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As a first step to choosing a key for your song, you’ll want to be sure, naturally, that the chosen key allows the song to be singable by you, or whoever you’re writing it for. So I’m not really addressing that part of the process in this post. There’s so much more to consider than to simply consider where the song feels easy to sing. Consider the following 5 tips for choosing a key for your next song.
- Key Choice and Melody/Lyric High Points. Your melodies’ highest pitches should coincide with your lyrics’ most emotive words. So choose a key that allows those notes to be at the top of your vocal range. Singing at the top of your range, even if it feels a bit uncomfortable, can add power and meaning to your word. Great example: The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”
- Key Choice and Song Energy. Hand-in-hand with the previous point, it’s important to consider that overall song energy can be greatly affected by key. If you find that a song has too much pent-up energy, and you want to relax it a bit, try lowering the key by a semitone or whole tone in addition to the other usual solutions (slower tempo, lighter instrumental accompaniment, etc.)
- Key Change and Verse/Chorus Similarity. If your verse and chorus use a very similar chord progression, you can freshen up the song by changing key for the chorus. For example, if both your verse and chorus use G C Am D G, bump the chorus up into a new key. You’ll need to be careful about how you transition from one key to the other (see this article to help), but a successful key change can be exciting. (Make sure the key change doesn’t put it out of your vocal range.)
- Key Choice and Instrumentation. Any professional player should be able to play in any key, but it’s good to consider the instrumental accompaniment for your song. Because an instrument like the Alto Sax is an Eb instrument, it means that choosing A major for your song puts the alto in F# major (6 sharps). Make sure your key choice is playable by your band.
- Key Choice and Demo Recordings. If you’re putting a demo recording together, you’ll want to be sure that all your songs aren’t in the same key. It creates a kind of listener fatigue, and makes it sound like you only know how to play in one key. Also, many players have certain riffs and chording patterns that show up more in certain keys. So if you find yourself doing the same background accompaniment figures as the last song, change the key.
Remember also that in choosing key, the singer’s voice is only one factor. It’s best, especially if you’re using other players, to check with everyone, to make sure that your key choice makes sense. This is particularly true when using acoustic instruments. Your song might be great in Ab major, but that could be a problem if you’ve been wanting to use a tin whistle or other non-chromatic instrument.
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