Singer and guitarist

Factors in Choosing a Key For a Song

There’s usually more to choosing a key than simply finding the best one for the lead vocalist.

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As you work out your next song, you’ll probably start by choosing a key, even if you aren’t aware that you’re doing that. Just strumming those first few chords and singing something means that you’ve chosen a preliminary key, purposely or not.

Anyone who eventually sings your song will need that key adjusted so that it fits with their own vocal range, and that’s probably the most important consideration when choosing key. As you move the key up or down, everything moves up or down. So you need to be sure you haven’t moved it to the point that you can’t reach the notes anymore.

But there are other considerations:

Specific Performer Concerns:

Some band players find it hard to play in some keys, and it depends on the instrument. The better the players, the less of a concern this is. Good, professional players should be able to play in practically any key. A capo can solve many awkward key problems for guitarists, but for other instruments you’ll want to check with them as you work out key choice.

Specific Instrument Concerns:

Most instruments have a practical range which means you have to think about how choosing a key might affect their ability to handle the part. Brass instruments, for example, have a range above which it gets difficult, and below which the instrument simply can’t play. In addition to that, some have limitations because of the idiosyncrasies of that particular instrument. For example, if you love the sound of a flute trilling between two low pitches, you won’t be able to achieve that between the notes C and C#, since the little finger is needed to play both those pitches, and won’t be able to move back and forth quickly enough between those notes. But these issues can be addressed by checking the part with a professional as you make a final decision regarding key.

Backing Vocal Concerns:

You may need to adjust the backing vocals you’ve come up with if your lead singer needs the melody higher. That’s especially true if your backing vocals sit higher than the melody line. Moving the key upward may give your backing vocals an entirely new sound that you weren’t banking on, or may even make them impossible.

The Feel of a Key:

This is where we get into a more esoteric discussion of what key does to music. Many musicians feel that they can sense a difference in mood between, say, a song in C major and a song in D major. Historically (back in the 1700s, for example), there was a good reason for this. Since music with trumpets was typically written in D major (to accommodate the prevailing key of the trumpet), music in D major was thought to be majestic, regal and exciting. Music in flat keys (Bb major, Ab, major etc.) was often thought of as being broody and darker, since string players couldn’t rely much on open strings to play the notes of those scales, resulting in a more veiled, darker sound. How much this still applies today is questionable, particularly if guitar and keyboards are your main instruments, and there are many voicing options.

What You Should Do:

Your main concern in choosing a key should always be the ease of singing the melody line. Don’t automatically opt for placing that melody in the centre of your voice. It may be that the topic of the song will require a lot of energy and power from the voice, and so you’ll want to edge the key upward as much as possible. If the topic is gentler and more introspective, a lower key may suit it, even if that lower key produces some husky notes that are actually below your practical range.

As with all aspects of songwriting, experimentation with different keys is best. And don’t get hung up on it. You’ll hear something different coming forward with each key you try, and then it’s simply a matter of choosing what suits the song best.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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