It’s impossible to get an answer from a singer about in which key they like to sing. And I am not talking about a particular song. But a general key to cover all songs. You cannot choose the perfect key that will apply to all songs. However, you can choose the perfect key to sing in based on your vocal range.
There are Variables
If a song is in ‘C,’ it doesn’t necessarily follow that the tune runs from one ‘C’ to another ‘C..’ It also doesn’t mean that the ‘C’ is the important or most used pitch used in the song. It could be the case, but it isn’t always true.
There are some variables to consider. Where does the melody sit in the song? When you get to the dramatic notes, the ones you really have to perform, what is the pitch? Is it in a range where you can give your best? And further, where are the pitches that are most used?
Each song is going to be different, and there is no simple answer. As I said, there are variables.
But You Have to Decide
Yes, you do, because the ramifications if you get it wrong as a singer can be quite serious. Singers are in a privileged position. Instruments sometimes have to change keys or transpose what they are playing. Singers don’t. You can’t transpose a voice.
And the voice is usually the ‘instrument’ with the smallest range in the band. It is everyone else that must change. As I just said, there are ramifications if you don’t get the choice right. Let me give you an example.
What Happens If You Get It Wrong?
I had sent a song to a female singer we had used before. I had a “feel” for her range. The song was written in a key I thought would suit her. She came back and said she wanted it a tone and a half higher. I asked her if she was sure. She said yes as she wanted to belt out the notes.
I did the transpositions, sent the parts to our guitar player, who was 6000 miles away, for his input and solos. When everything was back and ready, we put down the backing track, and she came to record.
Did it work?
Oh dear, not even close. From the first few notes, you could hear this was all wrong. The session finished with no vocal track. Money, time, and everything else wasted. It wasn’t possible to re-record the whole thing back in the original key. We found a singer who could do it in the key we were in.
A costly mistake, but how do you prevent it from happening? Let’s talk about it.
Know Your Range
Be aware of what you can do and what you can’t do. You must identify the highest note you can sing comfortably and then the top note you can hit “aggressively.” They are probably only about three or four tones or whole steps apart maximum for most people.
By knowing those notes, when you hear a song on a demo, or practicing with your musicians or band, you will immediately know. Don’t fudge over it. If you can’t make it, say so.
Know Your Limits
Be aware of the highest and, of course, just as importantly at times, the lowest notes you can sing. If it is out of that range, a key change is necessary.
If possible, use a piano and find the notes. Test yourself against them. And don’t do what our girl did and flip into falsetto when it isn’t needed just to hit the note.
Don’t Stress Your Voice
There have been very few singers that can knock out a song at the highest point in their range. Let alone keep doing it and doing it for any length of time. Bonnie Tyler could. There are probably others, but she just comes to mind.
Singing like that puts enormous stress on your voice and can do damage. Sometimes irreparable damage. On stage, people will notice. And how many shots will you get at it to get it right in a studio? That is before the voice just breaks down? It needs to be powerful or soft or whatever the song demands but know your vocal limits and set the key accordingly.
Don’t Always Pick the First Key
Pick what you think is the best key that is suitable and go through it. As you do, make a mental note if there is anywhere it feels too high or too low. But then take it up a semitone and see how it feels.
It will depend on the song, of course, and the style. If it is a ballad, then a nice comfortable key at both ends of your range will be best. However, if it is an “in your face” rock song, it wouldn’t hurt to see how far you can go.
Don’t Push it Too Far
Take it up a semitone or half step. If it still feels okay, go up a semitone again. But best not to push it too far, bearing in mind the comments on stressing your voice. You will know yourself. If it starts to feel a strain, go back down to where you are most comfortable.
Listen to the Song
And I mean, really listen to it. What is it about? Is it telling a story? Are there dramatic “big notes”? Will you be singing it with a band or just with one instrument? Are you playing and singing? All these issues have an impact on the key and how to choose the right pitch.
And what genre is it? If it is a Rock song, you will sing it differently than if it is a Jazz song. And what kind of vocal timbre should you use? Some songs will require you to be soft and easy.
Think about the Musicians
If you are playing with some professional jazz musicians, then whatever key you pick won’t cause them a problem. But you may be playing with some very ordinary musicians like me. In that case, if the music is written down, some keys are going to cause a problem.
If you are happy in F but try a semitone higher. That is going to put the key signature into six sharps for F sharp, whereas F has only one flat. Just something to consider if you want to feel a little sympathy for those who might be struggling.
Another concern is if you have brass instruments. The keys of Bb and Eb might be best for them.
Vocally Technical challenges
Some songs may test you vocally. These can expose any potential weaknesses you may have in your vocal performance. Furthermore, it’s why you need to choose the perfect key to sing in.
If that is the case, pick an easy key and use the song as a way of improving your technique. Here are some guides for successful vocal performance.
- The Voice Book: Caring For, Protecting, and Improving Your Voice
- Beautiful Singing: A Singer’s Guide to Improving the Voice
- Improving Octave Tones (Intermediate)
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Choose the Perfect Key to Sing In – Final Thoughts
There is only one instrument in the band that you will hear differently from everyone else – You! This is because of resonance in your head. You need to be able to learn skills that will help you hear yourself as others hear you.
That is what they will be listening to, not what you can hear. Ensuring you have chosen the correct key for singing is very much a part of that.
Until next time, make yourself heard.