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Your Optimal Key

Allow your voice to assert itself without stress –says Rachel Lebon

Are you not projecting as easily as you’d like? Getting vocally tired and fatigued? Working hard to enunciate?

Then, it’s time to check your keys.

Vocalists can feel pressured to perform a song in the key that is:

• Recorded by the original artist
• In the published sheet music
• In the band ‘s repertoire

Unfortunately, these approaches do not take into account that these keys may not be the ideal key for your voice.

Why perform a song in someone else’s ideal key?

Get Rid of the Stress

Each human voice is a totally unique instrument characterized by differing vocal qualities and intensity levels in different ranges.

If a song is keyed too high, you’re relegated to straining throughout; conversely if the key is too low, you may have difficulty projecting over instrumental accompaniment.

The optimal key for singing, like the optimal speaking range, enables you to achieve diverse vocal qualities while controlling intensity.

A comfortable key allows you to begin your rendition conversationally, with a soft, warm, intimate approach that builds naturally as you increase vocal and emotional intensity.

Concern about projecting those loud passages and nailing the climactic high notes can compromise your communication during the rest of the song.

Why stress yourself unnecessarily?

The Benefits of the Right Key

Optimal key choice should also make it easier to enunciate, making the ever-important lyrics intelligible to the listener by tapping into the natural resonant characteristics of your voice.

The key that maximizes projection allows your voice to assert itself as a distinguishable timbre over heavy instrumentation, including pre-recorded tracks.

Over time, the vocal energy expended while coping with uncomfortable keys results in vocal fatigue and deterioration, the inability to pace oneself within a song and within a set, or maintain endurance during strenuous performance schedules.

Your Check-List

Ultimately, if you are singing your songs in your key:

• You can display a wide range of dynamics, not just loud, louder, loudest.

• You can communicate the lyrics so that they sound natural and are easily understood.

• You don’t have to “work” vocally throughout the entire tune. You’re in control!

-Rachel L. Lebon, PhD

If you’re signed up to VoiceCouncil’s Peer-Review, you’ll be receiving unique coaching feedback from Rachel for the next 6 weeks. You can sign up now.

Rachel L. Lebon, Ph.D. has been a professional vocalist and studio singer in Dallas/Ft. Worth, Nashville and Miami. She was on the faculty at Belmont College and is currently at the University of Miami, has toured toured world-wide with “Tops in Blue” and on a State Department tour of the Soviet Union and Portugal. Rachel is the author of two published books and conducts lectures, symposia and adjudication worldwide on vocal pedagogy and voice disorders.

  • Rachel, thanks for this, though I have a but. There is something emotional in certain keys that you won´t find in others. Many times I have tried to change the key of a song, either because I am loosing range with aging or because I want to save some energy for a later part of the set. But many times this changes in key provoke loosing the natural emotion of the original key. In the beginning I thought this was caused by the dynamic of the instrumentation of the song. For example, on a guitar you can not play all arragements on all keys; you have to use alternative chords that don´t get the same feeling. So, I tried tuning in a different key. But then, although now I can play the songs with identical arrangements, they sound different.

    My conclussion is that if you are singing your own compositions, or your band’s, you have to be very clever when buiding the melody. On the other hand, if you are singing other’s compositions, you have to be very careful when choosing them. Not all singers or voices do well on all songs.

    Well, this is only my thought.

    Lovely series. Waiting for your next one.

  • Pfarley10

    My thoughts exactly.  I use a lot of backing tracks in different keys and find many songs that simply do not work when changing the key.  I would love to see a more in-depth article on this subject.  Paul

  • Larry

    Chord voicing change on guitar can alter the “feel” or the emotional effect of a song in some instances.Sometimes the best thing a singer or musician can do is exclude the performance of a song.

  • RLLebon

    Sorry for spacing at last posting!

    Thanks for your comments.
    Great discussion! I think  all commentees make great points!
    I agree, some keys are darker than others (big difference between Eb and E, for example, altering the mood of a song.  That’s particularly true on certain instruments, particularly guitar.

    For singers and listenenrs with strong pitch memory or perfect pitch, they can hear the original internally, disturbing them when they hear a song in another key with the same arrangement.  

    On originals, even after being clever in crafting the melody to your voice, if the melody seems to beg to be written out of the writer’s range, if might be a great opportunity to ask others to sing them, a way to pitch your songs to a wider audience (assuning it’s copyrighted)

    It’s interesting that all commentees were male.  Generally speaking, the effect on compromising keys has particualr physical impact on the female voice (more tension on less mass) than males.   For successful professional singers with vocal complaints who present at our voice clinic, compromising keys during a heavy singing schedule is very frequently a factor in vocal fatigue and disorders.

    Rachel Lebon

  • On a guitar you can not play all arragements on all keys; you have to use alternative chords that don´t get the same feeling.It is knowledgeable.Thanks to share this blog.

  • Thanks so much for the work you have put into this post. I have this post bookmarked in Delicious and will refer back frequently over the next several day