Vocal Arranging: Change Up The Order

As worship leaders or music producers/arrangers we’ve all been in that awkward situation where the song we’re rehearsing just doesn’t sound quite right.

It’s no secret that most of the contemporary worship songs we hear on the radio are recorded a few steps higher than what normal congregations can comfortably sing.  It’s also no secret that in many cases, the artists who record those songs for radio and records actually LEAD the same songs a few steps lower when leading a live worship service.

If you’re like me you’ve found yourself rehearsing a song and your sopranos are complaining that it’s just too high.  They are screeching and it no longer is singable so you do what makes sense … you LOWER THE KEY.

Now, the sopranos are singing the melody in a comfortable range but the song has lost it’s energy.  Something is missing and the power of the song has drifted away into a mediocre sing-along with no energy.

Have you been there with me?   Well friends, I have good news.   There’s an easy fix.   Just change up the vocal arrangement!

For the sake of clarity I’d like to give a brief explanation of the 3 primary vocal parts and what we would typically have them arranged to sing:

Typical Vocal Parts

1)  Soprano:  higher range female voices, typically arranged to sing the melody of the song.
2)  Alto:  a lower female voice providing the harmony that follows just underneath the melodic line.
3) Tenor:  the higher male voice that would be singing the harmony below the alto or above the soprano (usually the same note in your typical 3-part arrangement).
4) Bass:  to the dismay of those of us who tend to have lower bass/baritone voices, most contemporary worship music isn’t arranged to include a classic bass line, but the lower bass/baritone guys can typically double the melody an octave lower.

So, for example, if we are on a “C” chord and the melody is the high C, I would assume the alto is on the G and the tenor is on the E.

One of my favorite ways to change this up is flipping the order so that the men sing the soprano part (the melody), the sopranos drop down to the alto harmony, and the altos drop down to where the tenors would’ve been.   By doing this you get a powerful, male melody and some beautiful female harmony all around.

Case in point:

As I mentioned in this weeks’ “Sunday Setlists” post we did a song by Gateway Worship called “The Lord Reigns”.   We originally rehearsed this in the Key of G and after singing through the song I noticed that the song felt low and lifeless.  It was a comfortable range for everyone but lower than normal and the song is more conducive to a celebrant, jubilant feel.   There was nothing in the Key of G with the sopranos singing the “big part” in the mid-alto range.

I could raise the key 1-2 steps, but that started pushing the sopranos to a range higher than the comfortable “C” and now we had some energy but it sounded more operatic.  Not the style we’re looking for.

Finally, I kicked the Key up from G to C — a full fourth up … and we choose to move the guys to the melody (soprano) and drop the girls down on the lower harmonies.  Immediately, the guys in the sound booth started throwing their thumbs up in the air and nodding with a resounding “yes”.  We’d found our sweet spot and the song soared with power and energy.

I’d encourage you to try it sometime.  Move your parts around and break the normal routine.   Pick a song and rearrange your vocals to see how it gives a different color and style.

Did it work?   I’d love to hear more of your vocal arranging ideas!

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About the Author
Fred McKinnon is a Pianist/Composer from St. Simons Island, GA. Checkout the full BIO for more information and a complete bio. Worship Interludes Podcast - This podcast features instrumentals for prayer, meditation, soaking worship, relaxation, study music, and rest. Visit the Podcast page to listen or subscribe. Follow on Social MediaFacebookYouTubeInstagramTwitter

3 comments on “Vocal Arranging: Change Up The Order

  1. Mark Cole says:

    I totally agree with changing up the vocals.. I’ve been doing it for years.. I put the song in a good baritone key (top note C# – E) and put the alto’s on the tenor and soprano’s on the alto.. it puts everyone in their strongest vocal range and gives a great contemporary sound.. the soprano’s will complain a bit when you start doing this but they quickly catch on.. And… it’s great for the congregation when the top note is mainly around a C# or D.

    1. fmckinnon says:

      Hey Mark,

      Thanks a ton for stopping by and leaving the comment … much appreciated coming from a very well-respected, awesome arranger as yourself! Fred McKinnon
      email: fred@fredmckinnon.com
      twitter: @fmckinnon
      facebook: http://www.facebook.com/fredmckinnon

  2. Guest says:

    Never thought about this, going to have to try this.

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