Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Have you ever been in church and had someone sitting near you belting out hymns off-key or off-pitch?
It happened to me this Sunday. A woman in the pew behind mine was singing enthusiastically, blasting my right ear with notes out of sync with the cantor and the musician.
This is a familiar situation in churches.
(It’s even more familiar in denominations that don’t have instrumental music—like the one my parents grew up in—to keep the congregation in tune.)
When this happens, what should our reaction be?
An Ancient Saying
Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Augustine said, “He who sings well prays twice.”
Actually, he didn’t really say that, though he did say something similar (see Trent Horn’s book What the Saints Never Said).
In reality, the proverb has changed form over time, and there are other versions, such as “He who sings prays twice.”
Notice the difference?
The first says “sings well” but the second just says “sings.”
I can’t help thinking that whoever in history first added the “well” was dealing with some off-pitch singers.
If you take the word well the wrong way, it falsifies the sentiment, because God is concerned with what is in your heart more than the specific frequency your vocal cords are vibrating at.
If you want to include “well,” in your version of the proverb, the quality of singing needs to be judged in proportion to a person’s singing ability, not an abstract standard of perfection.
It’s the same principle as the widow’s mite: A person who gives an objectively small donation out of poverty reveals a greater generosity of heart than a person who gives a large donation from a position of wealth.
In the same way, an enthusiastic but off-pitch singer is displaying a greater heart for God than a person who singing perfunctorily but pitch-perfect.
So when someone is singing off-pitch, principle #1 is: Remember what God ultimately cares about. It isn’t the specific note.
Can’t They Hear?
Admittedly, it can be cringe-inducing to hear people singing off-pitch or off-key. (There’s a technical difference between the two, but we don’t need to worry about that here.)
When you’re hearing somebody singing loudly off-key, it can be tempting to ask, “Can’t they hear that they’re off key? Why don’t they fix what they’re doing—or at least sing more softly?”
Actually, hearing may be the problem.
Some years ago, back when I was first starting out as a square dance caller, I went to a “caller’s school” or weeklong seminar for beginning callers.
It turned out that one of the students could not sing. At all.
That’s important, because being able to sing is one of a caller’s standard skills.
The caller coaches in charge of the event asked her, compassionately, “Do you have a hearing problem?”
The answer was a resounding yes. The woman had been diagnosed in childhood with a major hearing problem and was using hearing aids.
“That explains it,” the coaches said. “Whenever we’ve met someone who consistently has trouble with pitch, it’s usually because of a hearing problem.”
They explained that, if people can hear the notes they’re singing, they naturally tend to find the right ones—at least most of the time. But if there’s something wrong with their hearing, they may not be able to do that.
Fortunately, the coaches were experienced enough they were able to offer the woman helpful suggestions for how she could compensate for her hearing problem as a caller.
This leads us to principle #2 when someone is singing off-pitch in Church: The person may not be able to hear the problem, and that’s why they’re singing off-pitch. It’s not their fault.
Why So Loud?
Sometimes there’s a paradox: It can seem like the people who have trouble singing are also among those who sing the loudest.
Why is that? You’d think that if someone knew they had trouble singing, they’d sing more quietly instead of blasting it out.
Again, hearing problems are the explanation: If you have a generalized hearing loss (as opposed to the inability to hear specific frequencies) then your own singing sounds softer to you.
And, just like you turn up a television or a radio when you can’t hear it, you then turn up the volume with your vocal tract so you that can hear yourself.
Of course, hearing isn’t always the explanation for off-pitch singing. Sometimes a person can hear that he’s off-pitch but isn’t sure what to do about it.
In this case, the person is more likely to sing softly because they know the problem exists and he wants to minimize it.
In this case as well, there is reason for compassion: The person needs to adjust the way they’re using their vocal tract, but lacks the training needed to do so.
We thus come to principle #3: There’s something admirable about what the off-pitch singers are doing: They know there is a problem, and they’re in the difficult situation of not knowing how to fix it, but they’re soldiering on and doing the best they can.
If you’ve ever soldiered on despite difficulties (and that’s all of us), you ought to be able to have compassion for people in this situation!
There’s a related phenomenon that can occur in singing where a person isn’t actually singing off-pitch or off-key: They may just not be gifted with a pleasant voice.
I’m aware of a British singer who contributed to the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s. She made many records despite the fact that she has a very raspy voice.
When I first heard her, I thought, “Why would record companies repeatedly sign contracts with this person?”
Eventually, I came to appreciate her singing. What she lacked in vocal quality, she made up for in personality and music selection and was an effective entertainer.
And her singing was technically proficient: She did hit the right pitches and sing consistently in key. She just had a raspy sound in doing so.
That’s something completely out of her control. Our voices naturally have different textures, and it’s difficult or impossible to change them.
So that’s principle #4: We need to look past the physical limitations a person’s vocal tract imposes on them and see what’s valuable about what they’re doing with it, including in church.
Thus far we’ve been looking at the situation of the person who is singing off-pitch. Now let’s turn that around: Suppose that you’re singing along—on-pitch—and you’re listening to someone else struggle.
Yes, this situation can be cringe-inducing. But what does it reveal about you, the listener?
It reveals you have the ability to hear the off-pitch notes. Be grateful that you can. The other person may not be able to.
The fact you’re singing on-pitch also reveals that not only is your hearing good, you also have the knowledge you need to use your vocal tract to produce the notes you want. Be grateful for that, too.
If you’re also gifted with a pleasant vocal quality, that’s just one more thing to be grateful for!
Principle #5 is thus: Be grateful for what you have!
Some Practical Suggestions
I’d like to conclude with some suggestions both for people who struggle with singing in church and for those who hear problems.
We’re blessed to live in an age where there are things that can be done for hearing problems. If you suspect that you have one but aren’t sure, go to an audiologist and have it checked out. Doing so can reap benefits not just in church but through the whole of life!
If you can hear that you’re off-pitch, there are things you can do about that, too. The solution may be as simple as singing an octave higher or lower so that the melody falls more naturally within your vocal range. (Alternately, though this is trickier, you might be able to harmonize with it using notes that are in your vocal range.)
And there are lots of helps for building more skill as a singer. There’s always been the option of singing lessons, but today there are many apps, YouTube videos and audio/video courses by professional singing coaches that you can use right in your own home.
If you’re listening to problematic singing in church, we’ve already covered the principles you should employ: (1) Recognize that what’s ultimately important to God is what’s in the person’s heart, not their objective singing quality (in fact, if you never join in the congregational singing, an off-key singer is contributing more than you).
Also, recognize that it may not be the person’s fault because of (2) a hearing problem or (3) a lack of knowledge of how to control their vocal tract. In fact, they may be valiantly soldiering on despite being aware of a problem and not knowing how to fix it, which is admirable! (4) And the person may just not be gifted with a pleasing voice.
(5) Finally, be grateful for your own blessings.
Fundamentally, one should use these situations as occasions of compassion and understanding, to think about others and the challenges they face and the way that they—and we—can please God through the gift of song, each according to our means.
After all, “He who sings, prays twice.”