Non solum: Pitch of Congregational Music

Here’s a question which came up at at the HSGBI/IAH/HSUSC meeting in Cambridge, England that just ended: how high should congregational hymns (and we may add, antiphons and refrains and service music) be pitched? A speaker from Germany lamented the unfortunate tendency to pitch things low with children, which isn’t their appropriate register, and also to pitch congregational hymns lower and lower with each successive hymnal. Now D is generally the upper limit, with very little E. She observed that hymnals in England still have hymns in their traditional, higher pitch. To which someone from England observed, there are plenty of alternate low-key accompaniments which are oftentimes used, despite the pitch in the hymnal.

Do you think it’s better to pitch things down to encourage hesitant singers (which includes many Catholics)? Or is it better to preserve the brighter sound of a higher pitch, and if some have to drop out for a note here and there, others can carry it?

And a related question: Do you approve of the custom of modulating up to a higher key for the final stanza of a hymn, to build momentum? I believe Erik Routley thought it was in bad taste, an example of hackneyed Romanticism. But it’s done by many organists of otherwise impeccable taste, I note.

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38 comments

  1. Our (Mennonite) hymnal typically presents hymns a full step higher than other denominations because we don’t expect that altos and basses will normally sing the top part. There are one or two hymns that even go up to an A. That looks ridiculous on the page, but it seems that every congregation has one or two sopranos that can hit the note–which is more than enough!

  2. I notice that things are pitched higher in France than in the UK. Top F isn’t unknown. At home I find that things need to be lower as the parish ages and the number of lady baritones in the congregation increases.
    I must hold my hand up to putting the last verse of Silent Night up from A to Bb. And to playing through some things (especially communion songs) a semitone lower before crashing the gears to the correct key for the people to sing. It seems to get people to sing more brightly. I put it down to the bad influence of MD-ing too many school musicals!

  3. The question seems to be “Do I want the congregation to enjoy a ‘bright’ hymn or do I actually want them to sing?” Once people drop out, they rarely keep following along for the chance to rejoin later.

    Under Soviet Law, their National Anthem could only be played in the people’s key of ‘C’, thus ranging from C to high E. (I believe the law still applies since only the text has changed.)

    By far, the best assessment of the movable key is “The Song That Goes Like This” from Monty Python’s Spamalot, where following a modulation the words go:

    Now we’re into E
    That’s awfully high for me
    But everyone can see
    We should have stayed in D…

  4. 1) I relish any opportunity to share the following from GIA’s Worship, Third Edition, Low Key Accompaniment, written by Bob Batastini. I’ve shared it here before, but here it is again.

    There is a current trend among a significant number of church musicians toward performing hymns in low keys…..This often results in entire phrases falling into a tessitura centered around middle C, or finals which are so low as to be almost inaudible. An assembly singing in these ranges can hardly produce a “joyful noise.” The reason cited for lowering the key of certain hymns — that they are too high for some people to sing — is precisely the reason why these hymns should NOT be lowered! One has only to listen carefully to the singing of any congregation to realize that a significant number of persons sub-sing, that is, sing one octave lower than most of the other adult members of their sex. When hymns are played in their higher keys, sub-singing is made possible. When hymns are lowered, the sub-singers can no longer sing in their comfortable range, and — because these are the persons with the least vocal ability — probably still cannot comfortably sing in the “correct” range, even with the lower key. The better singers in the assembly are also hindered by low keys because they are forced to sing in a range in which it is difficult to sing with full voice. Also, in spaces with less-than-ideal acoustics, the low frequencies are the first to be swallowed by carpeting and other sound absorbing materials.

    Regardless of one’s position on the appropriateness of sub-singing by members of the assembly, its existence cannot be denied, and if the higher key permits more persons to sing comfortably, it is the pastorally appropriate choice.That being said, we now offer this low key accompaniment to the hymn section of Worship with the idea that it is intended for use only under special circumstances, e.g., at an early morning hour, or when a hymn is still somewhat unfamiliar — times when the singing is…

  5. generally less than full voiced.

