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Musical Keys and the Key Change

There are multiple reasons why a singer would want to change the key of a song. The most common reason is when the vocalist is unable to hit the highest or lowest note, or when a specific note in the song strains the voice of the vocalist or simply doesn't sound good. Being on the learning path, some singers might experience a loss of tone with notes that lie in between vocal registers, per example between chest and head voice. If the singer hasn't mastered this challenge just yet, a key change may help avoiding the problematic note.

As a performer you want to put off your best presentation. Whereas song choice is one of the most important considerations in this matter, changing the key might give access to songs a singer wants to have in his or her repertoire. It enables the singer to sound good while feeling comfortable performing the song. Even if a singer is able to hit all the notes of a song, a key change may still be an effective tool to transpose the song into a range where the singer's voice sounds strongest.

A singer might also change the key of a song for a performance on stage, per example to protect the voice during days of sickness. Sometimes singers may record a song intentionally in a higher key than what they are comfortable to perform live.

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The pipes of this church organ located in Norwich, England produce different pitch and tone. The key of a song tells us which pipes we can sound safely to stay in harmony.

The pipes of this church organ located in Norwich, England produce different pitch and tone. The key of a song tells us which pipes we can sound safely to stay in harmony.

^ What exactly is a musical key?

A musical key is the combination of a tonic note and a scale. A scale, also called tonic harmony, is a system of notes that is defined by counting the halftone steps between each note of the scale. The tonic note is a reference on which a scale is founded, which means that the scale begins and ends with the tonic note. Different scales can all be based on the same tonic note, and the same scale can be based on a different foundation, which means that all the notes in the scale are transposed in reference to the desired starting pitch. Both information together, the tonic note and the scale, describe the key of a song.

Oftentimes the chord progressions and the melody of a song begin with the tonic pitch, move away from it for a while and then resolve back to the tonic pitch. The departure from the tonic pitch and back creates tension and stability. Musicians call this interplay between chords and/or notes harmonic movement. Without harmonic movement the musician or listener could not develop a sense of the musical key. This method that establishes the key of a song is kind of a desire triggered by our musical senses; it builds a "home" around the music.

^ What is a chord progression?

A chord progression in its most simple definition are two or more chords that follow each other in time. This could theoretically be any chord following any chord, but in literature and music instruction the term chord progression usually refers to a series of chords that share a tonal or diatonic relationship. This relationship could per example be defined by a musical key, a root note, or a tonic chord, and combinations thereof.

It is worth to mention that chord progressions can be built by using specific formulas, which define numbers (Roman numerals) for each chord of a musical key, and then describe the progression of chords in a formula by listing the corresponding chord numbers. The same chords indicated by the numbers also have names, like per example the tonic chord being the first chord of the scale, the sub-dominant being the fourth, and the dominant being the fifth.

Some chord progressions are used more frequently than others. This means, that if a musician knows an often used chord progression and is able to play the same progression in several keys, he or she will be able to accompany many songs. For that reason many musicians prefer to memorize these formulas describing chord progressions instead of having to learn all the chords and notes for each song on its own.

^ What is modulation?

A modulation is simply the change from one musical key within a song to another. However, the change between the keys is done through the choice of notes or chords, which stand in relation to both keys. This means that a melody or chord progression leads to a note or a chord, from which a different key is established. That note or chord becomes the new tonic which builds the foundation for a new harmonic movement. Composers use this technique to create a flow within music.

^ So, what exactly is a key change?

For the singer a key change is a transition of the starting note of a song to either a lower or higher note. The singer could choose to transpose the key in steps according to the scale which might work with the same accompaniment if every single note is considered accordingly. An extreme example here would be the transition by a full octave. If the singer chooses to transpose a song a half step up or down, he or she most certainly will need an adjusted accompaniment, meaning the accompanying musicians will have to adjust what they are playing by following the transition.

It is important to not only find a key that the singer is comfortable to sing with, but also to consider the style and mood of the song. Per example a sad song in an upper range, or a happy song in a lower range might sound out of place. Especially when you already have developed a wider range enabling you to sing a song in various keys, the choice of the key should include these considerations.

