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Q: What key should I sing in?

A RecordProducer.com reader has a deep, deep voice. Should he sing in the key of Z for success?

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A question from an Audio Masterclass reader...

"I have a pretty low voice. What key should I sing in to make a good commercial sounding track?"

Think of a number - a really big number. Got it? OK, now add one.

Think of a musical key. Now go a semitone lower.

Just as there is always a bigger number, there is always a lower key. If you start in the key of E, then you can transpose down to E flat, then to D, then to D flat... all the way down to E again, whereupon the keyboard player will go back up to where he was previously, and so will the bass player because he has run out of notes.

I have no idea where this concept of the right key for a certain singer's voice came from. I'm sure I've seen a movie where the piano player asks the singer what key he or she sings in, but I don't know what musical qualifications Hollywood scriptwriters are expected to have.

No, there is no such thing as the 'right key' for anyone's voice. It's all down to the range of notes in the song. If the song has no lower note and no higher note than the singer's range can encompass, then the song can be performed adequately.

There is however the concept of 'tessitura', not to be confused with Two-Ton Tessie from Tennessee, who played the ukulele banjo (and was actually from Cardiff, Wales).

Tessitura, corresponding to the English 'texture', refers to a singer's comfortable range. The right key for a song will be where all the notes fit into this range. The only exception would be if a special effect was required, like a strained-for high note, or Lee Marvin performing Wand'rin' Star, from Paint Your Wagon.

It is well worth the time and effort spent in finding exactly the right key for a certain combination of singer and song. But whatever key you find wouldn't necessarily be right for any other song.

One point to watch out for is that keyboard players often have preferred keys to play in. But an astute producer will always make sure that the singer's needs come first.

By David Mellor Thursday March 31, 2011
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