There are a lot of factors that play into choosing the right arrangement for a song — but choosing the best 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 very important but easily ignored question: what is the best key 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 key best suits your song, your performance, and your music overall.
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 vulnerable when sung by another. What’s important is to find the best key for your song to empower whoever is singing so he or she can do a great job and communicate the vibe and emotion you’re striving 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.
Finding the best key for vocals
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.
By their nature, different instruments sound different — and can be 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 best key for your 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 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 what key turns out to sound and feel best for any given song (I often am), so don’t rule any options out until you’ve tried them.
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 best 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.
How to find the best key for your 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.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.