What’s the best song key?
Starting with your singer. If male with a strong tenor range voice, he might prefer to sing in a key like G or A major. Here the natural ‘tessitura’ or range of the melody might often lie above middle C. Your female singer is likely to enjoy working in a lower key, like D—or even C if she is an alto. She does not want her voice to sound too high and thin.
Both electric and acoustic guitars sound naturally good in keys like E, A and D because their string tunings ‘sits’ great with these keys. On the other hand, in the key of D that low D will be out of range for your 4-string bass player, unless he decides to drop his bottom string tuning, or get a five string!
Western Music – The Diatonic Scale System
There are lots of types of world music that don’t involve the diatonic scale, like Arabic music which uses non-western scales, or Indian or Thai traditional music, for example.
As we’ve seen, some keys have lots of them; Db has five flats and B has five sharps. As any music student will tell you, that’s a lot of notes to remember to change if you’re trying to play a sight-reading piece in an exam!
So How Do They Sound?
It’s often been said that major keys tend to sound happy and positive in mood, but some claim that certain major keys like Db or Ab can sound ‘darker’ than major keys based on white notes on the keyboard. Lots of opinions have been expressed about this through the ages.
Here’s a list of what some have said. See if you agree!
The association of mood with certain keys is a highly subjective area, so I won’t be too surprised if you disagree with anything in the above table. For me, after the practical considerations of instrument and vocal range have been taken care of, it can sometimes be an additional factor to take into account though.
For example, if your piece is in a major key but has a more thought-provoking, restful mood, it might benefit if it were moved to a lower key, especially if your singers tone sounds ‘darker’ as a result.
Minor scales can clearly provide lots of scope for emotional pathos and drama. I can think of no better example than the theme from the film ‘Schindler’s List’, which is played by Itzhak Perlman, acknowledged as one of the finest violin players of his generation.
Note the pathos of the falling intervals of the melody as the harmonies work through several related keys to find their way unerringly to the home key of D minor: