Tempo is more important than key

Why is it we spend so much time deciding what key to sing our songs in but so little time deciding what tempo to sing them at?

Tempo matters

The music we play should be helping people to sing. And as we sing together the Holy Spirit will cause Christ’s word to dwell richly among us – bringing praise to God’s name, building us up as believers and reaching the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.

It might be obvious but having music which is at the “wrong” tempo can drastically affect the church’s singing.

What if it’s too fast? Then people can’t get the words in. They simply can’t catch their breath. Even if they do manage to get their mouths around all the syllables that are flying at them, the truths which should cause them to rejoice can rush by without comprehension.

On the other hand, if it’s all too slow then people can be left not wanting to sing. Each line is so drawn out that by the time the phrases come to a close the worshipper is losing the will to live.

Of course, there is another pitfall. The tempo could be fluctuating too much. Things might be at an incredibly slow and sluggish speed at one point in the song. Then lightning fast next. This is likely to throw people off. In fact you run the risk of committing both of the above errors in the same song!

All of this is ultimately making it hard for people to join in. And when people want to sing but can’t then it’s affecting God’s goals for our singing.

Singing unites us

When the musicians provide a solid tempo it helps people to sing with confidence. Most people don’t like to be left singing alone. We’ve all had that awkward moment where we start singing before everyone else does! When we get the tempo right it’s going to help the congregation sing together without hesitation.

At my church we pray The Lord’s Prayer together every time we gather on a Sunday. On the whole we say the same words at the same time when we pray it. But it’s pretty much impossible for a large group of people to say that many words all simultaneously. However, when we sing together we can say a whole host of different things all as one voice.

This is part of the reason that singing is good for unifying us and expressing our unity in Christ. By fixing words to a melody, played at a certain tempo, the many voices of the church become one, as it were.

The Bible often speaks of the people joining together to sing, for example Psalm 95:1 – “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” And think of the redeemed people of God in Revelation chapter 5, they are united by the Lamb who was slain and all together they declare he is worthy as they sing. It’s good to sing together as one.

All of this doesn’t mean that there is one perfect tempo we should always be singing at. We can’t just set the metronome to 120 bpm and be done with it. The song (and its setting) should affect the tempo. Just as the tempo will affect the song. We’ll naturally want to sing more wordy or contemplative songs at a slower speed than simpler, upbeat songs. You’ll do the same song at different tempos at different times, depending on the congregation and the context.

How to get it right

I reckon there are several things we can do to help get the tempo right for our songs. 

Have someone count the band in. But before you count it off, think. Think of the words. Sing the words of the chorus in your head and feel the appropriate tempo for them. If one part of the song is particularly tricky or prone to pace problems then sing that part in your head before counting in at that speed. Practise counting in. Do it during your rehearsals as a band.

When rehearsing, have the tempo and feel on the agenda. Often vocalists are ignored during band rehearsals. However, as the ones singing the words, I find they generally have a good feel for whether a song is the right tempo. Ask the vocalists how they find the tempo when rehearsing.

Some bands will play with click tracks in their ears at their churches. If that’s you then make sure you’re willing (and able) to change the tempo if you have to. If you don’t play with a click track have you considered practising with a metronome at a rehearsal? It will help people feel and listen to the pulse and, hopefully, keep everyone in the band together. This may take time and you might not want to do it at every rehearsal! Alternatively, encourage band members to practise at home with a metronome. Bonus points for recording yourself and listening back to critique your timing.

You don’t need a drummer to have good timing as a band. There is always a groove to music whether there’s a drummer in the band or not. It’s worth everyone in the band having a good concept of this and not relying on the drummer for it. Hopefully the drums aren’t being played non-stop for the whole service so at these points other members of the band will have to keep time.

All of this is to say, by getting the tempo right we’ll help the church to unite together as they sing the praises of Christ. (Oh, and don’t forget to pick the right key too.)

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