    Back to my own thoughts:

    2) I don’t think we pay enough aspects to the physiological aspects of encountering songs in certain keys. Certain hymns and songs feel right in certain keys. Don’t mess with that. To experience the Holy, Holy from Mass of Creation in something other than g minor, or to sing the Holy, Holy from A Community Mass in a key aside from F major one morning may “not seem right.” But this isn’t always a bad thing: James Biery’s setting of the Carroll Thomas Andrew’s Gloria from a New Mass for Congregations is set in A major, rather than the original G. To suddenly sing the piece in A major on a festival/holyday after singing it year round in G is truly an uplifting experience. Judicious altering of keys seems appropriate; inconsistent altering of keys (for the organist who can’t play 5 flats) seems problematic. If winter Ordinary Time and Lent is C Major, Easter morning needs to be in D.

    3) It’s rarely about the congregation, it’s almost always about the leadership. Yes, the time of day, average age of the congregation, musical leadership and certainly the acoustical properties of a room affect the assembly’s ability to sing, but more so does the decision of the music director, organist or cantor. Do we really believe one group of people can comfortably sing songs that go up to a D, while a congregation a mile away can only manage a C? (This also holds true for styles of music.) It’s not that a congregation can’t or won’t sing a D or sing chant, praise&worship music, world church music or hymnody; more often than not it’s the leadership – whether musical or clerical – that shapes a community into believing what they can and can’t do.

    1. @Michael Silhavy:
      I whole-heartedly agree with all three points: (1) Higher keys allow for “sub-singing” while giving those who sing in a range that “carries” more easily in treble-happy rooms a chance to sing in their most efficient range; (2) there are physiological and psychological aspects to choice of key (as well as ambitus and tessitura); and (3) much depends on leadership.

      To point number 3, thinking about vocally forming liturgical assemblies over time (assuming a fairly stable community) ought to involve the same considerations as one would give the vocal formation of a volunteer choir. Choosing and pitching melodies that encourage the exploration of the “light mechanism” (and corresponding head resonance and lifting of the soft palette), and moving between registers to encourage a “mixed” technique is part and parcel of cultivating a singing church. This requires good modelling by cantors and choir of course–and an acoustical environment and disciplined practice in which members of the assembly can hear one another and model good, healthy singing for one another. If Christ is truly present in the assembly of the baptized when it prays and sings, we must insist on acoustic, choral music-making in the liturgy, and raise our expectations beyond merely getting the folks to sing, but helping them to sing beautifully.

      One quick anecdote: I was the cantor at an early Easter Sunday Mass this year. My very able associate played “The Strife is O’er” in D major. I would have done it in C major that early in the morning. To my surprise, the people sang it, but not with the heavy, guttural tone with which they croaked some low-pitched things earlier in the liturgy. Rather, they sang with a tone that was light and floating…precisely the non-earthbound sort of thing the Resurrection suggested, and early-morning voices needed! Glad it was my associate playing, and not me!

  6. Why does everyone have it in for altos? Are we really the left-handed population whom everyone wants to make right-handed — despite the fact that this is not how we’re made? I’m an alto. I remember fondly a choir director who claimed that most altos are lazy sopranos. Another who said that altos are sopranos who were put into the alto part because they can read music. Another who said all altos go flat. So many directors I’ve run into seem to think that if altos were better singers they’d be sopranos. It’s quite depressing for those of us who genuinely sound richer (and yes, can hold a pitch fine) in a lower range.

    I’d appreciate an approach that avoids suggesting that altos and basses are regrettable symptoms of some failure or other.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:

      I don’t think the persons who have responded to this thread “have it in for altos.” In fact, Adam Tice is the only one to even mention altos, when he wrote: “… we [Mennonites, whose liturgical assemblies often sing in four-part harmony, BTW] don’t expect that altos and basses will normally sing the top part.” What’s denigrating in that statement?

      Some of my best friends are altos.

  7. Especially in Roman Catholic hymnals, the presumption that the congregation will sing in unison is one reason for the lowering of pitch; as Adam Tice pointed out, a consistently SATB/part-singing congregation can sing hymns at higher pitches because all the voice parts are singing in their natural registers. (I began life as an alto, Rita, and am now firmly a bass-baritone!) Traditions that customarily sang internal stanzas in harmony only expected basses and altos to sing the high pitches on first & final.
    All that being said, the overall lowering of keys is not only happening in hymnals. Especially when it comes to women singing, pop music is increasingly putting them about a fifth below to a fifth above middle C – often women will sing at the same pitch as men in pop songs (which is uncomfortably high for bass-baritone males). This is happening a LOT in the praise/worship-style music we’re receiving for publication.
    A lot of this is due to a big shift in women’s common speaking registers; I spent a few sick days contrasting the general register of women in TV and movies from earlier decades with now. In particular, women in government and in “authority” media roles (news anchors, etc.) and – perhaps – education will, generally, speak in a register lower and closer to their male counterparts. Or in shows where women are men’s opponents (law/courtroom dramas). Same happens when you contrast where Disney heroines sang in previous decades vs. now. On the cartoon “Bob’s Burgers,” 3 of the 5 main characters are female, but only 1 of them is voiced by a female; the show consistently has female characters voiced by males. It’s sort of a vocal equivalent of women’s equality with men meaning they could wear pants; it didn’t mean men could also wear skirts. (An observation, not a value judgment!)
    Over the course of time, the register in which we speak has an impact on the register where we are able to sing. As with many other things, congregations are merely following the culture-at-large.

  8. When I was in college studying the human voice, I was taught that 80% of all women are altos and 80% of all men are bass/baritones. I have observed this to be quite true in my years of music directing. All through high school and college my choral directors told me I was a tenor when in fact I am a lyric baritone (rent-a-tenor). I can get up there when needed but as a regular diet, I would suffer vocal fatigue. This always crosses my mind when I work with church assemblies. Singing is physical work. All of your muscles are engaged in the act. I think of the mass (when fully sung) as an opera of sorts and the assembly as the opera chorus. Depending on the music selection, a full hour (or more) of singing can be physically taxing for many people.
    As a cantor, composer, director, and elementary school music instructor, I feel responsible for the vocal health of the people with whom I work. I can get my students to accomplish more in vocal range because I exercise the muscles that produce sound carefully over a period of time. You can’t do that with an assembly. On the other hand, consider certain songs with a wide vocal range sung joyfully by congregations (you know which songs I mean). The fact is they love those songs so much, they plow through the high and low notes and it simply doesn’t phase them. Their hearts are in it! Is that the missing piece?
    We just had a high school madrigal reunion. Everyone was in their mid sixties. We sang for three hours. No one would leave until we sang the Halleluia Chorus (a cappella). You would have thought you were listening to a college age choir. It was amazing and beautiful and completely from the heart.

  9. I want to affirm the comments about the difference between unison vs part singing with an additional dimension of information: SATB parts are divided in a way that is in tension with the bell curve distribution of voices, as it were.

    That is, the most common female voice is the mezzo; the most common male voice is the baritone. True sopranos, true altos, true tenors, and true basses, are further out in the bell curve distribution.

    Catholic hymns in the USA are normally sung in unison by congregations, and therefore the melodies should be pitched with untrained mezzos and baritones in mind. For denominations where part singing is more common in congregations, there is greater latitude in setting pitches.

    Oh, alto is my favorite voice. Altos are not lazy sopranos. And baritones are not lazy tenors.

    And time of day is important: lower for the first half of the morning, higher more possible as the day progresses until nightfall, then lower again. Natural congestion cycles…

    As for modulation for the last verse: it’s a matter of taste, and one important factor is the tessitura and length of the melody of the tune. I wouldn’t do it for tunes of more than 4 to 6 lines, nor with a compass of a twelfth that is jumpy, for example. So, NO for ABBOT’S LEIGH or ST PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE.

  10. Gerard Flynn : @Sean Keeler: The Russian anthem actually ranges from C to high F.

    Absolutely correct. And so long as the legally-mandated key remains C Major, the range remains within those limits so the poor left-handed baritones and altos have a chance!

