•Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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You often don’t think of finding the ideal key for your song as being an important aspect of the songwriting process. But I really think it is. I don’t advocate waiting until the thing is written before you choose the best key. Once you’ve got melodic shapes happening, where they’re placed in your voice’s natural range can help to create other melodic ideas. Here’s how that happens.
Every singer has their own vocal range, called their tessitura. Most female pop singers use their lower “chest voice” while males tend to sing toward the top of their range.
So why is this important in the songwriting process? Doubtless a singer will choose the key that works for them, making whatever decisions you make as you write the song a bit of a moot point, right?
Considering that most songwriters will perform their own music, or at least demo it to market it to other singers, finding the optimum key for your own voice becomes rather important. But there’s more to this issue than simply finding a comfortable key to sing in, and it’s related to the changing quality of the voice throughout the tessitura.
For our purposes here, think of every voice as having three ranges that each have a distinctive natural quality:
Low: Airy, veiled vocal quality with limited dynamic range (meaning that there’s little difference between the softest and loudest notes in this range.) The range I’m describing here would be very low in the chest voice.
Mid: The range of greatest vocal flexibility and sound capabilities. Quality is richest, and dynamic range is greatest. This is the basic chest voice/middle voice range, where most singers produce most of their notes.
High: Tendency to sound strained and pinched unless the singer slips into the “head voice”, a lighter style of vocal production akin to “falsetto” (the vocal quality most men slip into when singing above their natural range.)
So how does this information play into songwriting? As you compose your song, try singing your melodies in various keys; not surprisingly, you’ll notice that vocal range (and the related vocal quality) have a huge impact on the mood and nature of your song.
And yes, you might even want to try screaming out your song at the top of your range, even if you thought you were writing a ballad.
The effect that tessitura has on a song is similar to the kind of effect that tempo has: the ability to generate or dissipate song energy. In that regard, you can consider raising and lowering the key of your song as a technique for better controlling song energy.
So choosing your key becomes a crucial part of the songwriting process. Screaming out a line at the top of your vocal range might actually allow you to hear those melodic shapes in a way you never considered before, and this can help to create new ideas as you move the song in a different direction.
In other words, trying your song in various low-to-high keys is a crucial part of the songwriting process.
Gary Ewer has written “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” bundle of 6 songwriting e-books. Download them and clean up your songwriting technique!