Pitching your song

One of the things I like most about the folk club I attend fairly regularly is the frequency of singers’ nights and the encouragement to join in. I don’t think I’ve ever been with a group of people so keen to sing a chorus or refrain or harmonise on the spot to songs on themes ranging from seafaring to mining, love songs and tragedies, traditional and more recent songs in a very broad interpretation of ‘folk’ style. Even on guest nights, a few audience members are invited to sing ‘floor spots’, which last week included a visiting friend of the club who sang ‘When All Men Sing’ – a poem by Keith Scowcroft set to music by Derek Gifford. The chorus practically demands participation from the audience and we certainly obliged:

Let every man so pitch his song to help his neighbour sing along
To each and all contentment bring, when all men sing.

The song sings round the seasons of the year and mentions singing in inns (as we do), praising the Lord and singing as you work as well. I really like the sentiment of the song and it harmonises really nicely (as in this version where composer Derek Gifford is part of the group singing with Mike Nicholson). My only reservation is that the lyrics don’t quite acknowledge that your neighbour might be a woman. I wouldn’t argue that the lyrics need changing but perhaps I need to write an extra verse sometime.

A more frequent frustration to me at the moment is that some Christian songwriters and worship leaders seem not to acknowledge that around half or more of the congregation are likely to be women (or sing alto/bass). This leads to songs like Matt Redman’s recent ‘Sing and Shout’ covering a range from a mid G# to a high F#. I can sing it along in the same octave as he does but I have a lower than average female voice. The top F# (yellow/orange below) is rare, but almost the entirety of the bridge “What could be better than a grace…” is on a high E. I’m afraid I would argue that he’s pitched the song wrong in terms of allowing a congregation to sing along. Perhaps you’re supposed to shout that bit?  While the chords in G (capo 2) as he has written it are easy, putting it in D or even C would be much more singable for the whole congregation. Played in D it only goes down to a C# but the top note is a much more manageable B (all notes blue).

keys in colours

Bob Kauflin, songwriter, worship leader and author of the excellent book ‘Worship Matters’ wrote a blog post back in 2009 where he addressed the challenges of ‘Finding The Right Key To Sing In’. He suggests a general rule of keeping between a low A and a high D (blue or green above), although there may be reasons to change this if a lot of the notes are at one end of this spectrum. The most comfortable notes for everyone are probably the blue octave from C to C, so when a song doesn’t cover more than an octave there seems little excuse for it to go down as low as a G (which I love but I know it doesn’t suit everyone – yellow) or up as high as the E (also yellow) that makes up the bridge of ‘Sing and Shout’. Seriously, 23 top Es, a top F# and a C# does not make a singable refrain. I’m afraid it’s at times like this that I sit down in church and try to pray or read the Bible rather than getting cross.

Other things that sometimes cause me to disengage from worship are about a different kind of pitch – more the tone of the song. Songs that focus on me and how I feel rather than on praising God, songs that are hard to understand, songs that just seem not to say much at all – these seem such a waste when there are so many better songs out there. There’s a place for songs that say how much we love God, but generally I would rather sing about his great love than my love for him. My love for God is sometimes weak, always imperfect, never as much as he deserves. In contrast his love for us is immeasurable, unchanging, awesome – no matter how I feel, I believe it is right to declare these truths about God. In fact, declaring them may help shift how I am feeling.  A great example is Matt Redman’s Holy – solid truth and pitched between C and D#.  Thank you Matt.

Particularly at the start of a time of worship I’d make a strong argument for a song that most people know, pitched in a singable key and focusing on the greatness of God or the wonderful love of Jesus. There are also some gathering songs which are particularly designed for opening worship (They often start ‘Come’).  Possibly my favourite gathering song is in Shona – Uyai Mose, made popular in the UK by the Iona Community. Using songs in other languages can be inclusive and accessible but they need to be sufficiently simple for the whole congregation to understand and learn and pronounce the words. This song only contains five different words:

Uyai mose tinamate Mwari (x3)
Uyai mose zvino.

It’s translated “Come all you people, come and praise your maker, Come now and worship the Lord”. It harmonises beautifully – when I was in a tent at Greenbelt some years ago they had the whole congregation singing in four part harmony so you could choose the part that suited your voice but actually in the book I have, all four parts fit between the recommended low A to high D except the highest cantor part which hits a few top Es. I’d say that’s pitched so everyone can sing along.

IMG_3542The guests at folk club on Friday were ‘The Foxglove Trio’ and they sang a mix of songs in English and Welsh as well as using their cellos, melodeon, whistle and guitar for a range of tunes. I enjoyed the evening although the number of songs in Welsh put me off buying their CD a bit. They did encourage us to sing along to various choruses, even teaching us a few words of Welsh. But the song that raised the roof was the floor singer I mentioned earlier with ‘When All Men Sing’. As one of the committee put it, it could have been written for the club.

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