  11. I find this thread very interesting, as I am currently in a situation where this has been a real issue. My parishes are in rural Kentucky, and their predominant model of singing is country music, in which it is common for the popular singers to sing in a low chest voice. In the liturgy, similarly, they were used to singing everything lower than printed. I changed that from the moment I arrived, and some people have complained about it. Keep in mind, too, that our church has poor unsupportive acoustics, which is a psychological challenge to singing without reservation. I would say this is a microcosm of a meta-issue: how much do we adjust to “where they are” out of pastoral concerns, and how much do we challenge them to do things they are not accustomed to? I’ve gravitated toward the latter with this issue.

    The choice of congregational repertoire is wrapped up in this as well. The more classic method of singing is more suited for classic hymns and modern songs in that tradition. There are many popular 20th c. Catholic songs, however, that expect a more pop style of singing. Take, for instance, Fr. Michael Joncas’ “I have loved you,” which forces many singers into chest voice on the low B; the range of a M9 over 3 beats is awkward for a lot of people, if one goes from head to chest voice. (Note that I am not trying to get into an argument about different styles here; I am merely delineating the differences and challenges).

    Kevin’s remark about the heavy/guttural vs. light/floating tone is great. This is a common trick in singing choral chant and polyphony that doesn’t have fixed pitch – if it’s sounding dark, murky, and heavy, just raise the pitch, forcing them into head voice. This can be done with congregational rep as well, within reason – avoiding low pitch can give vitality to the congregational singing.

  12. Good discussion here! Perhaps the number one complaint I hear from parishioners is that a song or hymn is too high. I should mention that a majority of the parishioners are seniors. So I am guilty of lowering keys. A current Mass Setting for us is Tony Alonso’s Mass of Joy in Peace. When accompanying without guitars or bass I play it in D flat instead of D. There are a couple of high Ds that sound so much better as D flats, especially at the 7:30 a.m. Mass!

  13. In my experience, there are a lot of church music directors who are sopranos/tenors, and that brings its own cognitive bias into play.

    I have an indelible memory of a 7:30AM Sunday morning Mass in an adjacent town about 3-4 summers ago. THere was an organist and a teenage cantor. The opening hymn (of a contemporary type) started, in an unfamiliar key. They were sopranos, and they had raised the pitch a minor third. Congregational participation was very patchy.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Karl,

      It’s not unreasonable to ask an alto to sing around a 4th line D, and rarely do hymns go higher than that. The key, though, is that altos can easily sing in that range, if they know how to use their voices well in order to do it. Not a problem for choral singers, but many people in the congregation don’t have that training. That means that (1) those people figure out how to do it (2) they drop out on the higher stuff, or drop the octave, or (3) stop singing entirely. We want to avoid the third option, but that’s partly the will of the participant, not entirely the fault of the “musician.”

      Also, I have always been of the philosophy that cantors need to adapt to the congregation, not the other way around. I never adjust pitch of congregational repertoire for the sake of the cantor. I have done so, however, if that cantor happens to sound better at a different pitch for psalm verses (usually within a whole step), as long as it does not adversely affect the congregational response. If cantors have trouble singing something, that probably means I need to train them better!

      Lastly, I think this all plays into the philosophy of developing strong choral programs. A strong choral culture is not in opposition to congregational singing – it actually helps to build up the singing community. That is especially true of children’s choir programs – not all of them will pursue music or sing in choirs as adults, but many of them will be confident singing congregational music in whatever parish they will be in in the future. That’s a wonderful thing that needs to be encouraged.

  14. This is a wonderful discussion thus far. Many excellent points being made. Some random thoughts/anecdotes from me:

    I agree that psychology is a big factor. Familiar hymns with large ranges, such as “I Am the Bread of Life”, or “On Eagle’s Wings”, or even “Amazing Grace” will elicit a great deal of vocal generosity from congregations, even though they may stretch the singing range of some in the assembly. Nothing wrong with that, especially if the accompaniment is sufficient to keep them singers on pitch. Introduce a new hymn with a similar or even slightly smaller range, and folks will clam up. Use that hymn for three or more weeks in a row, and they will be singing it with gusto by the third week (as long as it is of good quality).

