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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.

3 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.

  • Elijah Engle

    I have been singing all of my life, ever since I was a boy and my parents lead worship at our church. I never found singing to be very difficult until puberty hit. I still continued to sing, but my once high-pitched voice began to gradually change to a bass/baritone voice, and my voice still continues to crack today. Ever since, I have found it very difficult to sing and lead worship songs in the keys the original male artists used, because they were always too high for me. Usually I would be okay on the verses, but once the chorus came it would be way too high for me and I’d either have to drop down an octave, or sing the chorus in falsetto. (Which may work for a “performance” song as a stylistic choice, but especially does not work well for worship leading.) However, I found it strange that I could sing female-lead songs, following the verses and choruses as the singer lead, just an octave lower. They worked much better for my voice, but I never lead those songs because they were songs for a female vocalist to lead.

    Because of these vocal difficulties, I originally came to Cedarville’s worship program as a guitar primary and vocal secondary. Although I really really love and enjoy singing, even more than guitar at times, I felt that my vocal range was too low to effectively lead a church in worship when I compared my own voice to the voices of other male worship leaders. Whether I was singing at church or in chapel, I could never match the male vocalist leading that worship song because they would always sing much higher than me. I believe this has even lead to jealousy in my heart, because they always sounded so good and I could never match their range. Worse yet, it also took my focus off of truly worshiping Jesus and instead put the focus on myself. However, after studying here for a semester, taking vocal lessons and being a part of the Resonance Band, my outlook on my voice and worship song keys has completely changed, and I think this article sums it up really well!

    Firstly, my voice is still developing. The voice cracks I experience are proof of that. My vocal teacher has really helped me realize this, as well as how big my vocal range actually is. (And how much it can expand as I continue to practice and learn proper singing technique.) I likely will not be able to match male singer-artists with tenor voices, but I think my voice range will be effective for leading worship in congregational keys that most people can follow along with and sing with little trouble. This will also help the congregation focus on worshiping Jesus instead of trying to match the vocalist leading the song.

    Second, being a part of the Resonance band has been an awesome experience, and congregational keys is a subject we have touched on since the beginning of the semester. I have really enjoyed being able to change keys on the spot with the band, and I have noticed that all of the songs we lead were all changed to keys that I even I am able to sing and follow along with. This has allowed me to more easily worship as I play and sing, and I have noticed many people singing in the congregations we have lead as well.

    So you are right! It is not about picking a key that sounds the best for our voice. It is not about whether a guy or girl should lead a song that was originally male-lead or female-lead. It is all about the CONGREGATION and what will most easily allow them to focus on God and worship Him! As worship leaders, we should try to pick worship songs that the congregation can connect with, and keys that will not distract them from the glory of God! We should make these decisions even if it is not our favorite song, or it is in a key that we do not feel super comfortable singing in, because it is what’s best for the congregation we are supposed to serve as leaders, and is also an act of worship on our part. Thanks for the article Dr. O!