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Choose the right key for your songs

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There are a lot of factors that play into choosing the right arrangement for a song — but choosing the right key for you and the musicians might be the most important.

When you’re getting ready to perform or record a new song, there’s a lot to consider — from instrumentation and arrangement to tempo and groove. As you’re prepping your new material, before stepping into rehearsal or entering the studio, don’t gloss over one element that often doesn’t get much thought, but is important in so many ways: what key is best for your song?

Often, the answer may seem simple — the key that you wrote it in, or the key the original artist used. But consider that transposing a song even a half-step higher or lower can have a dramatic effect on your performance in a number of ways.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you decide what keys best suit your songs, your performance, and your music overall.

The singer

Singers can have vastly different “sweet spots” in their voices, and what sounds mellow and sexy when sung by one vocalist can sound raw and explosive when sung by another. What’s important is to put your song in a key that will empower whoever’s singing it to do a great job and communicate the vibe and emotion you’re looking for.

Don’t know where to start? Experiment and ask. If you’re the vocalist yourself, try recording yourself singing the song in several different keys and take note of how it feels and sounds in each key on playback. If you’ve hit a key where it feels natural and sounds great, you’ve got a winner.

If you’re not the singer, it never hurts to ask where your vocalist is the most comfortable range-wise, or where he or she likes to sing to get certain effects. Does your pop singer switch into heart-melting falsetto at a high G? Keep that in mind when choosing your key so he can flip into that register right when the chorus comes in. Or does your jazz singer have a breathy melancholy that comes in once she’s below E-flat? Keep that in mind so she can deliver your sad second verse with the nuance it deserves.

If you’re a singer working on someone else’s material and you’re given the opportunity to help choose the key you’ll be singing in, learn to understand your own voice ahead of time. If you have a powerful rock delivery that floats in the C-to-F range, suggest a key that puts the fist-pumping hook right in that prime territory.

Finally, regardless of who the singer is, make sure you choose a key that allows the vocalist to physically sing the song — voices only go so high and low, so make your selection accordingly. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen songwriters make this mistake many times.

The instrument

By their nature, different instruments sound different — and can feel easier or harder to play — when playing the exact same material transposed to different keys. A large amount of this will be subjective based on the artist, player, and context, so go with your gut and ear when choosing the right key for each song.

As an example, when I play piano and keyboard arrangements of aggressive rock material, I find myself gravitating towards G minor and D minor. Why? Given the style of playing that I use for that music — heavy attacks, octave melodies, big open intervals — those keys just feel the most natural under my fingers. Plus, there’s something about how the notes sound and blend in those keys that, to my ears, brings more grit and power to the music than when I play the same music transposed elsewhere.

Similarly, when it comes to ballads, I love E-flat major and minor, C-minor, and A-flat major. To me, it just feels good to play softer material in those keys and the sound I create using them matches my vision for those songs.

In your songs, experiment playing in different keys and see what feels and sounds the best to you. You may be surprised at what key turns out to sound and feel the best for any given song (I often am), so don’t rule any options out until you’ve tried them.

The musician(s)

Are you working with a seasoned band of musicians who have been gigging for decades and can play anything at the drop of a hat? Chances are, they will be able to handle any material you throw at them in any key, which is a great place to be when you’re heading into a session or performance.

If you have questions about how experienced and flexible your fellow players are, you may consider sticking to keys that are generally easier to play in. If you’re working with a guitarist who you know has only been playing for six months and have minimal rehearsal time, you may want to gravitate towards instrument-friendly keys like E; similarly, if you’re a singer working with a piano accompanist who you know isn’t a great sight-reader, the fewer sharps and flats in the key signature, the better your chances of success may be.

Granted, it’s not great to compromise your music just to make things easier to play — so if you feel that F# is the key that your song has to be in, go with it and try to give your fellow players plenty of time to shed and get up to speed. But if it makes little or no difference to you whether the piece is in F or F#, go with the simpler option so everyone can spend less time figuring out where their fingers go and more energy pouring some soul into your music.

The set or the album

I’ve heard more than a couple rock albums where nearly every song is in the exact same key. Especially if other elements like instrumentation, type of beat, tempo, and vocal delivery are similar song to song, things can get old, quickly.

Choose the keys for your songs, or select your track order or setlist, to give your work the variation it needs to hold an audience’s interest.

The song

Ultimately, it comes down to this: what key makes your song sound amazing? There’s no right or wrong answer here, it’s all about choosing what best brings your musical vision to life.

How do you decide what key to perform or record your songs in? Tell us in the comments below.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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17 thoughts on “Choose the right key for your songs

  1. Yes, not finding the correct key can be a disaster. What I was able to play comfortably on guitar wasn’t what worked for my voice.

  2. Choosing the right key for our songs is mostly a decision based on the vibe, I use a key that fits my voice. I have started playing Piano at the age of 4 years old and learned guitar at the age of 10.
    I have recently launched my new music album “Under My Skin ” on Spotify, In this album, I feel like all the songs are created from all these different emotions that are in my heart and Under My Skin.

