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Q: What key should I sing in?

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?

by David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass

A question from an RP 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, Course Director of Audio Masterclass
Thursday March 31, 2011

Readers' comments on this article...

Grazh
Monday April 04, 2011

I am a singer and I can confirm that there are keys that are more easily to sing. It likely has to do with the individual design of a singer's vocal cords, the same as acoustic instruments (i.e. not synthesizers) sound best when played in specific keys (or may be more easily played in specific keys because of their design). Even if one has a rather wide range of notes which one is able to sing - within that range some keys may be more easily sung than others (and some maybe not at all, depending on the singer).
Dar Mcwheeler, Toronto, Canada
Monday April 04, 2011

Sing In Your Own, Best Keys I'm a music producer and professional vocal coach here in Canada. The idea that there is a "right" key for your voice is based up on your "tessitura". Your tessitura is the basic, central range of your natural voice that is a direct relationship of the physiology of your larynx and vocal folds. Your tessitura has a central note. It the note that is the center of your speaking voice. It's also the reason why women have a higher starting pitch than men. If you have a lower voice, as I do - so I know what you're going through - you will not find any comfort singing songs in the "key of the record". Think of jazz singers. Any jazz song you can name has been recorded in every conceivable key because of the needs of the singers. For me, I have a thyroid condition and a cracked larynx both conspiring to lower my tessitura by a full tone. Consequently, by lowinging the keys of the songs, I can still sing my favourite songs, from Elvis Costello to Journey and Boston. I now have my entire show lowered by a whole tone. I even tune my guitars down for easy of communications - an E chord is still an E chord in name. The problem with singing in keys above your tessitura is that you lose the "best notes of your range" as the central note moves towards the uppper end of your basic range, introducing more notes that are on and around your first bridge, at the top of your tessitura. This will make for an unsatisfying performance both for the singer who is going to have to work at it to make the song sound even and full and the audience who will notice that there is a difference in quality in the songs "in range" and the songs "above range". My advice; sing the song with no musical accompaniment and find the key that you can sing it in with the most tone and least effort. Then figure out what that key is. Then fight with your guitar player over the key change.... ; )