t want corrupting talk to come out of my mouth. But as the leader, as the one who leads the music, I wanna be thinking of Proverbs 12:1, which says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” So I don’t wanna be stupid. I really do wanna receive what someone from the congregation is saying to me. And it may be… The first thing I wanna do is thank them, thank them for coming to me, to say something. And it may be that God wants to use this person, even with the bad attitude, to help me grow in something.
BK: There are just a lot of things we don’t see when we’re leading. People… The churches are great context for deceiving yourself. People come in every Sunday, but they’re not necessarily coming ’cause you’re good. They’re coming ’cause they wanna be with the people, they wanna maybe hear the preaching, they wanna be… They wanna be in the Lord’s presence with these people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t grow. So it’s just good. Romans 12 says, “Never be wise in your own sight.” We don’t want to be wise in our own sight, we really wanna hear the things that people are saying about how we could grow, and then take the steps to grow. So that could open up a whole another podcast area of discussion is just, “How can I grow as a musician?” I’m aware… I was trained as a classical musician, and play by ear. And I have played in the studio for years, so I am a professional musician and I benefit from that. I know theory, I can read notes, and not everybody’s there. But I’ll tell you what, you can be better than you are. You can take a next step.
BK: And there’s so much stuff available to us on YouTube right now.
BK: Whether it’s learning how to play a certain kind of chord, or learning about pedals, or learning how to sing, and there’s just so much available to us. And if we take small steps, 15 minutes a day, half an hour a day, hour a week, whatever, to just get better in a certain area, it’s amazing how over a period of time, you will really become more effective at what you’re doing.
DZ: Yes. And for the purpose of serving the people that you love in your context. Not just getting better, it’s that yeah, you’re doing this because you love these people.
BK: Yes. That’s the goal. To bring glory to Jesus. You’re serving His body. Those for whom Jesus lived, died and rose again, you’re serving them. And that’s such a privilege and worth investing time in to get better at.
DZ: It is such a privilege. Thank you for listening, thank you for investing your time in this.
BK: We’re done? Oh man, okay.
DZ: In this endeavor to see God glorified among us.
DZ: Thanks, Bob.
BK: You’re welcome. See you next time.