Let me just start with an arithmetic sum.
You can check my math, and you might find I entered something incorrectly, but at the end of this relatively short post-day, the point will remain.
You see, no other church types deal with this. (The others have their own problems.) But they don’t deal with singing songs 4 scalar steps too high or a step too low. We do. We do deal with this. We deal with it because we have many leaders who don’t have the requisite skills and/or tools and/or understanding.
Stop right now, ye criticizers of those who critique. While you may be justified in personal annoyance at something you’re not interested in, you are not justified in sitting in your own judgment chair, judging this or other critiques as unwarranted simply because they are critiques. So, cease thou thy dismissive hand-waves. Cease thinking I shouldst spend my time on something more important (read: some issue you’re more interested in). And by all means, cease thinking that this is just a musician talking about something that’s not really of concern to the a cappella church.
This is real stuff. It deals with physical and acoustical realities (not mere opinions).
The math above? Have you figured it out? It represents pitch levels in the songs sung in a recent assembly. With 0 as the theoretical “ground zero” of pitch, +4 means 4 steps too high; -1 means one step too low, etc. The net grand average in this particular assembly turned out to be about 1/2 step low, but some of the individual songs’ pitch levels were not OK. 2 or 4 steps low is untenable, in most cases.
The numbers are only estimates; moreover, it captures theoretical points in time per song, in essence averaging the pitch levels that changed throughout the given song.
Is the precise pitch for each song important? Well, no, not in most cases. A half-step doesn’t often make too much difference. But the general pitch level is important, and even one step can have a notable effect on the atmosphere.
Aside: much of the contemporary repertoire associated with solo “artist” voices is written and sung at pitch levels not conducive to congregational singing. Leaving other issues aside for the moment, a transcriber/arranger must consider the pitch level of all the voice parts to be singing. If singing the melody in unison, roughly Bb/C to C/D (an octave above) is generally OK. But if SATB parts are part of the conception, as in most a cappella churches, the melody generally needs to range a bit higher — from D, up an octave to E/F. When a melody is too low or too high or too broad in its range, human vocal ranges are strained, and/or harmonies don’t work (remember, we’re talking about acoustical realities and mathematical relationships between frequencies here, not simple tastes in voice quality or harmony.
Although opinion is involved, this is not primarily a matter of preference or opinion. It is a matter of empirically observable reality. The human voice operates within God-designed parameters, and harmonies exist within a natural order which is also, of course, God-originated.
A cappella leaders, really . . . this is important. Get the pitch right (or at least within a half-step), and keep it there. (Don’t let the pitch plummet or soar with the whims of the loudest, out-of-tune voices in the hall.)