What Should Your Song Key Be?

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What’s the best song key?

 What the best song key might be? From a basic point of approach, the vocal range of your singer will need to  a major consideration. But what is the best key for your guitarist or bass player? What else need you take into account? lets take a look…

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!

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.

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Back in the 1600s, some keys contained horrible dissonances because the frequency relationships between the notes in each octave had not been set as identical. The ‘equal tempered’ or ‘well-tempered scale’ changed all that. It defined each semitone as being equidistant in frequency from its neighbour, across the octave. That meant that you could play in any key without fear of grating dissonances.

As you probably know, there are eight notes in any scale if you count the octave. But if we include every note in between, there are actually 12 semitones or half tones.

So, if we take the key of C, there are actually three main ways of getting from low C to high C; one major scale and two different types of minor scale. You can see them written out below.

Notice the melodic minor scale uses different notes going up and coming down; the sixth and seventh note are raised going up and lowered coming back down. The harmonic minor scale is the same in both directions. The 3rd note is again lowered, but its peculiar feature is the wide gap between the lowered 6th note and the raised 7th.

All scales of C
All scales of C

Accidentals is the collective word for the sharp sign, the flat sign, and the natural sign. A sharp raises the note it precedes by a semitone, a flat lowers it, and a natural sign restores the note to its original state again.

All the black notes of a keyboard are referred to as either sharps or flats, depending on which scale you are in. So E major has four black notes in its scale; F#, G#, C#, and D#. And Bb major has two flats; Bb and Eb.

Technically, any note—white or black—can be a sharp or flat in relation to its neighbour. So the key of F# major has six sharps including E# which is played as an F, though it is a white note.

F# major scale
F# major scale

Note that D# and Eb refer to the same black note on the keyboard in any octave. But before the invention of the well-tempered scale, this wouldn’t necessarily have been the case. The equally distanced diatonic scale system is a kind of harmonic compromise, but at least it means that the seven octave piano doesn’t have to be many times longer than our arms could reach!

What exactly are key signatures then? They are just a means of shorthand that you can use at the beginning of your piece next to the clef sign.

For example, if you are in the key of G, you know that probably every F you encounter will actually be sharpened to an F#; so why not create a shorthand that tells you that at the beginning of a piece? Then you won’t have to write the sharp sign every time there’s an F.

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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!

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!

Key descriptions

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:

YouTube clip featuring Theme from ‘Schindler’s List’



What do you think?