    As for key, when I was composing the mass setting we use at my parish, it was originally in E-flat. I intentionally kept the congregational range somewhat small, as one does with a mass setting. I played/sang it for my wife (an alto, mind you), who said, “What about a higher key?” So, I transposed it to F and played again. “Much better,” she said. It really did sing better, even for an alto, and even though it hangs around C and often hits a D. It is, I think, because it keeps us in a more joyful head voice, not in the chest, and our congregation seems to relish it in F!

    As for raising the pitch on the last stanza, I don’t like this, personally. It is as if Andrew Lloyd Webber is at the organ!

    For my part, I love altos (not just the aforementioned one), and generally seat them in front of the sopranos in my choirs, which helps a great deal in tuning the ensemble. They are NOT lazy sopranos. (Those generally stay in the soprano section, and simply shake their heads disapprovingly when the high notes pop up.). I also have a wonderful contralto cantor at the parish, with which the higher voices can “super-sing”.

    1. @Philip Spaeth:
      I also think of the tune ST. COLUMBA. When sung in D major, I’ve experienced congregations driving the “chest voice” (heavy mechanism) up to the high D from A and not quite making it. When approached from Bb in the key of Eb, the high Eb seems to “pop out” with ease. Tessitura is as important as range, especially in relation to register breaks in the voice.

      Also, where G major can feel and sound too strident, and F major too dull or heavy in the voice, Gb is often an ideal key. (That became a problem for me when I began to prefer unequal keyboard temperaments!)

      1. @Kevin Vogt:
        Kevin, we think along similar lines. I have often played LOBE DEN HERREN, for instance, in F-sharp major (in equal temperament). F is dull, and G too bright. If I am ever in a position to commission an organ, I would seriously consider having it pitched at A=415 in an unequal temperament.

  15. Great discussion. I want to put in a plug for publishing SATB harmonization for at least classical hymns and expecting the congregation to pick the part they’re most comfortable with. It irks me that few (if any?) Catholic hymnals publish more than the melody line, whereas all of the Protestant hymnals are written in four parts. Are we less able to read music than our Protestant friends? I know the bass line to many “popular” 4-part hymns, and sometimes just join in that way despite no music in front of me, but it would be great to see the lines published!

    1. @Jay Taylor:
      “Are we less able to read music than our Protestant friends?”

      Well, in the USA, yes, we are. We have no cultural legacy to draw on for the training that was handed down from generation to generation with, say, Anglican, Methodist and Lutheran congregations. (And there are certainly American denominations where harmony was historically discouraged.) And general music education in our public schools is a shadow of what it was in the mid-20th century.

  16. There you go, Doug. I hadn’t thought of that. I wonder if there have been studies done related to physiology in the 17th Century in relation to the old “Chorton.” Maybe modern bodies require a new Chorton, ironically closer to Kammerton. In any case, maybe A 440 doesnt fit voices anymore (at least in our part of the world).

  17. Kevin Vogt (#21):

    Yes, agree, it’s all about tessitura rather than range. As a bass-baritone, I find plenty of hymns that are simply tiring on the voice because the overall tessitura is too high. When that happens, pace Michael Silhavy, I simply stop singing, as I suspect do many others. Individual high notes popping out are not the problem. Most assemblies have no problem at all with Suzanne Toolan’s <I am the Bread of Life in A flat (it was originally published a tone higher than that) with its high E flat at the climax of the refrain. The somewhat growly beginning to each verse gives rest to the assembly voice.

    When I was sub-organist at Brompton Oratory in the 1970s, Ralph Downes always used to insist that hymns printed in G major were played in G flat. It works, though it may mean greater skill for the player.

    KLS (#18):

    Not only are a proportion of music directors tenors or sopranos, so are a number of composers: Stephen Dean, John Bell and David Haas, to name only three, all have higher voices than the rest of us mortals. The first two, in particular, write music which often needs transposing down a whole step for comfort.

    KLS (#23):

    I only know of one Catholic congregation in the whole of England that has ever sung a hymn in 4-part harmony (it was the Passion Chorale on Good Friday: their parish priest at the time was a musician). I do, however, notice fairly regularly that if you print out the SATB harmonies of Taizé chants, rather than just the melody line, then some members of the assembly will attempt the harmonies.

