‘We can’t sing up there’

‘We can’t sing up there’ is a comment made after far too many church services. And it’s true: research shows that for various reasons the human singing voice has dropped over the last century.

I play for a service at a care home for the elderly where they really know their hymns (often by heart) and they complain that they can no longer sing along to Songs of Praise because the hymns are too high.

And after Christmas I met a large number of people who had been forced to drop out of the carols for the same reason.

Carols especially – think of Christians, awake! Hark, the herald-angels sing, Once in royal David’s city and even Silent night – have not just got very high notes but the tunes also hang around up there, which is even worse.

The problem is easily solved: tunes don’t have to be pitched so high and, as a working church musician, I play them in much lower keys and the congregation sings with enthusiasm and comfort.

Some organists can do this themselves as part of their training and the thing to do is to negotiate a comfortable pitch with your own organist.

Others need the music rewritten for them so that they can play lower and this is an area we have been looking at recently, to provide the material they need.

Our book Hymn Tunes in Lower Keys has the tunes for 314 hymns, while Hymns That Aren’t Too High has 400, including a good number of worship songs. These books are suitable for all denominations.

Letters from our customers confirm not only the usefulness of these books but also how much they have improved the singing. One organist wrote: ‘I play for a crematorium and this book is a godsend. Even the men at funerals now join in.’ Another wrote to say that he wished he had had the book from the beginning of his career as a church musician.

So congregations everywhere, keep complaining until your organist brings your hymns down to your level!

Kevin Mayhew

Kevin Mayhew

Taken at Nicholas King’s The Bible Launch

43 comments on “‘We can’t sing up there’

  1. This is also a bit of a problem with the “No Organist? No Problem!” discs we usually use.
    Some of the hymns are set too high, and we have no organist to lower the key.
    Now, if someone could invent an electronic gubbins to do this . . .

    • Suggest you check out small church music and song surgeon I use them occasionally when we do not have an organist. We’re fortunate and have a retired music teacher who plays for us and alters the pitch and tempo “on the hoof so to speak/sing?”
      Bob Moore Session Clerk Avoch Ross-shire

  2. I agree with this statement. I don’t know the why’s and wherefore’ s, but I know that it spoils many people’s enjoyment of services be cause they struggle to sing the hymns.

    I think that one reason might be the lack of singing in schools and homes. People used to sing a lot and music teachers taught us how to sing. People like Gareth Malone show us that, with a teacher, people find their voices and sing like angels, just as they should.

    It is one of the graces of our lives, singing with family and friends.

    • I agree with your comments about straining voices. If you are a man with a lower voice, you just have to growl or not sing at all! Not a good way to get more men into the congregation!
      The most common male voice range is baritone, and getting over middle C can pose a challenge. I have sung in church choirs most of my life, and even I have problems with many of the more modern unison hymn tunes. The net result is that I switch to singing bass, and if there isn’t one, I make it up, which probably confuses everyone around me!
      Unfortunately lowering the pitch doesn’t always work if you have a choir as this puts the bass line too low!

      • I think that there is most likely a lot less part singing in churches than there may have been some years ago.
        Therefore, with so much unison singing going on now, I think that some hymns would definitely benefit from coming down a tone or two which would undoubtedly enhance the singing.

    • Gareth Malone does wonders. It always seems to me that “Wherever you are” is pitched quite low. Does he actually take the difficulty of high notes into consideration? It would be very interesting to hear his views.

      I think the cause is quite simple – larger instruments play lower notes. The average human frame has got larger over the years!

  3. As a soprano I personally don’t find the tunes set too high but do accept that others do as I often find people stop singing when we get to the higher notes!
    I think that the big problem is that part singing is no longer taught or encouraged, when I was a youngster I used to visit many chapels and churches with my Father who was a preacher and there the singing was always hearty because people sang the SATB part appropriate to their voice. Obviously with many of the modern worship songs this is not appropriate as they are not written with SATB parts but we do find that many of them seem to be written lower. Many of the modern hymn/worship song tunes have such a range of notes that our flautist, whose instrument can only go down to middle C, has to either miss out notes, play everything up an octave or play a harmony, none of which are ideal when we only have flute and guitar present.

  4. The key thing is to encourage everyone to sing whether it be in church/ community choirs/ or just the bath! I have an alto voice and am more comfortable within my range. However if we ditch the notes above D….things will get worse. We need a consistent policy in schools where all pupils are taught to sing throughout their school days…. ie 3 to 19! not stopping at 11. Relevant songs, Hymns and celebratory songs should be in every school assembly in a range of keys. All teachers at training colleges/ universities must also be taught how to teach singing and lead groups using their own voice confidently. Many communities are already realising how singing can help us feel great. Fantastic community choirs are getting stronger, schools join in wonderful events like Young Voices and there are fantastic church choirs outside of Cathedral Choirs where youngsters learn to sing soprano within four part harmonies. (Look at the Polesworth Abbey site) A big influence would be our popstars! If they began to use melodies in higher keys we would be half way there!!

    • I couldn’t agree more, Jane. I work as part of a local Music Service, and we have regular contact with primary and secondary schools, teaching singing and organising joint concerts where up to 500 children participate and sing in harmony. Our experience has consistently been that children enjoy the challenge and adore the achievement of ‘hitting the high notes’ safely and with confidence! As a church organist/musician, I can also agree with the notion of ‘singing communities’. As we increasingly share clergy and merge parishes – and I see this in C of E and RC parishes – singers are increasingly joining forces to support each other at major festivals (just had an amazingly musical Easter for example) and Weddings and Funerals etc. Rather than dumbing down, we need to be aiming high in our singing as we are encouraged to do in all other aspects of life!

  5. 1. A lot of our voices have dropped with age, lumpy thyroids, more fat round throat area?
    2. Singing practice has dropped off as we do other things
    3. The Orthodox Churches’ singing is amazing even with a handful of voices – why? the tunes seem designed to meet the natural ranges of soprano, tenor, bass. A lot of ours do not!!

  6. For the last 50 or so years, it has been my policy to avoid asking the congregation to sing above D. This is particularly useful for the men..

    It is not difficult to transpose down, or if you use an electronic organ just turn the appropriate knob.

  7. I think many hymns written for choir led groups/congregations. ‘Some one will sing the notes I can’t’ is a recurring comfort! The hymns tended to be pitched a little high with choir in mind. We have a transposing facility on our hybrid church organ. Involves a degree of management and pre planning. But have to avoid ‘bottoming out’ for other voices.

  8. As a young organist I used to get fed up with people moaning about hymns being too high (although I didn’t let on that I thought they were being fussy!). But now I am an OAP organist I completely understand. Because I play for services I hardly ever sing and if I try to join in with Songs of Praise on the TV my cat complains vigorously so I am very out of practice and I find even a D difficult to reach sometimes. Belated apologies to all those who I thought were being awkward.

  9. There is balance to be found on this as all individuals have a different natural vocal range although I generally work on E/Eb as the limiting top note for congregational worship. We also need to recognise this might not be appropriate for a smaller groups or seated worship where I will generally play in a lower key to limit the top note to D. Adjusting the key recognising the position in our worship, to account for whether voices are warmed up, or a quieter period, can also be helpful. Whilst I agree about listening to the congregation, after all we’re all about facilitating their worship, we need to recognise it will be impossible to play any hymn or song in the optimum key for everyone so we must be careful what we offer.

    Jane’s comment about them sometimes being very low, may reflect the natural range of the songwriter/performer. Another problem can be the wide range. As an example The Chris Tomlin Amazing Grace is fantastic, but covers a 12th interval, OK for trained singers, but can be a struggle for others. Surprisingly its scored in G giving a D to top G range so I play this in F which seems the best compromise for us.

    A final thought, and perhaps one for Kevin to comment on. Do music publishers have a policy regarding vocal ranges when they set hymns and songs? I see both significant variation across different sources and some items which appear obviously in the wrong key for congregational worship and wonder why.

  10. My daughter is the singer in our worship group and often complains that a lot of the new songs are set very high and often have to be transposed to make them easier for her and the congregation to sing.

  11. People live longer -old voices drop (female)
    Generations become progressively taller/bigger – voices are different – female voices in general are not so high.
    Pitch changing is available on pipe organs as well as electronic organs, so why torture a congregation, particularly with opening hymns, early in the morning, that sail above (or should) above D.
    Dolly Poole, Australia

  12. I have stopped using the No organist CDs in the local care home as the residents find them impossible to follow and so we now sing accapello, usually 3 semitones down from the normal setting.
    It isn’t just older peoples’ voices that are deeper, a study into the pitch of women’s voices has shown that we do speak more deeply than in the past. Whether this is a cultural thing – women with high pitched voices are not taken as seriously as those with lower voices – is debatable but I think it may have something to do with it.
    When available my organist tends to use the lower setting in the KM hymn books when available and that helps a little. D is definitely the highest that a hymn should go, although having said that, it depends very much on the interval, certain ones are easier to bridge than others.
    There is a difference between choral music and congregational music. We have to take into account the fact that most people don’t sing between Sunday services and so are not exercising their vocal chords in a systematic way as a choral singer would.

  13. The problem is not, I find ,where tunes occasionally go up to ‘E flat’ or ‘E’ but where they are consistently high (High tessitura to give it its posh name). The transposing button on most digital organs/keyboards is useful but difficult if you have accompanying musicians who cannot transpose down a tone at sight! (I empathise with Judy Reed on this point). Before practising hymns I always glance over the tune to determine its range as if you transpose a tune down a tone because of the high notes it may result in there being a problem at the lower end with people groping for low ‘A’s. Many modern worship songs are written by guitarists in keys more comfortable for the guitarist to play than for the singer to sing and not all ministers/vicars have had training to notice that the hymn they want the organist to play may be nigh impossible for their congregation to sing!
    Jane Bailey’s point about teachers’ training is a good one but unfortunately very few new teachers have had any help in this area at all, as music (very wrongly, in my opinion) has been pushed to the bottom of most schools’ priorities. Look at what Hungary does for its schoolchildren to see what can be done with the right backing from government finances.
    A final point for Kevin Mayhew – when new hymns are selected for possible publication, are they checked for suitability for the voices of an average congregation?

  14. Most hymns in schools are way to high and contribute to poor singing and also low self esteem. We could do with someone to bring out backing music which is at a more appropriate pitch for children and a slightly more jazzier accompianiment. This will encourage more children to sing confidently, with enthusiasm and enjoyment!

  15. I can’t entirely agree with everything that’s said. On a personal note, I have always been an alto, but my voice has gone up with age. I can’t hit the low notes in the way that I used to. Take, for example, the tune Slane down a semi tone or two, and the alto line becomes almost unsingable. And since the break in my voice remains at around F and G above middle C, I soon find myself having to sing increasingly around the weakest part of my voice. This, however, is a very personal objection, and I certainly don;t think that all keys should be arranged to suit me. But it should be understood that changing the key does not simply alter the pitch, but also changes the mood of the piece. Something which sounds bright in E flat, for example, can become quite sombre if played in D or C sharp. Changing the pitch is not a simple or easy decision.

  16. Sorry folks – but am I the only one who disagrees?
    I am a music teacher (secondary school age) – a composer and an organist – although not a very good organist. I love to sing – and there is nothing better than letting your heart soar – along with the high notes! I get very impatient with students who say it is too high – when they have just sung higher notes in a different song – without realising. I also refuse to lower my own compositions – too much. I admit that I do this a little – but it is partly because of the nature of my style of writing and my harmonies. People can sing high – but it is just that they are not used to doing so. I now have to rewrite and rearrange every song or choral work that is over 50 years old because they are always using a higher range of notes – but I wish I didn’t have to do so.
    I agree that an older person my have more difficulty with a higher range and therefore the organist or music group need to be sensitive to the needs of the congregation.
    However – my main point would be that if we often used the higher range of our voices we would get used to it.
    Or is evolution changing our vocal chords and pitch range?

  17. Having been a singer in church choirs and choral societies (in earlier days a soloist), a coloratura soprano with a 3+ octave range, I now find it frustrating not to be able to get above E, and have difficulty with that sometimes (I could well become a tenor!) This is due, I believe, to having had numerous operations involving general anaesthetic, with tubes having been pushed down through the vocal chords, thus causing damage. I suspect that is one possible reason for our voices to deteriorate with increasing age and infirmity! But another reason for congregations to have difficulty is that the majority of people have never been trained to breathe properly and to produce their voices correctly – they try to sing from the back of their throats, and the throat tightens up, making them unable to get a high note. If everyone was taught at a suitable age to breathe deeply and support the breath, and to relax their throats and ‘place’ the sound forward in their mouths, they’d be able to sing much better. Also, I fear that many amateur, hard-working and willing organists used to the old traditions make it more difficult for congregations by playing the hymns much too slowly, making breathing and phrasing more difficult, leading to bad habits in hymn singing – and a lot of the modern worship songs aren’t written for organ accompaniment or for congregational singing, which is a shame, as many of them are really good, albeit with rhythms that are sometimes hard for both untrained organists and singers to pick up. Few churches these days (certainly not rural ones) have the resources within their membership to produce a music group capable of playing these, sadly, and many organists struggle. I find, as far a pitch is concerned as well, that if there are one or two strong and confident (and accurate!) singers, that the bulk of the congregation will follow them, even if some have to drop out on the notes above D (or. like me sometimes, drop down an octave and pretend to be a baritone!) Personally I often sing the alto line, but few in a normal congregation can read music (and don’t have access to music copies anyway) so that path is closed to them, and the men here in Wales rarely sing parts as the arrangements for Male Voice choirs are very different – our tenors can only sing the melody line! It’s a difficult problem to solve, in general, eapecially with small rural churches and chapels. Ideas welcome, please.

    • Dear Julia, As an anaesthetist I would like to reassure you that it is unlikely that vocal damage was caused by anaesthesia. Tubes are not “pushed” through the cords, they are well lubricated and gently placed through the cords. For the last twenty five years, most operations have been performed without intubating the vocal cords, so I think it is unreasonable to suggest that this is the cause of any damage to the vocal cords. Best wishes Andrew

  18. I have noticed this problem for some time. I mainly use MIDI files as well as the CD sets available. I find that I am always having to lower the music by an average of 2 tones. Easy to do in scorewriter for a midi. The CD’s can be changed using programs like audacity, but it is never as good as the original recording.. This applies to songs from 100 yrs ago as well as the modern era.

  19. As the organist at a large Methodist church, I am fortunate to have a well maintained organ (non digi) and a reasonable choir. Some of the sops can go as high as top G.
    However when it comes to the congregation, one of the hymn singing problems is the age of the people and their ability to sing and, more importantly, to enjoy the singing. I am fortunate in that I can, if necessary, transpose to a more suitable key .Unlike several musicians I know who have to play by the book.
    When it comes to hymn book compilers, they, I believe, do not consider who will be singing the hymns they have chosen to install.
    This is fine for “Happy Clappy” sic type churches where the cong are young, but the set keys are not always suitable for the main stream churches where the youngest member is probably 75 years old. So -,musicians bear in mind that the church members will not tell you to your face that they cannot reach “all the high notes”. They will talk among themselves out of your earshot. A point, in my opinion, worth considering.

  20. There is a very simple explanation. Most people sing only in the middle voice, and do not use their head (or tilt) voice. That means they push from the throat, instead of supporting from the diaphragm, and the top notes are not there. If you do this all the time, you damage the voice. This is why so many pop singers end up with nodules. There is no need to lose the top of the voice as you age if you continue to sing properly (my mum still has a perfectly good top G and she is 80!). Too many modern worship songs are in the lower keys and encourage unsupported (and often flat) singing. In regards to the care homes – the challenge there is to have the singers sitting upright or standing, not slouched into armchairs. Keep the pitch up, sit up, stand up and let the voice ring! Anything less is poor use of your God given gift.

