Sometimes I’ve been asked which key I prefer to sing in – not just for one song, but in general. That’s an absurd question and tells me that the person asking doesn’t understand much about voice or music.
You don’t have one key you sing in. What really matters is where the melody lies in the song, the pitches of the most dramatic notes, and which pitches are most commonly used in a song. Just because a song is in the key of G, for example, doesn’t mean that the melody runs from one G to the next, or that G is the most important pitch in the song. It might be, but it doesn’t have to be. The question of which key a singer prefers can’t be answered with a one-size-fits-all answer for all songs.
Singers are privileged musicians: they are the ones in the band who get to determine the key for every song! This is because, unlike other instruments:
- The voice can’t be transposed or alternately tuned
- The voice usually has different timbres and strengths in different ranges
- The voice often has a smaller range than most other instruments in the band
If you haven’t had a lot of experience picking keys for your songs, you may find that picking the right key is a little harder than it seems!
Here’s a story to illustrate. In one of my first bands, I made a chart for Proud Mary (an awful, nearly useless chart, in retrospect). I knew I liked singing that song in my lower registers because of the rougher, edgier tonal qualities I can get from my voice when I sing in my low range. Also, the song has a wide melodic range, and I wanted to have room at the top for singing strong high notes later in the song. So I picked the key of A, and practiced singing the song at home in that key. It felt nice and comfortable, with a warm, deep, edgy timbre.
But when I got to rehearsal, and was surrounded by drums, bass, guitar, keys, tambourine, and backup vocals, no one could hear me at all in the first verse!
I learned that day that A below middle C, although a completely comfortable note for a jazz gig or medium-volume pop tune, is not a note that I can sing with enough volume to be heard over a loud rock song. We moved the song up an entire minor third to C, and there it stayed. The highest notes in the song were a pretty big challenge at first, but after a while they became easy and fun.
Here are some things to ask yourself when picking a key for a new song in your repertoire.
Questions for Singers to Ask When Picking Your Song Key
What are the lowest and highest notes in the song?
Determine the song’s range. Make sure to fit the song within that range. If the song’s range is larger than your range, you might be able to change the melody a bit to rein in the notes that are outside your range.
Make sure that when you sing the lowest note, you aren’t pushing at all – that just sounds bad! And make sure that you don’t have to strain to sing the highest note.
When you think you’ve picked the right key, make sure to try at least one whole step up and down in each direction, to be sure. Even a half step can make a big difference in some songs.
What is the song genre?
Sultry jazz with a small combo? You can probably afford to place the song nearly as low as you can comfortably sing it – if you want to – because you don’t need much volume. Pop? If you are singing a Christina Aguilera cover and have the voice to go high, you probably want to go high so you can belt impressively. Rock? You might want to put it wherever you can sing the loudest – unless you are part of that rare rock band that actually plays at a medium volume.
How loud will the gig be?
This depends partly on the genre, but also on the musicians themselves, as well as the sound engineer, room acoustics and other factors. But if it’s loud rock music, you might as well forget your lower half octave or so, because your lower notes may not be powerful enough to be heard at all in a loud setting, and you don’t want to push them.
On the other hand, if the performance volume is extremely low – such as in an intimate restaurant – you may not want to choose songs that take you up into a higher range if you have any trouble controlling your volume, or if you sound at all strident, in your upper range.
What type of singing voice, vocal timbre, or tonal quality matches the song?
Record yourself during practice to learn how your voice sounds all across your entire range. You might sound weak, gravelly, or sultry down low. You might sound bright, airy, or shrill up high.
Consider the feeling and message of the song, and match your vocal timbre to the song’s feel by placing the song in a key that will allow you to sing in that pitch range. For example, a happy, bouncy song may merit a higher placement in your range than a melancholy ballad.
Do you need to hide any vocal technical challenges?
Sing the song in the key you think you want to sing it in. Does it present any technical challenges for you, such as flipping back and forth over a break you haven’t yet smoothed out completely? Does it tempt you to get caught in a forced chest voice, or sing in a weak range? If so, you can either:
- Use this key and this song as a great exercise for addressing these technical challenges, or
- Change the key to avoid the problem.
Of course, it’s great if you run into this sort of challenge, and I would encourage you to keep practicing the song in the difficult key – at least at home – until you fix the issues! But if you have a gig coming up, it’s nice to be able to mask the problems for your gigs, until you can fix them.
Who are your musicians and instruments?
If you are debating between two keys that are a half step apart, consider the skills of your musicians. If you pick an unusual key, such as Gb, where 6 of the 7 notes in the scale have accidentals, a professional jazz musician may not have any problems, but someone with rudimentary keyboard skills like mine may need a lot of practice to play it well.
Generally, keys with fewer accidentals are easier for more musicians to play. (Keys on the top half of the Circle of Fifths are most common – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle_of_fifths for information about the Circle of Fifths).
If you pick a key such as D or Eb rather than E, this may make a big difference in the way the guitar or bass part sounds, because you may force those musicians to change chord voicings and/or fingerings. The top string on a guitar is usually tuned to E, so if you pick Eb, the lowest root note the guitarist will be able to play is up almost an octave from the lowest note her instrument is capable of playing (E), which will take a lot of the bottom out of the sound she can play. If you don’t play guitar or bass, it’s worth asking if a half step either way makes a big difference to your musicians. Of course, sometimes guitarists and bassists can play in an alternate tuning to keep the use of the same lowest string, but they’ll need to know that in advance.
Also, if you have a horn player, F and Bb are particularly friendly keys for them to play in. And if you have unusual instruments in your band such as sitar or accordion – or anything you’re not familiar with – it’s worth asking which keys are easiest and which are hardest for them to play in, so that whenever possible you can choose an easier key, as long as it makes no difference to your voice.
What time of the day is it? What day of the week is it?
If you are one of those odd musicians who practices right after waking up, your vocal range may be much lower at that point than later in the day. On particularly groggy mornings, I can hit notes half an octave lower than normal! Don’t pick your key at this time of day!
It is also really smart to retest your key selection on at least a couple of other days. Many times I have picked a key that felt good on a Tuesday, which was slightly too high or too low on Wednesday and Thursday. Your body and your moods change day by day, which affect your voice.
It all comes down to this: How do you sound when you sing in this key?
The single best thing you can do is record yourself singing in each key you’re considering, and see how you sound. As a vocalist, you should record and listen to yourself as often as possible. You have the only instrument in the band which you hear completely differently than everyone else, because of resonance in your head. You need to hear yourself as the rest of the world hears you, not as you hear your voice bouncing around in your cranium.
(c) 2012 Adrienne Osborn