^ Emotional characteristics of keys

Emotions and how we perceive music is a very personal experience, which finds its influence by our lifelong experiences and traditions. Some poets and composers like per example Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) and Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (1739-1791) have attempted to attach emotions to specific musical keys. Though an inspiring and interesting approach, it comes with a grain of salt though, because at the time the use of the equal temperament tuning as we have it today was not common, meaning that the pitch of sharp and flat notes was different from each other. For reference and a bit offhand, equal temperament tuning is a mathematic compromise calculating a preferred pitch for the "black" keys on the piano.

However, we consider the following summary as being worth a guideline to demonstrate that the selection of a musical key has an effect not only on the ability to perform a musical piece, but also on the overall experience for the listener. For that reason alone, selecting a different key for a song can make a musical statement on its own.

Tonic/Mode Scale Emotion
C major pure, cheerful, innocent, naive, simple
  minor sad, despair, unhappy, obscure, longing, sighing
Cis / Db major euphonious, leering, smiling artificially
  minor intimate, sighing, lamenting
D major militant, triumphant, bright, joyful, pleasant
  minor melancholic, pondering, brooding
Dis / Eb major intimate, loving, devoted
  minor anxient, disstressed, frightful, horrible, depressed
E major inspirational, uplifting, bright
  minor amorous, effeminate, plaintive, restless
F major forthcoming, calming
  minor depressed, groaning, lamenting, wailing
Fis / Gb major relieving, triumphant
  minor gloomy, discontent, resentful
G major appreciative, gentle, peaceful, idyllic, lyrical
  minor discontented, uneasy, deprecating, resentful, hostile
Gis / Ab major never-ceasing, condemning, deceasing, putrescent
  minor struggling, weary, nagging, wailing
A major expectant, trusting, fulfilling, youthful, cheerful
  minor attentive, gentle, humble
Ais / Bb major cheerful, aware, striving
  minor gloomy, mocking, discontented, mournful, terrifying, suicidal
B major dazzling, jealous, irritating, despairing, raging, furious
  minor patient, awaiting, submitting

^ How does a singer approach key change?

Beside the "trial and error" method, there are multiple ways to approach a key change.

For those vocalists who know their vocal range, an investigation of the performance for the lowest and the highest note can be helpful. It will give information about the direction a key change should take place. If the highest note is too high you should lower the key, and if the lowest note is too low you should raise the key. The key adjustment should bring all notes within your vocal range. If there's room for it, it makes sense to also consider a further adjustment of the key to ensure showcasing the strongest qualities of your voice. This last step sometimes needs a bit of experimentation by changing the key in half steps and examining the result per example by listening back to a recording.

Another approach is to build upon your voice by singing the song in a key from low to high. Here the vocalist would start performing the song in an intentional low key, and sing it again one half step higher. The singer would repeat the process multiple times until performing the song gets uncomfortable. He or she would then return a half step down for the purpose of practice. For the public performance the singer would choose the key where the song sounds best and most natural.

Sometimes a singer can simply avoid a difficult or uncomfortable note by changing it. Knowing that any note of the scale will fit harmonically, and the notes that make up the accompanying chord are the safest choice, the vocalist can step a single problematic note up or down. This technique does not always work, because it will result in a change of melody, or it may not cut through the mix enough. Careful consideration and listening back as a means of quality control are advisable.

^ The choice of key in recording sessions

If you are taking a song into the studio for recording purpose, be it an original or a cover song, you and the producer will want to make sure to capture the best possible take of your voice. The overall goal is to keep the range of notes to sing for the song at notes the vocalist has his or her best timbre. At the same time the range has to remain appropriate for the song, music style, genre, and context. A higher key might brighten the song as a whole, and a lower key can give the song a more moody and dark touch. Another consideration is that a singer might only be able to deliver the desired tone quality of a certain note a number of times before tiring for the session.

For those who wonder, an original composition is not always written in the from the vocalists' perspective perfect musical key. Limitations or comfort when playing an instrument may dictate certain keys. Per example some chords on the guitar are easier to play than others, or the instrument of choice can't easily access a certain key without re-tuning or being switched to another. For this reason producers sometimes want to work first with the vocalist before recording the accompaniment.