(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)
You could lose your voice if you don’t pick the right key for each song
“Hey, Kenny, how do I find which key I sing in?”
This must be the most frequently asked question I get from singers who are just starting out. It can also be a difficult one for a beginner to understand if he/she doesn’t have any knowledge of music theory.
But in this article, I’m going to try my best to give you an explanation that will help you choose the right key for your songs.
First, what you need to understand is that you don’t have just ONE key that you sing in. Every song you sing will have a different key, so rather than picking ONE key, you need to choose a key for every single song you want to sing.
This is because, although your voice has a set vocal range which never changes (ie how high you can reach and how low you can go), every song is made up of different notes, so the notes that you need to pitch for each individual song will be different.
You need to choose a key for each song so that you can be sure that the notes you are going to sing in that song are neither “above” your vocal range (ie too high for you) or “below” your vocal range (ie too low for you).
Enlist the help of a musician friend
The easiest and best way to find your key for a song is to ask a musician friend (a piano player or a guitarist) to help you. He/she should be able to play the song for you in a few different keys and then you can pick the key which feels most comfortable.
Always make sure you sing the song all the way through from start to end because very often the really high notes don’t come till near the end of the song. This is especially true of power ballads and “big production” songs which usually save the highest note till last to give the song that “big finish”.
Another important thing to remember is that a key which feels comfortable when practicing at home, may not suit you when you sing in a large venue environment. For example, if you are singing the song in your own home, the key that you pick may well be much lower than the key you will sing it in if you are working as a professional singer in a large venue full of people.
This is because when the stage-lights are on you, the music is blasting out loudly, and the audience are making noise, the adrenalin starts to pump through you and you’ll find that you can often sing anything up to half an octave higher than you did at home when you were practicing.
In many of my live gigs, I regularly play keyboards to accompany amateur singers and many of them don’t know their key (which is perfectly understandable – they’re not professional singers). The singers who don’t know their key usually try to sing a little bit of the song softly in to my ear before they start, so that I can find their key.
It only takes me a couple of seconds of hearing them sing and I’ve found their key..BUT…when they put the microphone up to their mouth and start singing, they usually proceed to belt out the song 3 or 4 semi-tones higher than they sang in to my ear a few seconds before!
Of course, this means they are now singing in a completely different key to the one we worked out for them a few seconds ago and I now have to find the key all over again! To make matters worse, our hapless “wannabe superstar” (who usually thinks she’s gonna be the next Mariah Carey, minus the looks and talent), usually glares at the musicians like they’re stupid, as if to say…”I thought you had already worked out my key when I sang a little bit in your ear earlier……”!
Of course, this seldom happens to me nowadays because years of experience has taught me that when a singer sings a little bit of a song to me in a “quiet” voice, I simply work out the key, raise it by a couple of semi-tones, so when I play the song intro and they start to sing, the key is just about right for them (and they don’t even know I’ve done it)!
So, the moral of the story is, if you’re trying to find your key while singing the song at home, don’t sing in a quiet insipid little voice – sing out loudly, the same way you intend to sing when you’re up there onstage.
Guide to keys
If you don’t know a musician friend who can help you find your key, don’t despair. There are some little tips and tricks you can use which well help find the right key for you. They are not guaranteed to find your exact key but rather, should be considered more as a rough guide only – we strongly recommend that you use a musician to help find your key whenever possible.
All keys are relevant to each other. On any piano type keyboard, you’ll notice that the notes repeat after each octave. You don’t need to know what an octave is – all you need to know is that there are only 12 notes in an octave which means that there are only 12 keys you will sing in. Every single song you ever sing will be in one of those 12 keys.
Step up through the keys one by one, starting from C, going right up to B. Moving further to the right you’ll notice that the notes then just start to repeat themselves again (C, D flat, D…etc). So, all you need to concentrate on is the 12 notes of one octave. No matter what song you want to sing in the world, one of these twelve keys will be the key you sing it in.
Now we have to figure out which one of these 12 keys you need to pick for each song!
The simplest trick I know to finding the right key, involves playing the original recording of the song and singing along with it. If you can sing along to the song comfortably and ALL THE WAY THROUGH with the original singer, then the original key of the song will be the right key for you. This may seem a bit obvious but it’s amazing how many singers don’t think about doing this!
However, if you sing along to the original recording and find that it is too high for you (which is often the case), then you need to pick a key which is lower than the original recording.
In our catalogue, we list the key beside every single song. If it’s in the original key, you will see (orig key) beside the song title and it’s key. Let’s say for example, you want to sing Whitney Houston “I will always love you” and you find that the original key is too high for you. You will see from our catalogue that the original key for this song is A. Lower keys than this are A flat, G and G flat.
Decide for yourself just how much lower you need the song to be and choose a lower key. You’ll find our catalogue very helpful when choosing a key because, not only do we tell you the key of each backing track, but we give a guide to who this key would be suitable for. Songs in a key to suit a male singer have (male key) next to them, while songs in a key to suit a female singer have (female key) next to them. If it’s in the original key, it will have (orig key) next to it.
It’s worth noting that, in general, a male singer will usually sing 5 keys lower than a female singer (and similarly, a female singer will usually sing 5 notes higher than a male singer). So, when choosing a lower or a higher key be careful about how much higher or lower you go.
In the above example above, if you had found the Whitney Houston song “I will always love you” to be too high in it’s original key of A, be careful not to go too much lower – because if you took the key down to F or E (4 or 5 keys down), you’ll be in the vocal range of a male singer and you’ll probably find those keys too low for you.
There is no doubt that finding the right key is essential not only to giving a good vocal performance, but is of great importance in protecting your voice. Your vocal chords are very sensitive and should not under any circumstances be subjected to unnecessary strain by singing in the “wrong” key.
As well as offering many of our backing tracks in a variety of keys, we offer a Trax Editing Service where you can order any song in any key, so there is really no excuse for risking your vocal chords by singing a song in a key that is not suited to your voice.
We only charge £10 to re-record your song in to a key that suits you and is completely comfortable for you so please, please, don’t risk damaging your voice (and your career) when it costs so little and takes less than 3 working days for us to produce the song for you in the right key.