What Key Choice Does For a Song

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Band rehearsalOnce you’ve got a song completed, there is a lot of experimenting you can do with it. In fact, you could argue that some of the best ideas you can try with a song happen once you think you’ve finished it. Bob Dylan discovered, for example, that “Like a Rolling Stone” may not work so well in his first choice of time signature, 3/4 time. Thank heavens for post-writing musical decisions!

If you’re ready to record a demo, there are some changes you can play around with, and changing the time signature isn’t the only modification you can make. There are others, and they’re often easy to try:

  1. Tempo: Move your song faster and/or slower, and see what the new speed does to the subtext of your lyric.
  2. Backing rhythmic figures. How the basic rhythm and feel of the drums, guitars and bass comes across can have a strong effect on how people hear the tone and mood of the music. Terry Kath’s great tune, “Byblos”, from Chicago VII, is a great example. First listen to this rehearsal/demo, and take note of the fast tempo, and, by the 2’00” mark, how incredibly busy both bass and drums are. (Excellent playing, by the way, but just far too busy for the lyric.) Now listen to the final version, and see what choosing a slightly slower tempo, lighter percussion, and more laid-back bass, does to bring the lyric forward.
  3. Instrumentation. Finding unique instrumental combinations is a fantastic way to breathe fresh air into what might otherwise come across as an overly-ordinary song. Even just changing the way a particular instrument is played, such as choosing finger-picking over strumming, or 12-string over 6-string. These are the decisions that can seem like add-ons, but can in fact make or break a tune.

And there’s another one that’s really important to try: try moving your song’s key up or down.

Experimenting with a song’s key has the immediate effect of moving the voices up or down, and that has everything to do with the inherent energy of the music. As a voice moves higher, we instinctively pick up a strain or tenseness that often translates as urgency. As a voice moves lower, musical energy relaxes.

As you might guess, this has a huge impact on how a listener hears the lyric. Someone singing low in their range the line “You never listen to me anymore…” will sound significantly different from someone belting out that same line higher in their voice. So key and lyric, in that sense, are an important partnership that you should think about with every song you write. Don’t assume your first choice is the best one.

For experimenting with key, here are some tips:

  1. Don’t choose a key because it’s the easiest one to play.
  2. Try some subtle changes first. If you’ve written your song in G major, move it up to A, and then try it down in F.
  3. Use vocal range as an upper/lower limit. Try moving your song up to the point where its highest notes are at the very top of your range. Listen for the effect that has on lyrical meaning. Now move it down so that your melody’s low notes are at your lower limit.
  4. Consider moving the verse to a lower key, then transitioning to a higher key for the chorus. This is not a common approach. Songs where the verse and chorus are in different keys will require some careful work. But done well, they can make a chorus sparkle.
  5. Consider falsetto as a possibility. Some singers use falsetto a lot, like Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), and it gives you an entire new range, and therefore a new set of possibilities for key choice.


Beating Songwriter's Block - Jump Start Your Words and MusicGary Ewer is the author of “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music”, available through Amazon.comBarnes & Noble, and Hal Leonard Books. He has also written “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle. Read more..

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One Comment

  1. Research has concluded that certain Tonal keys like E flat B flat A flat and F have a warmer sound, hence these keys are predominantly used in Love Ballads ,”All Of Me”
    “A Portrait Of My Love”, “Mona Lisa” as opposed to most of the Sharp keys – E. A. G and D. that are mainly used in Folk and Rock songs,
    The keys that include sharps, are in General used where the message is one of dominance , anthem like songs with a positive theme. “Hit me With Your Rhythm Stick ‘ “Doo Wha Diddy” ” It’s All Over Now” and many other up tempo songs.

    The Tempo of Ballads , when played too slow , by cover bands, can make a good song sound boring , we have to consider the patience of the listener. especially in this day and age where everyone seems to be driven by profit and greed.

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