What makes a worship song good for congregational singing?

What makes a worship song suitable for use in a corporate worship service?

I’ve been mulling this question over lately, trying to articulate what is often largely an intuition for me as a worship leader. Here’s a first go at it. (Thanks to my friend Steve for sharing some good thoughts with me on this.)

The song needs to be neither too low nor too high. Worship leader Jamie Brown has what I’ve found to be a helpful guideline for what range of notes to cover: “From C to shining C.” He puts it well, so I quote him here:

My rule of thumb is “C to shining C”…, meaning that the lowest a song should generally go is a C (one octave below middle C on a piano) and the highest it should go is one octave up from there. I’ll still use songs that dip a bit lower than a middle C or jump up to a D, Eb, or even an E from time to time, but I want to make sure the song isn’t “hanging out” up in the stratosphere or down in the depths.

Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United both sing their songs pretty high. Just try doing “From the Inside Out” in its original key!  (Or, rather, don’t. Drop it down a few steps before leading a congregation in it.) Same with Charlie Hall–love his music, but I often change the key before leading others in his songs. And that’s okay! In fact, it’s an important part of my job as a worship leader to make sure the range of the song is singable for a congregation.

The rhythm and lyrical cadence ought to be simple. Too many dotted eighth notes or too-fast moving lyrics are difficult for a group of folks to sing well together. I often slow down “Blessed Be Your Name” and “Everlasting God” when I lead them for this very reason. I want to make sure we have time to savor the lyrics we’re singing, and not feel rushed to squeeze them all in to the song.

If it’s new, teach it first. I wrote about this last week here.

“More stepwise motion and fewer big leaps up or down.” This one is from Steve. It articulates well what is often intuition for worship leaders. Simpler is better. An example:

Thanks to some students with whom I lead worship in a Christian college setting, I’ve really gotten into the band Gungor recently. I love their song “Dry Bones.”

This song has quite a few “big leaps up or down” and not a lot of “stepwise motion.” It’s hard for me to imagine a congregation singing this in a worship service. But I will blast it through my speakers when I am feeling the need for God to breathe life into my dry bones! I might even rock out to it on guitar with a fellow worship leader, or in a jam session. Great for in car, perhaps not for in the chapel.

I hesitate to use Gungor as a foil, especially since he’s one of the most thoughtful contemporary music worship leaders I know of. His We Will Run, on the other hand, is a great song for congregational singing–especially with its focus on repentance of sin and corporate turning back to God. Listen to it if you like:

Notice that “We will run” is one note, then “to you” is just a half step down:

That same pattern is then repeated a few notes higher: “Turning from our” is one note, “our sin” is just a whole step down.


What would you add to this list?

2 thoughts on “What makes a worship song good for congregational singing?

  1. I think your point about the lyrics and rhythmic cadence needing to be simple should be expanded. Great hymns and worship songs fit a regular rhyme scheme and syllable pattern such that even if you don’t know what the lyrics are you have an intuitive sense of what should be coming up.

    Though it is outside the scope of your post, I believe that we should think hard and along the content of the songs we sing for corporate worship.

    1. Hi, bubaflub,

      Thanks for your comment, and great point about lyrical content. Admittedly, this post was focusing primarily on music and melody, but you’re right that this deserves further attention.

      What else would you add? I like your point about having an intuitive sense about what’s coming up next….

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