How Low Can You Go, How High Can You Fly In Worship Song Melodies?

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Most people in your congregation have a vocal range somewhere between one octave to one-and-a-third. Paul Baloche, Jimmy Owens and Carol Owens write,

“Congregational songs must be written in the common range. That’s the range of the average person, generally from low Bb up to D. You can stretch that a half step on either end if necessary, but preferably not if the notes are to be held out very long. It’s demoralizing not to be able to reach the long high or low notes.”

For this reason, a 1 1/3-octave range should be in the upper limits of our songwriting toolkit. Most worship songs should stick closer to an octave. A full octave is plenty of space for a tune.

Some tunes – particularly quiet, contemplative songs – may only need a few notes. “Here I Am To Worship” has a five-note range, and “The Heart Of Worship” has a range of a sixth. But these are exceptions. For most worship songs, feel free to use a full octave. This will give you something to build toward in your verses, and will make your chorus and/or bridge interesting or fun for your congregation.

So use a whole octave in composing your melody, moving up the scale as your song progresses. As you move up the scale in your verse and pre-chorus, the tension will increase, leading to a big hook in your chorus. Otherwise, if your verse is higher than your chorus, the melody will seem to deflate, and people will lose interest.

As with any songwriting “rule,” this need not always be the case. Some songs seem to promise a melodic jump at the start of the chorus, only to tease us by dipping to a lower note than the final pre-chorus note. As the chorus progresses, we do finally hit the higher melodic notes. Jason Ingram, Matt Maher, Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman do this on “White Flag.” It works because the chorus is short and the high “payoff” lines are worth it.

Next week I’ll write more about “melodic hooks,” the part of a song that people hum and sing over and over.

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