Experimenting With Key Boosts Your Musical Imagination

There are typically two times when a song’s key becomes something that a songwriter considers:

  1. During the initial songwriting process. You create your first melodic ideas based on an often-random choice of key and chords.
  2. During the performance or recording stage. You might possibly change the key to one that puts the melody in your optimum vocal range.

That second stage listed above is an important one, of course. And for every time a song is covered by someone else, the key will be different. (Example: Bruce Springsteen performs “Blinded By the Light” in the key of E major. Its more famous cover done by Manfred Mann is in F major.)

I would argue that experimenting with key as part of the first stage, during the songwriting process, can be an important one that has a vital impact on the actual composition.

There’s a good reason for that, and it has to do with how your muscle memory (with regard to the instrument you’re using to write the song) tends to move your fingers to the same notes.

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If you’re playing in E major, you’ve likely got standard musical figures that lie under your fingers. It’s normal. When I improvise musical ideas at a keyboard, for example, I find that my fingers automatically space themselves in a certain way depending on the key I’m playing in.

That spacing of my fingers tends to create musical shapes and ideas that happen most in that key. If I start improvising in a new key, I find that the musical ideas I generate differ slightly, because my fingers assume a different “shape.”

All of this is to say that when you play in a certain key, you’re most likely to find similar sounds and ideas cropping up. And if you’re not careful, you will notice that melodies and accompanying rhythmic figures can start to display a kind of sameness, and that’s not good.

Here are three quick tips referring to key at the beginning stages of songwriting that you might find helpful:

  1. Move keys up or down as you create your first song ideas. In other words, don’t wait until you’ve got your song worked out to experiment. If you’ve come up with a great chorus hook in C major, try it in other keys: D major or Bb are good choices if your initial key is C major, because they’re close.
  2. Try your initial song ideas and hooks in an opposite mode. This means that if you’ve created a great chorus hook in C major, try C minor. You might be surprised that it makes a stronger impression in the new key.
  3. Try chord substitutions right away. If you like taking your finished songs and then seeing how subbing chords in and out affects the music, you might try that in the first instance rather than waiting. The reason is that chord substitutions have a way of changing the mood of the music, and that will affect the melodic and lyrical ideas you generate.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.Songwriting eBook Bundle - Gary Ewer

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