How to Pick the Best Key to Write a Song In
A lot of songwriters play instruments like piano and guitar. You might be sitting down on one of these instruments and while playing around stumble upon an idea for a song. Following this thread of inspiration you might come up with Intros, Verses, Choruses, Bridges, melodies, lyrics etc and before you know it, you have a song.
Many songwriters will stop here and overlook an important factor to consider, and that is whether what you wrote might sound better in a different key.
For many people it isn’t until they hit the studio and work with a producer that the producer might suggest playing the song in a higher or lower key.
This simple change might be the difference between the best version of your song and one that sounds just ok.
So if you’re at the step where you’re considering other keys for your songs, congratulations. For some, this might seem like common sense, and for others, this could be a breakthrough in their songwriting. It was for me.
But now that you’re considering other keys, what exactly are you supposed to be looking for? Something that “sounds better” might sound really vague, so let’s talk about some specifics to look out for.
To pick the best song key songwriters must take into account how the hooks and riffs of their songs sound in other keys, what the pitch ranges and “sweet spots” are for the instruments and their singers, and what the highest and lowest notes are in the main vocal melody.
Riff Specific: Do the Instrumental Hooks/Riffs Sound Good in Other Keys?
I started out as a guitar player and learned to sing way later, so usually I write songs on guitar first.
One of the biggest things I’ve noticed while doing this is that sometimes you write a riff and you just can’t change the key that it is played in. It would completely change the vibe, emotion and texture of it.
So one of the things to look out for when looking for different keys for your song is to consider how the hooks on the instruments sound. Do they still have the vibe you want them to have in other keys? Maybe a better vibe?
Sometimes changing the key might make your riffs sound more hopeful or darker, so the key might change the entire vibe of the song.
Instrument Specific: What’s the Range and Sweet Spots of the Instruments?
Every instrument has a sweet spot where it sounds the best. Songs with orchestral instruments are a great example of this.
For example, if you have some violins in your song but you take the key too far down, then you might be lowering too much for the violins to really shine through and get the best violin sounds.
This is why orchestras have other types of string instruments like Violas, Cellos and Double-bass, which cover different ranges and give different textures. Other instruments like Saxophones also have different subcategories.
I’m not an expert in orchestral instruments but these are some of the ranges I was able to find online for string family instruments just to give you an idea of how they vary and overlap in the ranges they can cover.
- Violin: G3 – E7
- Viola: C3 – A6
- Cello: C2 – C6
- Double-bass:C2 – C5
Each will sound best within a certain range of pitches (likely in the middle and upper middle of their range, but use your ear), so if you change the key, you might have to change the instrumentation in your song.
If you really want violins then make sure the song’s key allows them to play within a pitch range where they can shine.
Singer Specific: What’s the Range and Sweet Spots of Your Specific Singer’s Voice?
As opposed to other musicians, singers use their own bodies as the instrument. Due to this, every singer’s instrument is slightly different so it’s important to accommodate your songs to this. There’s two things to keep in mind here and those are finding the vocal range and the vocal sweet spots.
Finding Vocal Ranges
Singer ranges are traditionally classified into categories. You’ve probably heard of them before. However, these are more of a guideline than hard cut offs.
For example, it’s possible for Baritones to hit some notes from the Tenor range. There is some overlap between each classification depending on the singer and their skill and training.
These are the singer categories and their ranges according to Yale’s music records:
- Bass: F2 – E4
- Baritone: A2 – F4
- Tenor: roughly C3 – A4
- Alto: G3 – E5
- Contralto: F3 – D5
- Mezzo-soprano: A3 – F#5
- Soprano: C4 – A5
To find your singer classification use a piano and start playing C3 in half step increases and sing along up until you cannot comfortably match the notes. The same process can be used for singing down to lower notes. Then check what your lowest and your highest comfortable notes are and what vocal range classification they fall under.
Take in consideration the fact that your vocal training will have some influence here.
For example, you might think that you can’t comfortably sing high notes but it might be because you have not trained your head voice, which allows you to sing higher notes more easily.
So it might not be that you can’t do it because your voice doesn’t allow it, but rather because you haven’t trained to unlock and use the full vocal range that is available to you.
Finding Vocal Sweet Spots
When it comes to sweet spots this is going to depend a lot on each individual singer. Everyone has their own voice, and each voice can have its own sweet spot.
So two singers might be able to hit the same note but one might sound more pleasant than the other because their voices are different.
It’s important to check specifically what keys bring out the sweet spots in your singer’s voice and keep in mind how it matches the genre. A Jazz singer might need to have a smooth voice that can go low at times, while an 80s hair metal singer might need a harsher, high pitched voice to match the genre.
Use a guitar capo to find vocal sweet spots: If you play guitar the easiest way to look for sweet spots in your voice is with a guitar Capo. Just play your song and sing, then slide the capo up or down to different frets and sing it again in each key. You’ll notice some will be easier to sing and sound more pleasant than others with your specific voice.
Song Specific: What are the Lowest and Highest Notes in Each Specific Song?
Keep in mind that although your singer’s range might not let them sing very high or low, it is possible to have a song in a high or low key if the vocal melody stays within your singer’s range.
For that reason the best key for your song will also be specific to each song and the range of the vocal melody.
Check what the highest and lowest notes are in the main melody. If it’s within your singer’s range and it hits their vocal sweet spots then you’re good to go.
How to Change the Keys of Your Song
The two easiest ways to change the key of your song on guitar are to use a guitar capo, or to lower the tuning of your guitar.
If your song uses barre chords you can use the Circle of Fifths to check what the roman numeral sequence of chords is and change the note you’re using as the Root or Tonic chord.
If that second part sounds like I just gave you a recipe in a foreign language, check out this recent article which might help How to Use the Circle of Fifths for Songwriting.
Wrapping it up
Picking the best key for your song can make a huge difference. I’ve had songs before that I thought were good but still lacked something because the vocals just didn’t pop like I wanted them to.
It wasn’t until a vocal coach had me try changing to a higher key with a capo that I realized the problem was that it was too low to sound its best with my specific voice.
So it’s important to pay attention to how your voice sits in the key of the song. Don’t forget about how the instrumental hooks sound and whether or not the instruments you are using sit well in the key to get the best sound out of them.
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