    Alan Johnson (#2):

    Silent Night always used to be printed in C. Doing it in B flat (as more recent hymnals have it) seems to work well for assemblies. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (tune: Mendelssohn) works better in F than G for tessitura reasons.

    Anthony Ruff noted that a German speaker lamented that lower pitches were not good for children’s voices. With respect to that speaker, this is simply not true. Trained children’s voices may have difficulties here, when all the development has been at the top end of the voice, but working with primary-age untrained voices shows that they can easily handle lower notes than children’s choir practitioners would believe. The composer Anne Quigley, for example, has written a number of songs for children that routinely include bottom As (the same note, incidentally, as the beginning of the refrain of Michael Joncas’s On Eagle’s Wings, which never seems to cause assemblies any problems) based on her many years’ of experience teaching children of this age. My own more limited experience with this age-range certainly matches hers.

    The whole debate basically centres around choir harmonies v. assembly comfort. I would agree with Doug O’Neill (#24) that the French Diapason Normal pitch (A=415) is a great help (and, incidentally, explains why so many French cantiques seem high today, when many more organs are tuned to A=440 in France than in former times. (The European Community’s official concert pitch is A=400 at 20 degrees Celsius [68 Fahrenheit]. Since most European churches in fact never reach that temperature, their organs are frequently a little bit flat to concert pitch, but still noticeably higher than the old French pitch.)

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      Paul,

      The French Diapason normal pitch is not A=415 Hz, but rather A=435 Hz. A=415 Hz is something the early instrument community has adopted to roughly correspond to the low pitch used in Europe in the 17th-18th c., especially Germany. There was also what was called “Chorton” – there is some controversy as to whether they actually sang higher, or the organist transposed down a whole step (the latter seems to be the case in Bach’s pre-Leipzig cantatas).

      I’m also confused as to what you call the European Community official pitch at A=400 Hz. . If you are referring to the 1971 recommendation, to my understanding that was for A=440 Hz (which has never been an official international standard). 400 Hz would be extremely low for orchestras – modern instruments literally would not be able to tune that low.

      1. @Doug O’Neill:

        Doug, two typos. Sorry! Going too fast!

        A=440 at 20 degrees Celsius is EC standard pitch. All continental European organ builders work to this pitch (or claim to).

        French Diapason Normal is A=435 (not 415) as you state.

        My apologies. My points remain as stated.

      2. @Doug O’Neill:
        The question of pitch is complicated, indeed. Some sources describe “Chorton” at A=465, corresponding to Renaissance woodwind instruments in German, and “Kammerton” at A=415, corresponding to the lower pitch of Parisian organs, and the woodwinds of Parisian instrument makers, which apparently became popular in Germany as well.

        Still other sources (in the South) describe a “chorton” (church pitch) as much as a minor-3rd lower than whatever the common pitch of wind instruments was. This is in contrast to some Bach Cantata movements, BWV 150, for instance, which gives the bassoon (presumably tuned in the French manner) playing in D minor, with the organ continuo (in Chorton) noted a minor third lower, as are the strings, which presumably were tuned up a minor third to the pitch of the organ (or else the Bassoon was the transposing instrument in A, for which their seems to be no evidence).

        The frequency landscape in question then involves two 1/2-steps: 415 Hz to 440 Hz to 465 Hz. How does a minor-third factor into this? I haven’t measured anything, but I’ve played historic German organs that sound a WHOLE step higher than A=440, and historic French organs that sound to my ear at least 1/2 step lower than A=440. I once was commissioned to write a vocal liturgical piece involving the famous Reichelorgel at the Marktkirche in Halle, for which I had to provide an organ part transposed down a minor third (the organ was pitched in a Chorton a minor third higher than modern pitch.)

        Next topic: Meantone temperament allowing for transposition of Italian organ intonations to conform to comfortable chanting pitch.

      3. @Kevin Vogt:
        Just build an organ with 24 notes per octave in 1/4 comma meantone, and then you can play Italian intonations at whatever pitch you want to your heart’s content. Of course, you would actually have to figure out how to play the thing, but hey, details, details…

      4. @Doug O’Neill:
        Sorry for driving this good thread off the road; my comments about organ pitch, temperament, and transposition were intended to swing back around to affirming that it is TRADITIONAL to “pitch for comfort,” even though I was earlier advocating for pitching for the sake of congregational vocal pedagogy. My last comments were prompted by the memory of a presentation musicologist Michael Dodds gave at the 2011 EROI Conference about transposition in Counter-Reformation Italian choir-organ antiphony. Dodd’s suggested that the ability to transpose was critical to pitching music so that recitation tones were always on the pitch onto which the chanters (priest, cantor, canonical or monastic choir) voices fell, regardless of the mode. I mused that 1/4-comma meantone would be better suited to this practice than a well-tempered tuning, since all of the good keys would sound equally good.

      5. @Kevin Vogt:
        I’m afraid that the ability to transpose is becoming a lost art. When a church is interviewing prospective candidates for a music director position, which do you think would be more telling: (1) sit at a table and ask the candidate how s/he would go about encouraging congregational singing, or (2) test the candidate’s service playing skills, including transposition, sight-reading, improvisation, hymn-playing, psalm accompanying, breathing, etc. Those are the skills that encourage congregational singing. The ability to truly listen, adjust, and pitch music appropriately, whether it is congregational or choral, is one of those skills that is highly valuable but often neglected. If done well, the congregation will never notice it at all. That’s also a reason it is desirable to have at least one person on the interview committee who knows what to listen for and understands these things.

      6. @Doug O’Neill:
        Horn players have to learn to transpose even up to the tritone (like the Brahms 2nd Symphony in B). The joy of F. I remember my collegiate theory TA would transpose things a tritone for vocalizing exercises to handicap the singers with perfect pitch.

        In my many years as an amateur chorister, I had the sense that the keyboardists who actually transposed (rather than hitting a button or something) were just more aware of the effect, and more attentive to the voice. Maybe it just encourages more of an ensemble frame of mind?

  18. A little case study today: we have the Liturgical Press Celebrating the Eucharist in the pews, so we use the Jay Hunstiger responsorial psalm settings. Today’s was in G minor, but I moved it down to F-sharp minor, where it sounded warmer. We also sang Suzanne Toolan’s “I am the Bread of Life,” which is problematic. I know some hymnals print it in A major, which puts the top note of the refrain at an E – risky territory, especially early in the morning. Liturgical Press prints it in A-flat, but that puts the low note in the first measure at an A-flat below middle C; many singers can barely make a tone on that note. In general, I would say that song is not very kind to singers – the entire verse is low, and then the refrain keeps climbing. It’s a challenge physically and psychologically to sing perceived high notes like that after groveling in the depths for so long. Seated at the organ, with a separate cantor, I found it easier to sing harmony on the refrain. Cantors really should not do that, though, because they need to model the melody for the congregation. I’ve experienced several songs like this that are beloved, but not necessarily sung all that well by the congregation. Composers, please avoid writing songs spanning an octave plus a fifth!

  19. If the melody is going to span a twelfth or more, it needs to have peaks well prepared, and areas of comfort to allow a release of tension…. One encounters melodies that seem improbable from the mere compass, but they work well because they follow the foregoing sensibility. (The refrain of ToolanBread (as it’s called in some quarters) illustrates it.)

    And not printing all the parts for Taize defeats the point….

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      I would say that peak is not well-prepared; a leap of an octave is really not very kind. It may differ with different voice types; men who have to navigate an awkward break may have an especially hard time with it.

      1. @Doug O’Neill:
        I would ordinarily agree but for the fact that leap is preceded by three phrases that prepare well for it. Looking just at the octave leap, one would rightly assume this would not work for most congregations, but Sister Toolan prepared it well enough that many folks (men included, baritones most of them) sing it reasonably well. Of course, if you’re a true bass, it’s less felicitous. But true basses are out there on the bell curve, as it were.

  20. This thread is funny (the kinds of things church musicians will talk about!) and very enlightening, a good reminder for people like me in the pew who don’t normally think about how much thought and careful consideration may be given to such seemingly simple decisions as pitching the settings for congregational hymns.

    My sense is that people who like singing will sing and those who don’t will not, regardless of it all, so just set it to whatever you who are in charge of the day’s music think it should be, and all shall be fine.

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