Key Signatures and Effective Assembly Singing

Those who accompany singing in worship services have many factors to consider in order to lead effectively, including: text, tempo, mood, dynamics, articulation, registration, and key. This last musical parameter, the key signature, is often overlooked when accompanying assembly singing. We may alter the tempo to encourage better singing; we may change registration from verse to verse to build to a climax; we may underscore textual imagery by playing with a different articulation. We may even modulate up a half-step and play a re-harmonization to boost singing on the final verse. But, how often do we think about the written key signature as something that can be changed entirely to enable better participation from the gathered assembly?

Play a hymn in a higher key to enhance the brilliance of the tune and to call for extra energy from the singers. Most modern hymnals include “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein feste Burg) in the key of C major, but its original key is D major. When I have accompanied this hymn in the key of D major, at the conclusion of a worship service with a large assembly, the results have been astounding! Other hymns that work effectively in higher keys include: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (Lobe den Herren) in G major; “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (Mendelssohn) in G major; and “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” (Easter Hymn) in D major.

Play a hymn in a lower key to create a more subdued mood or to allow the assembly to warmup their voices. I remember a funeral service where I played “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (Converse) in E-flat major (rather than F major) to lower the tune’s high tessitura—the small, aged assembly could sing a beloved hymn with greater ease. At early morning worship services, I have occasionally sacrificed the brilliance of higher keys on opening hymns to provide an opportunity for groggy voices to wake up: “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (Diademata) in C major; “When Morning Gilds the Skies” (Laudes Domini) in B-flat major; and “Oh, Worship the King” (Hanover) in F major.

If accompanying a hymn in a key other than the one printed is something you’d like to try, here are some practical ways to do that:

  • The tune may be found in another key elsewhere in the hymnal or in a different hymnal. Use a hymnal’s tune index to locate other instances of the tune. Online resources like Prelude Music Planner and CCLI Song Select are also able to display hymns/songs in different keys.
  • If you are raising or lowering the key by a half-step (e.g., from D major to D-flat major), you may be able to convert keys using the “rule of sevens.” Sharp keys can be played as flat keys, and vice versa, by playing the notes on the same positions within the staff (2:5, 3:4, 1:6). Keep in mind when converting from a flat key to a sharp key that accidental flats become naturals and naturals become sharps. And, when converting from a sharp key to a flat key, the reverse is true: sharps become naturals, and naturals become flats.
  • Write out the tune in another key ahead of time. If you are adept at using music notation software, scanning and editing may save time. Otherwise, a pencil and staff paper work just fine.
  • Dust off your keyboard harmony skills and transpose by sight. This is easier to do on hymns/songs that rely heavily on primary chords (I-IV-V). Be sure to practice ahead of time when attempting this on chorale-style hymns.
  • If your organ (or electronic keyboard) is equipped with MIDI, you can use the transpose button to lower or raise the key. Of course, be sure to reset to ‘0’ for the remainder of the service!
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Tim Shaw

Timothy Shaw studied theology and music as an undergraduate and graduate student, and he has enjoyed a multi-faceted career as composer, college professor, music engraver, and church musician. He has presented workshops, academic papers, hymn festivals, and reading sessions at numerous conferences, churches, and universities throughout the United States. His publishers include Augsburg Fortress, Beckenhorst, Choristers Guild, Concordia, Hope, Kjos, MorningStar, and Shawnee.

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