THERE ARE TWO FUNDAMENTALS TO SINGING CHORAL MUSIC: PITCH AND RHYTHM. While you may be able to skate by without knowing some of the more advanced aspects of singing and directing, you need to know how to pitch and beat time. If you don’t, you can learn easily at one of the Singing Schools or from a more experienced musician in your church. You can even take a few private music lessons.
In circles of churches influenced by RJ Stevens Music and some of the other singing schools, use of a pitch pipe is standard practice. In other circles, pitch pipes are rarely used, even by people who know how to use them. Sometimes use of a pitch pipe is even discouraged by well-meaning brethren. Taylor Publications, the largest a cappella store in churches of Christ, doesn’t even sell them. While I have seen many men lead worship without a pitch pipe, only two of them could hit the pitch correctly every time. The others seem to miss the pitch almost every song, which can be distracting or even detrimental to the worship depending upon the range of the song. In Christ Alone simply cannot be sung by most congregations unless it is on pitch. I cannot count how many times people have privately complained to me about their worship leader’s inability to pitch the song where they could sing it.
Most of the music in church hymnals is fairly simple, but not so simple that it doesn’t require some training on the fundamentals. The fact of the matter is that our churches today have chosen to sing a cappella, four part harmony, choral music. We aren’t chanting or singing simple call and response songs or singing in unison. While some would argue our worship shouldn’t require training or focus on mechanical aspects of music, those same people today still want to use choral music. We do not have to use choral music as found in hymnals, but if we are going to, it necessitates that we learn how to do so reasonably well so as not to detract from our worship.
As a side note, much of the old convention style barber shop and southern gospel music, as well as contemporary Christian pop music is quite difficult and requires a more advanced musical skill level to avoid stumbling through the song and allowing the mechanics to become a distraction.
Here are 6 reasons to use a pitch pipe as a worship leader, followed by 6 reasons not to.
1. It helps the church worship.
If your church worships a cappella, then the church is the instrument of praise–the people. Your goal as a leader is to draw out full participation from each member. If you sing in four part harmony and you miss the pitch, some of the parts may not be able to sing, may damage their voices trying, and at a minimum people will be distracted by your blunder. Your attempt to minimize mechanics and focus on worship will backfire as the missed pitch causes the singing to falter. Why not take 5 seconds to get the pitch and then everyone can enjoy the singing? A lesser matter is that songs tend to sound much fuller and brighter on the correct pitch. Too low and the singing becomes dull and lifeless. Too high and the singing becomes strained and tinny.
2. You don’t have perfect pitch.
Rare musicians possess perfect pitch. Some who think they have it actually have something more like “pitch memory.” While musicians who practice several hours or more daily may be able to nail it most of the time, the average song leader is nowhere nearly that precise. As mentioned, I have known two worship leaders in my life time who had perfect pitch. It’s a gift, not a skill. I have also known many extremely talented musicians who use a pitch pipe.
3. It helps calm your nerves so you can focus on worship.
Maybe you sing in chorus and have pretty solid pitch. You thought you could get the pitch without a pitch pipe as you could “hear it in your head.” But you felt a little uneasy starting the song and furrowed your brow as you stared down at the page. Two phrases in and you’re wondering if you’re going to be able to hit the high notes. Also, you think the singing sounds kind of weak and hesitant. By this point, you are not worshiping; you’re thinking way too hard about a simple yet critical mechanic. Why not use a pitch pipe so you can confidently look up, smile, and worship as you lead your church?
4. It sets a good example for others.
Maybe you’re so talented that you don’t need a pitch pipe. That’s awesome! But remember, others are unquestionably going to try to emulate you. They will look up to you, and they will learn from you, but they almost certainly do not have your gift. The consequences could really hurt the worship and rattle the confidence of the song leader who tries it.
5. God deserves our best offering in worship.
The church has chosen to sing a cappella choral music in four parts. If we were chanting, or singing very simple songs in unison, we might not need a pitching device. But since we are singing choral music that sometimes reaches a moderately complex level, we need to ensure we are trained as leaders in how to do that. If we don’t want to be trained or use discipline and good technique, perhaps we should choose a simpler worship style such as the ancient chants. But since that isn’t likely to happen in our culture, why not learn to do what we do well? Our worship is a sacrifice of praise to our God.
6. Because you can.
It’s difficult to pitch a song without a pitch pipe. It’s relatively easy to do so with one. Most hymnals have a “cheat sheet” which gives you the pitch and starting note. You don’t even have to read music! With a little ear training, you’ll be able to pitch match like a champ! Not everyone has perfect pitch, but almost everyone can use a pitch pipe. It’s easy. Why not take advantage of it?
And now for some fun! 6 reasons not to use a pitch pipe…
1. You think, “We’re just singing.”
If you don’t think of singing as worship, and don’t think it’s that important, then who cares if the pitch is three steps off and half the church can’t sing?
2. You have perfect pitch–really.
3. You want to look like a professional musician.
You never, ever get nervous–even when you’re ill-prepared, winging it, and botching the song in front of hundreds of people. I really doubt pride would be the motive of my brethren, but you can be the judge of your own heart. Do you feel that a pitch pipe is for amateurs? As I mentioned, many highly skilled musicians use a pitching device, but even if it does look a little amateurish to a musician of your caliber, perhaps helping the church worship is more important than appearances.
4. You think God doesn’t care about the singing, only the thoughts in your heart.
If that’s true, why not just have more preaching, or chanting, or just prayer and meditation?
5. Your church worships exclusively with chants and call and response psalms in an upper chamber whilst adorned by full length robes and wielding Authorized 1611 KJV Bibles like true first century church restorationists!
6. Because you can’t.
If you don’t know how to use a pitch pipe, you can likely learn pretty easily. But if you can’t right now or have tried and it just isn’t an ability you possess, you may not be the best person to lead others in singing. If you’re the best person in your local fellowship, then give it your best shot and know the Lord is fully pleased with your humble effort which is truly all any of us have to offer anyway. I want to encourage you to keep serving that need in spite of how difficult it may be for you. Thank you for being willing to stand up in front of others and do something that may be uncomfortable for you because that’s what your church needs you to do. The truth is, all of us are feeble, humble servants from the one talent man to the one with five.
Do you use a pitch pipe? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments.