How to Pick the Best Key for a Song

Learn how to pick the best key for a song. Here are four tips to consider when choosing the right key for your song.

Midi Keyboard with Neon Lights - Best Key for a Song
Photo by Soonios Pro

How to Choose the Right Key for a Song

Choosing the best musical key for your song is essential. Nearly every song is written in a specific key. The key will define the makeup of your song and give you certain information about that song. For example, a song’s key determines:

  • The musical scale. A scale identifies which notes to use for your melodies and harmonies. There are several types of scales, each derived from the twelve available notes. However, the two main types are the major scale and the minor scale. For example, a song in the key of A minor uses notes from the A minor scale.
  • The tonic or home note of a song. The tonic is the first note of any scale, and it identifies the tonal center of your song. For example, the note “G” is the tonic of both G major or G minor.
  • What chords best support the melody. Knowing the key and scale of a song will help you build a chord progression that harmonically supports the melody.
  • Bassline note choices. Knowing the key and scale will also help you choose which notes to use for the bassline. It’s common practice to build a bassline using the root notes of a chord progression.
  • Which notes accommodate a singer’s vocal range and sweet spot. It’s essential to know the highest and lowest notes a singer can reach. It ensures your melody and harmony notes match the singer’s voice.
  • The emotional impact of your song. For example, many perceive major scales as bright, uplifting, and happy sounding. Whereas miner scales seem dark, depressing, and sad sounding.

It’s best to determine which key you will write your song in before starting a project. It will be difficult to change the key after the production process has begun. However, you can change the key by transposing all the tracks in your song with a pitch. For example, the vocals, melodies, harmonies, basslines, and any instruments. Basically, everything except drum tracks.

4 Tips for Choosing a Song’s Key

There are several factors to consider when choosing the key for your song. Here are four tips that will help you determine the best key for your song.

1. Find Your Vocal Range

Every singer has a vocal range of high and low notes they can comfortably sing. Similar to a melody having a top and bottom note. When choosing a key for a song, it’s essential to know the singer’s vocal range. Once you know the vocal range, find a key that includes the highest and lowest notes the vocalist can sing without straining.

However, if you already have an arrangement started, try pitching all your musical elements up or down to accommodate the singer’s vocal range. For example, if the top note a vocalist can sing is C4, then transpose the song, so the highest melody note reaches a C4. You will also need to check if the vocalist can sing the bottom note as well and then adjust accordingly.

How do you find your vocal range? Several online tools will help you find your vocal range. However, the best instrument to use when determining your range is the piano. Try these steps using a piano instrument loaded in your DAW:

  • Start by finding the lowest note you can sing. Find middle C and travel down the white keys while singing a consistent vowel sound like “ah,” “ee,” or “oo.” Sing along to each note until you reach the lowest recognizable pitch you can sustain. Find that note on the piano and write it down.
  • Next, find the highest note you can sing using the same method. This time, sing upwards on a consistent vowel sound until you reach the highest note you can comfortably sing. Find that note on the piano and write it down.

Note: As you move up in pitch, there may be notes which become hard to sing, causing cracking or croaking. These are your transition or break notes. Keep rising in pitch through this part of your vocal range until you hit your highest note. Again, you should be able to sustain that note at a consistent, recognizable pitch.

2. Knowing Your Vocal Sweet Spot/Power Note

Vocal sweet spot refers to the strongest part of your vocal range in which you’re most comfortable singing. It’s the part of your voice that flows the easiest and sounds the best.

Knowing the vocal sweet spot (Tessitura) is important when you want the vocal line to stand out. Whether it be at the end of the chorus, during a hook, or to emphasize a message in the song. For example, “Oh baby, I love YOU.” In this example, “YOU” is the power note in the singer’s range. Also, these sweet spot/power notes are often not the highest notes a vocalist can sing. The sweet spot is usually somewhere in the upper range before there is noticeable vocal strain.

When choosing a key for a song, consider the “sweet spot” notes a vocalist can sing the best. Find a key that supports their strongest note range to ensure the highest quality performance. Or if you already have an arrangement started, tailor and transpose the song, so the vocalist power note and the part of the song you want to emphasize are the same. For example, make sure the most important parts of a song, such as the bridge and chorus, match the strongest part of the singer’s voice.

How do you find your vocal sweet spot? Finding your vocal sweet spot is more a matter of experimentation. Try singing long tones in the mid-upper part of your range. Listen and feel how different notes project and how your body resonates. Certain notes will sound louder, fuller, and pop out more. These are your power notes. They will be comfortable to sing and have the best sound quality.

3. Musical Timbre of Instruments and Singers

Timbre is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, voice, sound, or tone. When talking about timbre, the choice of the key becomes much more subjective. For example, raising or lowering the pitch of specific instruments will change the color or flavor of their sound. The sound may become brighter, thinner, fatter, or speak better depending on the characteristics of the instrument, sample, synth patch, or even the speakers. Moreover, certain keys will sound better on some instruments due to their construction. For these reasons, consider choosing a key that fits the natural range of a singer or instrument for the best sound quality.

A full mix also has timbre. If you already have an arrangement started, try auditioning the mix in a different key to hear if it sounds better. For example, if your overall mix sounds heavy or muddy, try transposing the entire mix up a tone or two. Similarly, if the mix lacks body and fullness, try transposing the whole mix down.

Audition your song in a different key by making a bounce-down of the mix and then transposing that track up or down. Repeat and listen to the various key versions to hear what sounds best to you. Once you find a key you like the most, go back to the original mix and transpose all the tracks except drums/percussion to the desired pitches. Next, listen to the drums/percussion to make sure they sound good in the new key. Be particularly aware of the bass drum as it may contain a specific pitch that can mess with your other tracks. Then transpose any drums/percussion if needed.

4. Instrument Playability and Ease of Performance

Another reason why you may want to change the key is if you play your music live. The playability of an instrument can play a factor in which key you choose. Many musicians prefer a key that’s easier to play on a particular instrument. For example:

  • Piano playability: A song in the key of C# may be difficult to play on a keyboard because of all the black keys. Instead, you could transpose the song down a semi-tone to C minor, which will make it easier on your hands.
  • Bass guitar playability: Consider the note range if you’re playing a real bass guitar. For example, the lowest note on a standard electric bass is an “E.” If your track in the key of “D,” and you want to get the fullest, fattest sound from the bass, try transposing the song up one tone to “E.”
  • Guitar playability: When playing a guitar part in a high register, you may have to put a capo on the 10th string. This move can make the guitar sound thin and lack body. However, if you transpose up one tone, you’re now up 12 frets, which is an octave. This means you can take off the capo and get a much larger sound from the guitar.
  • Mini keyboard dilemma: Most mini keyboard controllers only provide one or two octaves. You may find a note you can’t play because it’s on a higher or lower octave. This one personally drives me crazy. You can transpose the track to fit the keyboard layout. However, a better option is to use the transpose function on your keyboard controller to make it fit.

If you’re playing an instrument, consider finding a key that’s easier to play while still sounding good. These decisions will be subjective based on the artist, player, and context. So, use your ear when choosing the right key for a song.

Conclusion

Learning how to find the best key for a song is a valuable musical skill. Knowing the key allows you to transpose the song to better suit a vocalist or instrument. It also allows you to experiment with making songs sound different. The differences in timbre, sound quality, and mood can be surprising. Moreover, knowing how a key affects your music can open up your creative pallet and mix options.

The most important consideration is how different keys affect the vocals. The vocal range is more limited than any synthesizer or acoustic instrument. Therefore, small changes to the key can drastically alter the impact of a vocal performance. That’s why it’s crucial to work with your vocalist to get the best performance possible. The rest is just icing on the cake!



About Icon Collective

ICON Collective is a Los Angeles and Online music production school that teaches you core technical skills while unlocking your unique creative process. Mentorships with industry professionals let you access real-world insights and help you personalize your music education. Check out our Music Production Programs.





SPEAK TO AN ICON REPRESENTATIVE



How would you prefer we contact you?

Summer 2020

APPLICATION
DEADLINE
Jun 8
CLASS BEGINS Jul 6

Fall 2020

APPLICATION
DEADLINE
Sep 7
CLASS BEGINS Oct 5

SEE ALL DEADLINES