    • I work with a choir that “can’t stand singing”! A seated choir of older or disabled people. I also am a church organist. Yes, it is usually necessary to pitch the music correctly for the singers and the occasion. Early morning for example needs much lower pitching. I downpitch all of the carols quoted mainly due to sustained higher notes that I and others struggle with. But much of the problem with church singing is the poor way that hymns are introduced – first two lines, pause, two beats silence then hope everyone will join in; what an awful way to start a piece of sacred music. Having come from the world of opera I found this a dreadful way of starting anything, but fortunately some writers are improving on this by including a play-over that leads directly and unmistakeably into the verse. Hence I have written over a number of years The Complete Hymn which changes all that and really works, especially for the worship songs. A hymn or song should be just ONE piece of music and I regularly sandwich music between the verses to give singers a chance to relax the voice before otherwise rushing into the next verse.

  21. I am a soprano preacher, and one organist drops everything at least a tone. What about us who cannot produce anything below a middle C. The voice is produced by muscles, these will bot function if not worked. Pop music is middle rangge so people do not challenge voices any more. It is such a shame with diminishing choirs.

  22. Great debate! I’m with Jane Anderson-Brown on this: poor singing technique and posture. How an earth can you sing properly sat down? My choir master used to tell us to approach high notes from above rather than straining up to them and I repeat this to my own choir. Interesting how our congregation manage perfectly well to reach high notes on certain crowd pleasers but clam up on others. I do tend to treat a top e as the limit for congregational singing but d really should be no issues. Cwm Rhonnda for example? One other point is that keys are not arbitrary – they are chosen deliberately by composers not just for range but for feel. Some hymn tunes just don’t sound right taken down and I often find myself taking hymns in Liturgical Hymns Old and New UP to their traditional keys. I also agree that worship songs encourage lazy singing in the low registers. Perhaps we should start the service with a round of arpeggios to warm those voices!

  23. Another point is that the same note will feel different in different songs depending on how the tune approaches it and what musical support is given to the singers. A tune can feel high when it only goes up to d whilst another tune feels fine at e. As organists and instrumentalists we make decisions about the music which have a direct effect on the singing … a thin sound doesn’t help anyone to sing … a good strong bass helps even the sopranos. As an organist who struggles to play many hymns and has only a limited ability with the pedals I am very aware of this. I sometimes abandon piano and organ in favour of the clarinet for some of the modern stuff for this reason.

  24. My church is blessed with having a church choir as well as a worship band, so we have a traditional service with choir and organ and a modern service with the worship band. The most complaints we receive about the pitch of music is at the modern service. I totally agree with the comments that it would be good if the modern worship songs had harmonies instead of us having to make them up, it certainly would make life easier. As the worship co-ordinator I am constantly working with my team as to how we can make life easier for the congregation. As well as singing, I play both the piano and alto sax, the latter i transpose music at sight, so I am always looking for ‘cheats’ when we are playing music in a different key to the music.

    Luckily help is at hand from the CCL, which we should all be using for copying music or words. You can subscribe to something called songselect which enables you to transpose chords and melody line to any key you want. The only down side is that it is only a melody line with chords writing above, I have fed back to them requesting they offer full music.

    We also have decided not to use music that has too wide a range if it is unsingable.

  25. I’m sorry but I don’t get that at all. Yes, perhaps people may feel as if they can’t sing hymns that ‘high’ but it has nothing to do with their voices changing. It’s more to do with the fact that people no longer use their singing voices as much as previously. I have written a rather long answer so here’s the link to my response covering: school, social and pop singing, organist speeds and more. And yes I am a soprano!


  26. Hello there across the sea. Same problem here in Puerto Rico where I live. Thank goodness for modern instruments which transpose at the push of a button. I would not be able to transpose impromptu. I do have music notation software and I sometimes enter the entire hymn as written and them ask the software to transpose it for me. This I often do when I want to use a hymn prelude as an introduction and the hymn itself in a different key. 😀

  27. I agree with all the remarks that pinpoint the problem as that of people not being taught to use their voices properly, and the over-use of the “middle voice”.

    I find the opposite problem with our hymnbook (KM Hymns Old and New) where many of the traditional hymns seem to have been transposed down at least a tone if not more. As a soprano (almost 70 and my top As are still damn fine!), choir leader and Cantor I find the tessitura of most of our hymns really difficult to sing, as they seem to hover between middle C and B.

