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Girls vs. Guys

So I get a lot of questions about the next topic. One of the popular descriptors about worship songs today is “it’s a guy song” or “it’s a girl song.” Typically what is meant by the comment is that a girl (or guy) sang the song on the original recording. I understand that when we hear that particular song, we may associate it with a particular voice type and have expectations about who is singing it.

I have two main concerns about this as it affects congregational singing.

1. Gender specificity
If it is a “girl” song, do we always have females sing the lead? Should only females sing the lead? Is there something about the lyric that suggests the singer is one sex or the other? Typically, the answers are no, no and no. I can’t think of any song that is sung by congregations in most worship contexts that would be gender specific. There are songs sung by Christian artist that are gender specific, but no widely used worship songs that would suggest being sung by one specific sex or the other come to mind.

2. Key selection
Beyond the above mention connection with the sex of the artist who originally recorded the song, I believe that the most common usage of “girl” or “guy” song has to do with key selection. I work with a lot of singers, and the young ladies typically love to sing in their “chest” voice, or the lower part of their voice. The natural break for women typically occurs around the middle of the treble clef staff A-C above middle C. Singing above that puts some women out of their preferred vocal comfort zone. Most female worship artists also sing in their chest register.

However, most male worship artist are tenors and typically sing in their upper register. They tend to sing in keys that are higher than their female counterparts. As a result, we have a dichotomy of guy songs/girl songs, or perhaps more correctly guy keys/girl keys. I can’t fault singers for wanting to pick ranges that sound good for their voice when it comes to making recordings. Everyone wants to sound their best and be comfortable vocally.

I can, however, fault worship leaders for picking keys that are only best for the female lead singer or only the male lead singer. At a recent worship conference, a band was doing a demo of a song and recognized that the key was low and apologized for using a “girl key.” If we pick girl keys, are we really expecting that the girls only will sing? Will the guys need to sing lower in their range (or really high)? With “guy keys”: will the ladies sing low or really high?

While girl/guy songs may be the norm in the music industry, when picking congregational songs, we should pick congregational keys. I personally like the phrase “from C to shining C” to help remind myself of where the normal vocal range for men and women. More than a third above or below this will be a stretch for most people. I encourage all worship leaders to look at (or sing the melody) and identify high and low notes to see if they are within this range. Picking good keys for the congregation is vital for good congregational singing. Let’s stop making our congregation sing in keys that were best for the original artists.

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