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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.

2 comments to Girls vs. Guys

  • This is such a strange “issue” in the realm of church music. In the grand scheme of things it seems so minuscule, yet some churches and/or worship leaders focus so heavily on it. This summer during my internship, the worship pastor assigned me to lead the song “Living Hope.” I was stoked! It is a powerful song and I believed that my voice had a new style to bring to the table than the male leads that usually sang it. We changed the key to fit my range (still very much congregational), and the congregation responded well, sang loud, and seemed to truly be worshiping through the songs.

    Through the planning process of this service, though, I had another summer intern ask why I would be leading instead of one of the male vocalists. To him the idea was repulsive. But who are we to say that the specific person/voice that leads the song impacts the hearts of the congregation? If the Spirit wants to move, the Spirit WILL move in the hearts of the congregation no matter what. It is our jobs to prepare well and prayerfully, doing our jobs with humility and excellence, trusting the rest of it to the Lord.

  • Emerald Geiger

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this Dr. O. I feel like this has been something that has always been on my mind but we have never truly talked about. I feel odd when people discuss songs as a “guy” or “girl” song. I feel like I’ve been immersed in the idea that because their’s a specific gender singing, that the song selection has narrowed to only songs that have been sung originally for that gender. An example I can think of for females is What A Beautiful Name, and yet Hillsong has a beautiful gospel rendition that is male led and has not as much recognition. In regards of keys, I have personally made the mistake of leading songs in keys that were too low or high for the congregation. Our goal in worship is to lead the congregation and lead in songs that are focused on a theme or message. The congregation shouldn’t be put aside at the expense of us leaders liking a specific sound.

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