Why do hymns tend to be in such high keys?

i’ve noticed that most hymns i’ve ever heard in non-pentecostal churches are all waaaaayy too high for anyone to sing. what is thelogic behind this?? is it some kind of punishment for women? or do they just want to force us to learn to harmonize?

Probably because they are written as four-part harmonies or some such and most people are simply happening to sing the part than doesn’t suit their range.

What you see is the melody written in a register typical for sopranos. Since I’m a bass, oddly enough, it’s not a “high key” for me. Sopranos and basses very often can sing exactly two octaves from each other.

Most organists/accompaniests that I’ve known are also experienced choral singers and tend to have a wider range than the average member of the congregation. Thus they are likely to feel comfortable singing hymns set in keys that might be uncomfortable for others. And if your accompaniest tends to favor a higher key than you like on one hymn, he/she will probably do so on quite a few.

Also, many modern electronic organs and other keyboards have settings that allow the player to alter the key by a few steps while still playing the music “as written” or in an easier (fewer flats/sharps) position. The ones I’ve seen, though, usually allow the key to be raised, not lowered. So there may be a certain bias towards raising songs that are a bit too low while leaving ones that are just a bit too high where they are.

I’m a soprano and find that a lot of the hymns we do are almost too low for me. I’ve never had a problem with a hymn being too high (with the exception of that one we do on Easter that has the descant that goes up to a high Bb…) but I’m a freak-of-nature soprano. I can tell the rest of the congregation has problems with anything above a C. Wimps. :wink:

Because angels have really high squeaky voices.

So all you have to do is inhale some helium during rests and there you go.

Because they were orginally intended to be sung by choir boys.

A number of things:

  1. Hymns are in different keys depending on which hymnal you find them in.

  2. The leader will often transpose the music to suit his/her own voice.


  1. Back in the day, average people were taught to sing harmony. Look at an old hymnal, and you’ll see the notes written with all sorts of shapes. The different shapes represented “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti”, which is what “non-musicians” were taught. “Do” represented the root note of the key, regardless of the key, and the other shapes represented the intervals between pitches. So a person not formally trained in music didn’t have to learn the names of all those notes - they just had to know that “circle-square-triangle means I sing do-re-mi” and they didn’t have to worry about what the actual note was.

And since people knew how to do this, they would look at the hymnal and choose the part that best suited their voice. Women with high voices would sing the notes on top; men with low voices would sing the notes on the bottom. Today, the average musically-illiterate person knows neither A-B-C nor Do-Re-Mi, and so they naturally attempt to sing the melody because that’s what the leader is singing. They have absolutely no idea how to read the harmony parts, even though those harmony parts are clearly notated in the hymnal.

So what happens is you get women with low voices trying unsuccessfully to sing the melody using the same notes the sopranos are singing. Or, realizing those notes are too high, they’ll try to sing the same notes an octave lower, which results in the melody going to low for them. Whereas if they knew how to read that alto part that’s written there, they’d have a much easier time.

But hymns were written that way because people were expected to know this stuff (Or maybe the other way around - people were taught this suff because that’s the way the hymns were written). Nowadays, people don’t learn music theory unless they actually choose to study music. As a result, “modern” church music is usually written so that the melody line uses a limited range of notes - neither too high nor too low - so that everybody can sing the melody.