    I attend an Anglican Church in Spain where my husband is organist, and one thing many of our visitors comment is how “lustily” our congregation sing! Indeed when I visit the UK I am always surprised at how timid and lacking in confidence the sound is. I think the difference is that 1) we have a confident choir who can lead the singing and 2) we have a substantial contingent of members from Nigeria and Ghana who are used to singing out the traditional hymns with gusto! They may not all be the most tuneful singers, but they give the rest of the congregation the confidence to raise their voices (instead of polite English mumbling …) and really enjoy their singing – high notes and all!

  28. Even after all that has been written, I am still feeling a little apprehensive about Easter Sunday when, like many others I guess, I shall be playing “The Greatest day in History”. How do you cope with a song that spans almost 2 octaves and takes the congregation up to top G?!

  29. It all depends on what forces are available:
    1 Is there a choir to lead? in which case the congregation will be supported in their efforts to sing D and above
    2 Is the congregation large and singing in a big church with a good organist? the same applies
    3 Is it a small congregation who spread themselves out over the space and perhaps do not have good instrumental support? then they will probably be discouraged by any note above B! There are a number of full music hymn books already catering for the needs of the accompanist of such congregations.

  30. “And are we yet alive,
    And see each other’s face?
    Glory and praise to Jesus give
    For his redeeming grace.”

    No instrument but the human voice, at the Methodist Conference, choosing the note, leading the singing. It works well. It can also be done in the local context; and it works there too. Choose the appropriate note, and for many people (including those of us who sing bottom D, if not bottom C) the result is something that enables you to join in and make your contribution. It doesn’t take a moment to hear whether it’s O.K. to sing parts or not. With some hymns, it almost always is O.K. E.g., once you’ve got them going on “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah …”, singing bass is no problem.

    In short, remember: the human voice is an amazing, versatile, instrument. We want to include people, not exclude them, so they may use it, for God’s glory. Those who write tunes, or pitch them, have a responsibility. May the Lord bless them, as they seek to fulfil it.

    Yours sincerely,

  31. But this creates another problem – it often pushes Bass lines down below the capability of choral basses, as many of them these days are Baritones masquerading as basses out of necessity. A lot of the problems can be solved by intelligent hymn planning – a top E in the first hymn of a Sunday Morning is likely to be a challenge for the un-warmed up, untrained voice than the same hymn placed further on into the service.

    I’m inclined to believe that the reduction in vocal range is down to the lack of singing in schools – where I teach, every child by the age of 8 can comfortably hang around E – and this is without fully formed lungs and vocal mechanisms. So keep the hymns as they are – with unaltered harmonies, and unaltered keys. Even with equal temperament, things can sound radically different in different keys!

  32. Been asking for lower hymns for years. I am a competent singer – though contralto – and when I lead a Cappela it’s great ‘cos everyone can join in!!

  33. The hymns in our Hymnal 1982 (PECUSA) are already lower than in the 1940 Hymnal. The music changes character when lowered from the original key. If they would join my choir there would be no problem. I have predominantly senior citizens in my adult choir but with vocalises and healthy use, the range is comfortable. As a teacher of singing who is now 77, I find regular use – singing in church and in the shower should help rather than bowing to the lowest common denominator!

  34. As a priest who usually ends up leading the singing at services, I get frustrated by songs set too low, which happens often when the organist is using KM hymn books. The congregation sings best with a strong lead from the front, and if the hymn tune is set for basses and altos it’s too low for me. There is no reason at all for hymns not to go up to a D, and an occasional E is not a problem. If we teach our congregations to mumble their way through hymns, then of course the music will feel too low. Nursing homes etc. are different, but for normal use, then currently KM books are as low as they need to go, and if I ever found a copy of Hymn Tunes in Lower Keys, it would be filed in the round filing cabinet in the vestry.

  35. I very much agree with this comment.
    When hymns are sung at too high an octave people do not sing with gusto if at all. Hearing the voices of my other brothers and sisters in the congregation as we sing and praise God is also part of helping us enjoy worship. When you hear people limping through hymn singing it is really sad.

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