Tips for Choosing the Key for Your Next Song
Are you undecided on what key and chords to use for your next song? How much does the key affect a song and how do you pick the right one? In this quick guide, I want to shed some light on the topic.
Let’s look at the methods and factors you should consider when picking a music key for your tunes.
- What Key Should I Write My Songs In?
- What Key Should I Sing In?
- How to Find Your Vocal Range
- 3 Ways to Choose the Key for Your Song
- What are the Most Common Keys for Songwriting?
What Key Should I Write My Songs In?
You should write songs in the keys you can actually sing. Unless you’re writing the song for someone else to perform; in that case, write the song so it’s within the singer’s range. It’s true that some keys are more commonly used than others, and I’ll tell you what those are later, but there is no one “right” key that you must use to have a good song.
In short, write in the key that matches the singer’s voice.
So, before you pick a song key, you’ll want to determine the vocal range first…then place the vocal melody somewhere in that range.
Vocal Range vs Song Key
There’s no secret formula for picking the right key for a song. The average singer has a range of at least an octave, sometimes up to three octaves even. This means you can probably sing in any key that you prefer. And because most instruments today are tuned in equal temperament, the difference in keys will not noticeably impact the tone of the composition.
Really, the range of the melody will have just as much impact on the key you pick as the range of your voice/singer.
The 2 Main Factors to Picking a Song’s Key
So the 2 factors you really need to consider when picking a key are:
- The singer’s range (how high and low they can comfortably sing), and
- The melody’s range (the distance between the highest and lowest notes in your tune)
A song’s melody may not use every note in a key or scale.
If there’s one or two notes at the top end of a key that you (or your singer) can’t reach, but those particular notes aren’t needed for the song, then that key will still work.
What Key Should I Sing In?
Since the key for your song relies first on your vocal range, we now need to ask: what keys should I sing in? In short, you should sing in the keys that fall within your tessitura. Tessitura is just a fancy way of saying the part of your vocal range that feels most comfortable to sing in.
You should select keys within this tessitura area because it will place the least amount of strain on your vocals. The easier it will be to sing your songs, the better your vocal takes will be. And when it comes time to record, using keys in your comfortable voice zone will lead to better recordings and less time spent “fixing” the mix.
This isn’t to say you should never take on a song beyond your comfort zone. But for less-experienced vocalists, it’s better to pick notes that you can consistently achieve. It will make your life a lot easier if you perform live or record a lot of vocal dubs.
So how do you find your tessitura?
How to Find Your Vocal Range
The easiest way to identify your comfortable range is to follow these 7 steps:
- Pick a reference instrument like a guitar or a piano
- Do some vocal warm ups so you get an accurate representation of your range
- Hum or sing a note that feels comfortable for your voice and match the note on your reference instrument
- Now move down by one note with your voice, and match it again with your instrument
- Keep doing this, going farther down the scale, until you reach a note you struggle with and write down what that struggle note happens to be
- Now do the same thing going up the scale one note at a time and find the highest note you can comfortably sing in your chest voice
- Write down the highest and lowest notes that you can comfortably sing without straining
Whatever notes fall within your comfort zone are your tessitura. Whenever you are picking a key to write a song, aim to keep the melody line within this area.
To have an accurate picture of your range, you’ll need to know what octave each note is on your reference instrument. Here is a nifty chart showing you the scientific pitch notation for each note on a standard-tuned guitar (up to the 8th fret):
Guitar Note Octave Chart
If you are working with a Piano, then the number of keys will effect where you find middle C:
- On an 88-key piano, C3 is the 4th C from the left.
- On a 76-key piano, C3 is the 3rd C from the left.
Identifying Your Available Keys
You should now have a range of available notes to sing. As you may know, these notes can be categorized into different keys or scales. This means you will have several keys to pick from.
For example, my most comfortable vocal range lies between A2 and A3. As long as a melody doesn’t go higher than A3, I can probably sing it without strain. Note that this is not taking into consideration head voice (i.e. falsetto range); we’re just talking about chest voice.
You can totally sing an entire song in your head voice if you want, but it will depend on:
- the tone you want in the song, and
- how much practice you’ve had singing that way.
Falsetto will sound much thinner in a man. Head voice in general will have less power behind the note, meaning vocals will be quieter.
This singing style clearly works well aesthetically for some songs, like “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver. But not every song has the same emotional quality.
3 Ways to Choose the Key for Your Song
The best approach for picking a song key will depend on the song in question. Is the melody already written, or are you still testing one out?
- With pre-written melodies, you should try the Half-Step method below
- With new songs in progress, you should let your voice naturally find the key
- Lastly, you can start strumming a chord you do like and see what fits with it
Let’s look at each of these techniques in more detail.
The Half-Step Method
For songs that already have a written melody, you’ll want to test the range of it’s notes against your vocal range.
Sing the high notes of the song. If there are any that you struggle to hit, then drop the key down—a half-step at a time—until those notes become singable for you.
For super low notes you have trouble with, do the opposite: bring the song up a half-step in key until you can comfortably hit those low notes.
If you’re playing along on a guitar, this is where a capo will come in handy. With a capo on the neck, you can keep playing the same exact chord without needing to switch between barre chord shapes.
Relative Melody Method
But what about songs you are still writing? What key should you start with?
When composing a top line, I recommend that you test out notes by simply singing the lyrics a few times. Let your voice naturally pick a pitch that feels comfortable and work out the relative melody.
By relative melody, I mean the interval between notes that form a musical phrase.
In reality, a melody is just a series of notes that have a certain distance between each other and a specific rhythm. When you change keys, you keep the distance between each note the same. That’s why “Mary Had a Little Lamb” can still be recognized whether you play it in the Key of C or the Key of F. It’s still the same note intervals, just with a different starting place.
So don’t worry about the exact key just yet. Find the right interval first. When you’re satisfied with the interval, you can deduce it’s key based on it’s notes.
Sometimes, placing limits on your options can actually boost your creativity. I touched on this topic in an article about rhyming.
Trying to find a good melody without any accompaniment can feel overwhelming or just random and haphazard. So, instead of picking melody notes in a random way, you can start by playing a chord and letting your voice fit a melody to it.
This method is quite similar to the previous one mentioned: you let your voice find a comfortable place for each note and syllable. But it gives you some extra musical footing.
The relative melody method is like writing on a completely blank piece of paper; the strummer’s method is like writing on college-ruled paper. It constricts your a bit, but that won’t stop you from writing whatever you want on the page.
And if the first chord doesn’t work for you, just try a different one until something sticks.
Once you find a chord and melody that sounds right, you can again deduce the key from the notes that you used.
What are the Most Common Keys for Songwriting?
It’s true that some keys are more popular than others. Usually, the key of a song isn’t more common because of the singer’s range, but rather that the chords in certain keys are easier to play.
With that being said, maybe you want to stick to what’s already popular to maximize your song’s potential.
To see the keys most common in Indie music, give this article a gander.
Picking a music key for your song is not a matter to fret about. In general, it can be determined after-the-fact by the notes in your melody and the range of your voice.
Thanks for stopping by. If you found this article helpful, here are a few more to consider: