Choosing a Song Key That Makes Best Use of Your Vocal Range

Don’t always assume that you should be singing your songs in your most comfortable range. There are other important considerations.


Discover the 11 secrets that pro songwriters have known for decades. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle is being used by thousands of songwriters to take their music to a new level of excellence. Now with an 11th FREE eBook. Read more…

Singer-songwriterThe key you choose for your song is not usually a songwriting issue. Give the same song to ten different performers, and you’ll find that the  key is always adjusted to consider the vocal range of each particular singer. Vocal range can become a songwriting issue if the interval between the lowest and highest note is large: the larger that interval, the fewer choices for moving the key around. So assuming that others might sing your song, a large range will limit the possibilities for certain singers.

These days, especially if you’re an up and coming singer-songwriter, it’s quite likely that you’ll be producing your own recording, and then choosing the key does become a concern. How do you know you’ve chosen a good key?

Musical instincts tell you that a song should ideally be placed in the middle of a singer’s range, making it possible to reach the lowest and highest notes with relative ease. But that’s not always the case:

  1. For songs that display intense emotions: nudge the key higher. It may take you into a range that makes your highest notes a bit scream-ish, but as long as it’s not excessive or long-lasting, the higher key will match the subject matter a bit better.
  2. For songs that are quietly introspective: nudge the key lower. Your lowest notes may be a bit foggy, but it will work better for those quietly thoughtful lyrics.

As a voice moves up and down, the singer uses different vocal techniques to reach the required notes. For male singers, the three basic registers are:

  • Chest voice: The lowest range, easiest to sing.
  • Head voice: The highest range using a normal vocal technique.
  • Falsetto voice: Beyond “the break”, where the vocal sound changes to become breathy and often lacking in normal resonance. (John Legend, chorus of “All of Me“)

For women, the three registers are usually described as:

  • Chest voice: As with men, the singer’s lowest range. (Fiona Apple: “Criminal“)
  • Middle register: From the midrange of the voice up to the point where the voice production changes to a lighter, breathier tone.
  • Head voice: Highest range, where resonance is limited, and the voice sounds wispy and light. (Listen to the final vocal line in Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time“.)

When it comes to choosing key, it’s best to experiment. Singers will move from one kind of voice to another usually as their own limitations require it.

As a singer, you may spend a lot of time trying to make the switch from one voice type to the others seamless and smooth within the same song. But some singers switch within the same line of music, and don’t attempt to disguise the change in vocal quality as it happens. It’s a hallmark of their vocal style. Imogen Heap, for example, demonstrates moving from chest voice to middle register to head voice all within the first 10 seconds or so of “Run Time.”

The advantage to pushing your own vocal boundaries is that you add the human element to your song lyric. A lyric that expresses the pain of losing a friend may gain new meaning, for example, if its highest notes are belted out, sacrificing quality for emotive power.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”)

Posted in Vocals and tagged , , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.