I was watching American Idol and was taken by one performance. I turned to my wife and said, ‘With all the professionals there could someone have suggested having her sing that in another key?” As soon as I said it I jumped up, went to my computer, and pulled up Fandalism.com, a world wide music community website. Connected to Facebook where musicians all over the world can post up their songs and performances. In a few minutes I counted a dozen singers that would have made a better recording if they had lowered or raised the key they were singing in. You, like me, have seen enough performers to recognize when a singer is straining to reach a note, or singing so low that you can hardly make out the words for the lack of force in their voices. The difference is that I, or any other trained/experienced singer, would know that a different key would be better. The untrained ear just rejects the performance as just being bad and that is a shame. The song of that singer/songwriter may be wonderful, but it is dismissed, out of hand, for the bad performance. The sadder thing is that those would-be fans remember you,as well as the song, as forgettable.
As a longtime songwriter and performer it is such an automatic exercise that I wasn’t as conscious of the discipline as I should be. When I write any song now days I have to send it off to my publishing company. If I am writing a song to sell I’ll write in a piano friendly key, usually in Bb. I know a lot of tunes are pitched from a piano, that key a holdover from earlier days where all music was transposed for piano, sheet music still is. When I’m writing a song that I intend to sing I write, and demo, in the key that best suits the song. ( providing I can sing in that key -). Guitar music is friendly in G, D, or C - for Country and Folk. E, and fretted A, or F for Rock and Blues (Blues with piano often Bb or Ab). I still remember an interview with Michael McDonald concerning his joining Doobie Brothers. In it he said the toughest thing with his joining the group was to get the Doobies to accept that it would be best if they played in Bb, rather than major chords G D,C,E,A, or F) – a shock to any Rocker's sensibilities. You may ask why, as I am sure the Doobies did. The answer is they wanted the baritone Michael to sing, he sang in Bb, and it was easier for him to play and sing in a key he was used to. That the band agreed was amazing and I'm sure they are not at all regretful.
Is what I just wrote a rule? No. Individual artists play in the key they best sing in, but if you hire musicians for recording it’s good to know, as well as being more economical. Now having said that if you are a new, or pre-CD singer /songwriter you probably write in one key because either you learned that way, or it is comfortable for you. ( I didn’t say 'good' comfortable.) You probably don’t care how your voice sounds, but care very much about melody (as you hear it in your head) and lyrics. Make no mistake in my tone here – it is a huge accomplishment to write a song. Coming up with a fresh melody and stringing words together into a cohesive story, using prose is astounding. I for one give all the nods to the muse when something wonderful comes out of me. As I have written elsewhere, I have written a thousand songs, or more, and have a couple hundred that I think are good, a couple dozen I think are really good, a few I (with no false modesty) think are brilliant – but, and I stress this for those that think they are the next Paul and John – the world makes that choice (one of my songs that I think is just okay may sell and be a hit and the one I love may be passed over everytime) – don't be that attached to your work just keep writing and let your fans tell you the ones they like. I have heard it said that all the songs are out there allrteady written, floating around waiting for a gifted person with the musical skills and verbal expertise to snatch it and bring its beauty to the world. If that is true then we songwriters have an awesome responsibility. Here is my point. You have sat down and crafted a song and now you are going to sing it at a gig, or go into the studio to put it down and whether it be a demo, or a cut for a CD it should be the best representation of your work it can be.
So here is what I do. I offer it as a suggestion. When you write a song use your regular process whatever that may be, then record the song at home. You can use your IPhone (not the best), you can buy a Zoom recorder, or some other quality, but not expensive, recording device, you can buy a M-Audio interface and some microphones and down load a recorder from Audacity.com and record your song in the voice you wrote it in, then record it a step up (Written in G step up to A) or a step down (Written in G step down to F). Listen to all three and see which one has your voice sound the best. Please note that even if you consider yourself a terrible singer changing the key will often make it more listenable whether you have a great voice or not. I offer this as an exercise not as a rule – you can try any key you like I just find with the folks I have coached a step up or a step down can make all the difference.
I’m open to hearing any of you all’s methods and processes in your songwriting.
Till next time – best to you all!
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