Finding the Best Key for Your Voice Per Song
Objective: to find a key suitable for your vocal instrument, where you can comfortably sing all parts of the song, from the lowest to the highest note, and sound your best, while capturing the essence of the song.
This is an important first step beyond selecting the right song for your voice. It takes some exploration. Think of it like going shopping for clothes, trying on a few “key” options (pun intended) and by contrast, seeing what feels and looks (sounds) the best on you!
For some of you, the following info will be familiar if you play by ear and/or read music. For others it may stretch you a little to further develop your ear, implement some musical knowledge and some quick tools.
Tools used in this process:
- Original recording of your song
- Printed song lyrics (including chords if you play: www.e-chords.com/) or sheet music (if you read music)
- www.musicnotes.com (to sample different keys and purchase sheet music if desired)
- Piano or keyboard
- Your ear and voice
Let’s get started!
1. Sing with original recorded version
Use printed song lyrics (or sheet music if you have it.)
2. Is the key too low, high, or just right?
Notice how your voice feels as you sing through the song. Is the melody too low or high at any point? If so, identify where it occurs in the song, and circle it on the lyric sheet. The original song key is probably not the best fit for your voice. You will need to transpose the key lower or higher (we’ll get to that in Step 6).
3. What is the lowest and highest note of melody?
Identify the lowest and highest note, and write it down (or circle on the sheet music if you have it). This is helpful in grasping the overall range of the song. You’ll also see how that span of notes map onto your vocal range.
4. What is the key of the original?
Using the recording, lyric sheet or sheet music, listen for, sing the last melody note, find it on the piano, and write it down. There are some rare exceptions, however, the last melody note and chord will indicate the song key about 99% of the time. (This is even more often the case than the starting chord of the intro or verse.)
For example: A song ending on a C chord, typically means the song is in the key of C major, and will most likely have C as the ending melody note. You’ll know it because the sound will have resolution in it’s ‘home’ key. (If you still need help, see the Alternate Quick Tools on Step 6 B.b.i.)
5. What is the starting note of the verse, bridge, and chorus?
Identify and write down the starting melody note for each song section. This is helpful for transposing and later, for song practice. It’s also great ear training, if you’re using the recording (and piano) and don’t have sheet music.
6. Explore at least 3 different keys by transposing the melody.
Move the melody note higher or lower based on what’s needed for your voice. Sing the melody in the new key, checking each section of the song, making sure you’ve covered the lowest and highest notes of the melody especially.
A. To do this use your ear and/or piano or keyboard by moving the melody note either a half-step lower or higher. (A half-step is the distance from one key up or down to the very next key.)
Now sing the melody from this new starting place and see how it feels and sounds. Try out different keys. Write down how many half steps you’ve moved up or down. (ex. 1 half-step up = +1 and 1 half-step lower = -1)
B. Alternate quick tools to use –
a. Many keyboards have a transpose button. Use it to move the key up or down by half-step.
b. Visit www.musicnotes.com This site is great for sheet music, of course. It can also serve as a great free resource for sampling different key signatures per song, beyond the original key. As an example, let’s take a look at the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen https://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtd.asp?ppn=MN0053359
i. Click on the transpose drop-down menu on the right side of the page, showing the original published key and a few other song key options (lower and higher.)
The keys offered are also fairly common keys for most musicians to play in (keys with 4 or less sharps or flats in the key signature). This is an added benefit, even though the first priority is finding the best key for your vocal instrument.
ii. Click on the audio button above the sheet music sample page (upper right) to hear a midi file of the entire song melody and accompaniment that you can sing along to see if it fits your voice. (When you change the key using the transpose drop down menu, the midi file and sheet music also changes to that key!)
No matter which of the above methods you use to change keys, experiment singing the song in at least 3 different keys before making a final decision. This provides contrast, making the key that is most suitable for your voice more evident. Make sure your voice feels and sounds great in the key. Record yourself and listen back.
Once you settle on a new song key, write it down! Identify your new song key based on how many half-steps lower or higher you moved from the original key (see Step 4). If needed, use the keyboard graphic under Step 5 or www.musicnotes.com).
If needed, you can now either purchase sheet music or print lyrics/chords in correct key (see e-chords.com)
Need more help? Post a comment or question. And/or ask for assistance from a musician you know. Have them walk you through this process using an actual song, until you can do it on your own. You can also do a search online to start understanding basic music theory if you need to be more up on it. Also see the article 4 Ways Learning Piano Can Further Develop Your Singing and Musicianship.
No matter where you are on your journey, it’s worth learning as much as you can as a vocal musician, including how to find the best key for your voice per song.