  3. To me, there are a few primary considerations, here. First, where is the vocal sweet spot in a given key. I want my bridge and or chorus to be highlighted, in that sweet spot. My second consideration is regarding chord voicings. I can transpose a song to any key desired, but if I want a particular “feel” sometimes that is lost when the key is transposed. I can sometimes negate that by using a capo, but not always. Third, do I want a minor or major key. Then, as with the last point, sometimes the “feel” is lost when transposed and again, sometimes using a capo can help with that.

    1. Recently realized that the majority of my songs are in the key of G; written on acoustic. Because I will be singing the same basic notes in each song, they start to sound drony and boring. Now using a capo and discovering F# etc., plus intentionally writing in different keys.

  4. Hi

    This Article was spotting a theme I´ve had with some fellow musicians. Interesting topic!

    What I´d like to know more about, even if there´s no certain rule, is the relationship between tempo and key. If there are any.

    I´ve had the experience with a song that didn´t sound right. I tried different keys, but it did not sound better. Then I went back to the original key due to idiomatic stuff and it simply sounded the least bad. Whatever made that I slowed it down I still don´t know, quite a lot, but that was it. I took the tempo down with 30% and suddenly the key sounded just right.

    If you have ideas about this I´d be most grateful.

    Thank you for an interesting blog!


    1. Tobi, I think you’re spot on. Tempo is every bit as important to me, as the key. Also, think about (I’m talking acoustic guitar here) whether it needs to be a finger picked song, and even then a country, folk, bluesy feel or if it should be a strummed song, again with what kind of feel. Feel to me is what connects to the listener, sometimes even more so than the lyrics. I’m not downplaying lyrics, rather I look at how the tune, key, feel better communicate the lyrics.

  5. ANOTHER THING TO CONSIDER, as well, is Order Of Music by “Key” and by “Theme.” When putting together music for an album or performance you want to consider placement of music by “Speed” as well.

    This way you can create mood, tell a story and bring them up and then back down.

    Keys of songs should usually go up gradually, it’s not ideal to go down keys a lot, unless you are wanting to depress people. There is a Psychology to Music and Each Note in the Scale has a Personality (or spirit); for example, a “Leading Tone” is just that, it leads you to the next Note above or below, for it does not want to take on the attention, as it were. If you look at the Names of the Scale you will find that each Name Give to these Notes tells of their personality. In know this you can create different effects.

    Charles of “Higher Call” Music

  6. AT A GLANCE, I did not see anything about Sing-ability mentioned in this article? What helps much of the time is to have songs within a Range that people can sing along. This actually makes a song more popular when it is in a range that people can take part in the song.

    If you look at songs that have lasted through time you will find that those songs are well within average range (Such as Y.M.C.A, for example). Yeah, it’s great to sing high and all that to show one’s ability, but if you want people to sing the song and feel a part, place the song within a range and ability that others can sing.

    Besides that, most singers as they get older can’t make all those higher notes anymore, as well, as we have all seen. Look at the Rollin’ Stones, most all their music is within range and now that the lead singer is older he can still sing them, right?

    Range is way more important if you want your songs to last through time, as well.

    Charles of “Higher Call” Music

  7. I’m not a great guitar player so I use fingering in the first position, but that’s okay for me. I usually compose a song in the easiest keys for me to play without using a capo. Keys of ‘D’, ‘C’, ‘F’, ‘G’. ‘E’, ‘A’. Seems these keys are in the range of my voice. Your suggestions help me now to consider how I could sound best in a certain key. Something new to try as I don’t think I have a great singing voice. Any thing will help.

  8. When songwriting, when I write one I like, I’ll tend to sing a song for a few days before picking up an instrument, and I’ll learn to play it in whatever key I’ve been singing it in.

    Sometimes I’ll use a key based on the instrumentation. My bassist’s lowest note is a B, so if I know I want him to drop a low belly-vibrating bomb, I’ll be sure that part of the song lands on B, C, or D

    And sometimes, like the author mentioned, I’ll intentionally make a section in a key that invokes the feeling that part of the song is about. G can feel relaxed, D is pretty happy, F is attention-getting, F#minor brings the rawk, etc.

  9. It’s mostly a decision based on the vibe I want the song to have, and second where my voice is happiest, I don’t look at the voice as being limited. But I check the the bottom and top note. And then simpler keys -as in not the one with 7 flats- are appreciated by most musicians. So I do my best to check all those areas before choosing a key.

  10. In my experience for rock/pop/Americana/folk, the #1, #2 and #3 deciding factor for key has to be the singer: As that’ll be the focal point for the majority of the audience, ensuring the singer is comfortable and able to put their “best foot forward” to interpret and represent the song, has to take precedence over all other factors.

  11. I use a key that fits my voice but after reading this I am definitely going to fluctuate the key from flats to minor and sharps and see how much different it feels and sounds.

  12. I consider the difference in my voice when I record vs. perform live. Recording nuances and live performance timbres may differ. Therefore, I may record a song in a lower key but need to perform it live in a higher key.

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