How to Choose the Key for Your Song

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

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SingerThe most obvious factor that determines good key choice is range of the voice that’s going to sing it. But it’s rather surprising that most singer/songwriters stick with the key they began the songwriting process with, rather than considering all the interesting possibilities of other choices. Key choice greatly affects song energy, so it’s something you should consider carefully.

Singing mid-range to low in your voice usually requires low vocal energy, while singing in the upper reaches can produce high energy levels. Depending on the song topic in general, and the specific words being sung at any one time, your voice becomes the main determining factor regarding song energy. Choosing the right key becomes a crucial part of song performance, and can make or break your song. So while key choice is not part of the songwriting process, you need to think about it when performing your song, and in particular, recording a demo. It’s part of making your song as effective as possible.

Here are some main factors that affect key choice:

  1. Your song requires vocal intensity that matches “topic intensity.” To produce high emotions, find the highest moment in the song, and experiment to find the highest note you can sing.
  2. Experiment with the range, and observe the effect moving the key up or down has on  the feel of the song. This kind of experimenting can produce interesting results.
  3. Another factor that may affect key: the accompanying instruments. If you find that you like the key of E major, keep in mind that if you’re using an alto sax, that intrument will be playing in C# major – 7 sharps, which may be a bit beyond the abilities of some players.
  4. Consider the possibility of changing key mid-song, if the first part of your song needs lower energy levels with the second part needing higher ones.
  5. If you’re putting a CD together (demo or otherwise), having all your songs in the same key can produce a kind of fatigue with your listeners. Always try to vary your song order and song choice to cover a range of moods, vocal ranges and key choices.

As a final word of advice, if you’re using acoustic instrumental accompaniment, keep in mind that key choice can affect the sound of the instrument. For example, strings tend to have a certain pleasantly bright sound in “sharp keys”, such as D major or G major, and will give much darker sounds in keys like Db major or Gb major. You might want to consult with players of those instruments to listen to the effect of the key you’ve chosen.


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