Choosing A Key

There are lots of misconceptions and misplaced embarrassment on this matter. I believe I can explain the process in a way that some of you might find helpful. There will not be a test at the end. I will explain some basic music theory in order to give you the right perspective and then give a little practical advice at the end. You don’t need to remember any of these details. Just try to get the general picture.

Let’s start by considering the octave. It’s a beautiful and natural thing. When you double the number of vibrations per second, you get the same note one octave higher. You already know what an octave is. Think about it for a minute. Sing a note. Now sing it an octave higher.

Western music has divided this interval (the octave) by twelve. This division is based on something called the “overtone series” which are the frequencies that sound in sympathetic vibration along with any tone.
Some musicologists argue that this division by twelve is artificial (because of something called “tempering” which is a way of fine-tuning this system to make it work better.) The other side of this argument is that the overtone series is a naturally occurring phenomenon and it clearly defines a set of intervals which, taken to their logical mathematical conclusion, give us a scale which divides the octave by twelve and, therefore, twelve is the ideal (and correct) number to divide an octave by (that is my position.) Don’t worry about it. Trust me on this. The twelve tone (called “chromatic”) scale is what we use and that’s that.

Still with me?

Twelve is actually a fantastic number to base a system on. It’s definitely cooler than ten. If we had evolved with twelve fingers instead of ten, we would almost certainly have developed our mathematical system based on it. The beauty of twelve is that it can be evenly divided by two, three, four, and six. Ten can only be evenly divided by two and five.

Divide an octave by two and you get what’s called “tri-tone” – also described as a sharp 4th or flat 5th (which is the most dissonant interval in a scale. “Resolving” this dissonance is arguably the primary basis of all western music.)

Divide it by 3 and you get an augmented chord.
Divide it by four and you get a diminished 7th chord.
Divide it by 6 and you get the “whole tone” scale.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Please remember that you don’t need to retain or understand ANY of this information in order to choose a key. I am going through it to give you a picture of the general outline of how music works (and share a little of my appreciation of it’s beauty).

Someone once decided to name the tone produced by 440 vibrations per second as “A.” This was arbitrary. They could have picked 441. You have to pick somewhere to start. Again, don’t worry about it. Actually there are lots of “A”‘s. 65 (VPS – vibrations per second), 110, 220, 440, 880, 1760, 3520…Get it? Double the number of vibrations per second and you get the same note one octave higher. Obviously, on the high end there are an infinite number of “A”s which we do not have the capacity to hear.

These 12 divisions are called notes and they can each be designated as the key to any piece of western music. They are:

C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E (there is no E sharp except in a theoretical sense), F, F sharp, G, G sharp, A, A sharp, and B (again, no B sharp), Then, you’re back to C. So that’s twelve notes in a one octave chromatic scale – count ’em.

The other way of “spelling” this scale (if it were descending instead of ascending) is:

C, B (there is no C flat in the same sense that there is no B sharp), B flat, A, A flat, G, G flat, F, E (again, no F flat just like there is no E sharp), E flat, D, and D flat. Then you’re back to C again.

It’s alphabetical. As you go forward in the alphabet, the tone gets progressively higher (until you reach “G” and then you start with “A”.

If it’s alphabetical, then why, you may ask, didn’t I start on A? I could have. You can start anywhere you want. I started with C because C is the key with no sharps or flats in it’s “major scale” (think the song “Do Re Mi” from “The Sound Of Music” – that song pretty well defines the “major scale”). The C major scale is spelled C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

C is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “people’s key” because, since it has no sharps or flats (think the black notes on a keyboard) in it’s major scale, it is the easiest key for a novice to play in on the piano. I will return to the subject of “hard” versus “easy” keys a bit later.

So there we are. Lost yet? Don’t worry. You don’t need to know all this stuff.

Here is an image of a piano keyboard with the keys labeled:


Look at the picture for a moment and see if you can understand that C# and D flat are the same note just “spelled” two different ways. Likewise D# = E flat, F# = G flat and A# = B flat. You should also be able to see why there is no E# (F flat) or B# (C flat).

Ok. All that was an attempt to show you that you have twelve choices when picking a key. An octave is divided by twelve. It’s the perfect number to divide an octave by. Twelve is plenty. We call the interval between each note and it’s neighbor a “half step.” Two half steps is called a “whole step.”

Let’s talk about vocal range for a bit. Everyone has a vocal range which we can define as the distance between the lowest note they can sing and the highest. You can easily determine yours. Do it now.

1. Sing the lowest note you can sing
2. Now sing that same note up one octave
3. Repeat number 2
4. Repeat number 3

It’s quite possible that you won’t make it to step four. I can’t get past step three myself. A pretty standard vocal range is about an octave and a half to two octaves. A few of you will have a greater range. This is only an advantage if you are attempting to sing a song with a very wide range. Most songs have a range of between one and two octaves.

Many of you will also notice that a certain point, you changed the way that you were singing in order to go higher. You had to apply more energy and you engaged your vocal muscles in a different way. The tambour of your voice changed. This point in your range (and that “point” is a range in itself, not a specific point) is called the “break.” You can feel it and your audience can hear it (all usually on a subconscious level).

The higher notes in a song generally convey more emotion and intensity. The same is true for a voice. When picking a key for a given song, two of the things you might want to consider are:

1. Is the song relaxed and easy going (use your lower register) or is it more emotional and intense (consider using the higher part of your register)?
2. Is there a way to use the “break” in your voice to it’s best advantage (so that at the climax of the melody, you are able to project more emotion)?

One of the ideas many novice singers have is that there is a specific key which is the best one for them regardless of which song they are trying to sing. The reason why this misunderstanding persists is that there is some very small amount of truth to it. A significant amount of melodies exist within a range that make it probable that a given singer’s favorite key will work just fine. The problem is, like all generalizations, it’s not much use in evaluating specific situations. This idea should be abandoned.

Most tunes have what the musicians who play them call a “standard” key. This is the key they are generally played in and they are chosen by tradition and consensus over time in order to find a key that will put the melody in a range that is comfortable for the horn players, meaning generally the trumpet and/or alto sax (tenor sax and trombone players have been complaining about this for decades but we all understand that they are simply bitter about the poor choice they made when they adopted their instruments and we ignore them).

You should NOT pick the “standard” key for a song just because it is the standard key. It is, however, a good place to start – particularly if you are a male with a relatively average vocal range.

If you are a female with a relatively average vocal range, you might want to start with a wild guess that a reasonable key for you to try might be about half an octave above standard key. However, the question of deciding on a key should be decided by a different part of your brain than the part that handles math, so don’t think about this too much.

There is another advantage to singing a song in it’s “standard” key. The musicians who are accompanying you will be most comfortable with it and are more likely to be able to give you their best performance. Interestingly enough, they are also, on some levels, less likely to be especially creative with it. When you have played a song more or less the same way hundreds of times, it is hard to keep from repeating yourself.

Sometimes, playing a song in a less familiar key will force the mind of the musicians to climb out of those mental ruts because melodies “lay” differently in different keys. It’s part muscle memory, part the mechanics of the instrument (any instrument), and part the character of the key itself (every key has it’s own very subtle feel and sound – some brighter than others). So, like every choice in life, it’s a trade-off.

Since I have broached the subject of degrees of difficulty, I will broaden that topic a little.

There are great musicians out there – all with different skill sets and talents. Not all of them are equally proficient in all keys. In fact, few of them are (Bob Smith is an exception to this generalization). Some keys are easier (for the rest of us mortals) than others.

This varies a little depending on the instrument. (Rock) guitar players like E, A, D, and G. Horn players like F, B flat, and E flat. Piano players often like C, F, and G. There are a few keys that are not used often (generally the ones that have the most of those pesky black notes with two names each) and because they are not often used, many musicians are less familiar and less comfortable in them. These include (you might want to write down or remember this next bit):

F# and B.

Anything around the range of the key of F# would, by any sensible and prudent composer or musician, be written in either F or G. Anything you feel inspired to do in B would almost certainly work just as well in B flat or C (and the musicians will be grateful if you choose them instead).

Also, remember: There is no key of B# (C flat) and there is no key of E# (F flat). Requesting either of those two keys (with four names) will make you appear pretentious and ignorant to the band (although we will still love you anyway).

Pencils down.

OK. Here is one more thing to make it even more complicated (thought we were done with the difficult technical stuff?) Sorry, but don’t worry. This idea should come easily to most of you.

There are Major keys and Minor keys. Most songs are in Major keys but the significant minority are in Minor keys (think “Summertime” or “St. James Infirmary). A few start out in a Minor key and end in a Major key (“My Funny Valentine”). Minor keys sound sadder although lots of relatively “sad” songs are in Major keys (“When Sunny Gets Blue”).

You don’t have to be able to figure out if your song is in a Major key or a Minor one. If you can tell the band your first note, they will be able to tell you what key it’s in. I just wanted to bring this up so when you hear the term used, you will not be overly confused. Each Major key has a “relative minor” key which shares it’s same “key signature” (number of sharps or flats). The relative minor of any major key will be found by moving 3 half steps down from the major key. It would be equally correct to say that the standard key for “My Funny Valentine” is E flat (Major is presumed unless you specify Minor) or C Minor. They are the same key.

I feel your frustration. Most of you who have made it this far are thinking “This is all so complicated. I will never remember or retain any of this. Plus, I have no way of knowing the name of any note I sing. How can this help me?”

It can’t really. You need to do one of two things.

The easiest is to find a musician who will take the time to run you through a variety of keys and fine-tune your choice for you. You wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving several different models to see which one you like the best. The same thing is true in choosing the BEST key for YOUR voice to sing a particular song.

As I mentioned before, most will have a range of possible keys for any given song. Find a key you can sing a song in, then try taking it up (or down) a half step at a time until you discover the key where the song “lays” best for your voice. Once you make a choice, write it down and remember it.

The second, harder, (yet more rewarding) option is to figure it out for yourself. First, you have to get access to an instrument of some kind that will allow you to identify (by name) a pitch. I recommend a Steinway Grand piano. If you’re less ambitious, there are a number of choices from children’s toys to professional instruments which will allow you to identify a pitch. It’s not that hard and you might find it to be fun.

In many (but not all) cases, the last note of the song will turn out to be the “key” of the song. It will always be good enough to know the name of the first note of the melody. Any reasonable good accompanist will be able to tell you the key if you tell them your first note.

The alternative to figuring out your keys in advance is the “Sing us a little bit of the song and we’ll figure it out” method. This is not a particularly good method. For one thing, most of you are going to (arbitrarily) start singing in the key that the last song you heard was in as it’s tonal center is already in your mind. For another, singing just the first few notes of a melody won’t give you a good sense of where the highest notes will fall in your range because the highest notes generally come later in the song at it’s climax (those of you who are interested in knowing why this is, might find some cool stuff by searching “the golden mean” or “the golden ratio” and “music”).

In any case, it’s a poor substitute for doing a little homework and figuring out what is the BEST key for your unique individual voice to sing a particular song in.

So, if you’re serious about wanting to improve your performances, take the time and make the effort. You will find the process fun. If you just don’t want to go through this, that’s okay too. We still love you anyway and very much appreciate your joining us to (as the Maestro would say):

Keep making great music.