Understanding ‘up a key’ and ‘down a key’

Thanks to Gordon for this question about keys. Those of us who are musicians work with keys every day of our lives and often forget that singers who don’t play an instrument can find it confusing. Hopefully I can shed some light on the topic of “keys”…

Hi Kenny,
A semi tone is half a key and a tone down is a whole key……. Is that correct??? Just to clarify…… If the first track of a medley is key of lets say A….. Then i want it to be G (and the rest accordingly) 

Hi Gordon

Yes, that’s correct, if the reference was the key of A then a semi-tone down would be Ab (A flat) and a tone down would be G.

Semi-tones and tones and keys of songs were something that singers never used to need to be aware of, but due to so many singers singing without musicians nowadays, it is something you now need to know about.

As it happens tones and semi-tones are standard music theory terms which have been around for hundreds of years (as every musician who plays an instrument and has a knowledge of theory knows) but in recent years it has caused some confusion as solo singers try to get to grips with the terminology.

And it’s not as straightforward as you’d think.

You see, years ago, the singer just sang…..and the band (musicians) would take care of the music side of things like the key he sang each song in etc.

But nowadays many singers work with backing tracks instead of live musicians so they now need to know a little bit about music theory which up until recently was only really required to be known by musicians.

And even though musical terminology like semi-tones and tones haven’t changed in hundreds of years, technology and the way singers use it has…and not in a good way I’m afraid.

The main problem is the proliferation of all these cheap karaoke machines and pitch shifting programs which don’t give proper readouts.

Many singers have become rightly confused because many of these cheap karaoke machines and software programs only have +1, +2, +3, -1, -2, -3 etc and don’t actually tell you what +1, +2, +3, -1, -2, -3 etc actually means!

To further confuse things, in some machines +1 will mean up one tone. But in another machine +1 will mean up one semi-tone.

Some don’t even use tones or semi-tones, they just “put it up a bit” or “put it down a bit” and don’t adhere to any exact pitch range!

I remember many years ago a friend of mine who’s not a professional singer went to a karaoke night and got up on stage to sing his big song (he sings it everywhere he goes, it’s the only song he knows)! The key wasn’t correct for him and he sounded dreadful. Yet this was despite the fact that he had explicitly told the karaoke presenter to put the key “down one” for him. He was convinced that the karaoke presenter had deliberately sabotaged his big song because it was far too low for him.

But it turns out that the karaoke presenter was using one of those old karaoke machines where selecting -1 takes the key down a full tone, not a semitone as he wanted. In fact it didn’t even take it down a tone – it took it down a little bit more than a tone…kinda in between keys so a tone and a bit in fact!

I don’t know if my friend ever went back and apologised to the karaoke presenter (if he didn’t he should have because it wasn’t really the karaoke presenters fault).

In saying that, this is one of the problems with DJ’s and karaoke presenters who think that all there is to presenting karaoke is putting a CD in the tray and handing the punter a microphone. Sadly they rarely have even the most basic musical ear and don’t know how to pick the correct keys for the singer. Then usually they don’t know how to set the right balances between the music and the singing (every singer has a different voice so some singers need their microphone boosted in volume where others need it turned down a little bit).

I must confess I don’t particularly like karaoke – not because I’m flying the flag for pro entertainers or anything like that though. It’s just I’m sick of going to karaoke nights out where the music is too quiet in the background while the microphone is blaring out (usually feeding back) while swimming in echo. To top it all, it usually all goes through a cheap little DJ mixer and amplifiers/speakers that distort like hell and sound just awful.

Rant over…!