What’s Your Key and Do You Just Have One?

March 1, 2020

Do you know how to answer the question that gets asked the most at jam sessions, song circles and band rehearsals– “what’s your key for the song?” Read on to know exactly what key to put each song you sing in (and it won’t be the same for every one!)

Let’s start with a common misconception: you need to figure out your key–the one that works best for all your songs.

I wish it was that simple. The reason this doesn’t work has to do with the range of each melody you sing. Song 1 sung in the key of G may allow you to reach all the notes without straining, while song 2 in the same key may have notes too high or too low. It’s simply that the melody of each song is different enough that you can’t stay in the same key for every song without moving to unreachable parts of your range. 

Changing the key of Song 2 is the logical next step…

The next misconception is that the right key for any song is the one that’s most comfortable for you to sing it in.

Here’s why that often doesn’t work. If you’re singing a cover song and you want it to have the same general feel and energy as the recoding of it, first decide how hard the singer on the recording is working. On a scale of 1 to 10, are they singing soft and easy on a ballad (a 3), medium intensity on a midrange song (a 5,) or belting high notes all over the place on a rockin’ song (an 8).

If you don’t match their workload, the song will sound different (and not necessarily in a good way.) 

Let’s say you’re covering that rock song that has the singer using an 8 workload. In the original key, you can’t reach the high notes easily, so you move the key down to where it’s comfortable, let’s say a 5 workload. Now you’re working easily, so this must be the “right” key, right?

The problem is that your vocals won’t have the same energy because you’re working at less than an 8. You may have good tone, good pitch, etc., but it won’t ever have the same energy and sound as the original.

If you move the key to the one that causes you to work at an 8, you’ll hear the same energy and feel you want for your song. It may be quite a bit lower than the original key, but it doesn’t matter. That key was best for that singer at the time of the recording session. We all have different ranges and different thickness of vocal cords, which affects workload.

The same concept will help you if you’re working at a 5 on that ballad. Because you’re working harder than the original singer, you won’t get the softness you’re looking for. Lowering the key until you’re working at a 3 will allow you to match the feel and energy of the recording.

To recap, the melodies of all songs are different. Therefore, you have to choose the key on a song by song basis. To figure out the “right” key:

  • Decide if you want the same feel as the original recording of a song
  • If you do, determine how hard the singer on the recording is working (scale of 1 to 10)
  • Match the workload that singer is using 
  • If you want to create a different feel than the original recording, check out Singing a Song Your Own Way

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Mark Bosnian

Mark is an award-winning songwriter and professional voice coach with 30+ years of experience teaching people how to take center stage. He has toured nationally with the 80's hit band Nu Shooz and coached Grammy award nominees, American Idol semifinalists, and singers on The Tonight Show.