The Key of … Perfection
by Elena Greco
Typical reading time: 3 minutes
March 20, 2018
Transitioning from a student singer to a professional requires adjustments. One of the major differences I stumbled upon after moving from college to professional singing was that I had choices. In school, everything was decided for me, from my repertoire to the key in which I sang it. After I left school, it was all up to me. That can sometimes be difficult, and I notice that some singers continue to rely on others for their choices (accompanists, coaches, teachers), and so never really develop their own artistry.
I gradually became aware of the choices I had to make. One was that, unlike opera, art song—and of course musical theater or any genre of popular music—could be sung in any key in which I chose to sing it. I was not limited to the key in which my sheet music happened to be written or the key in which the composer wrote it.
With this new-found choice, came questions: Which key? How do I choose? Why this key rather than another key? Why, other than vocal comfort, does the key matter?
These are super important questions. They go to the heart of vocal music.
An opera aria is written to be sung by a specific character and vocal type with a multi-instrument orchestra and other singers. The composer wrote it exactly the way he intended it to be sung, right down to the dynamics, the tempo and the way he wanted the words expressed. The key (usually) cannot be changed, even if performed with piano instead of orchestra, because the composer wrote the vocal line to express the lyric, not only in terms of pitch but in the way that the vocal line lies in the voice. For example, pitches that lie on the passaggio naturally have more tension and angst. Changing the key would diminish that effect, which might diminish the aria, since there is a dramatic story to be told.
Song, on the other hand, is much freer in the choices it offers, not only in its artistic expression but in its key. The key in which we choose to sing a song is part of our artistic expression. A song tells a short story, and how well we tell the story, using all the choices at our disposal, defines us as artists.
So how do we know which key is the one? you might ask.
First, study the lyric.
Allow yourself to feel its emotion and how the music expresses that emotion. Is it sad, angry, happy, superficial, deep, lonely, loving, dramatic? A sad lyric, for example, would not encourage you to sing high in your range or above the passaggio. Instead, you might choose a relatively low key to best color the sad lyrics. A dramatic one might do the opposite and beg that you sing in the upper reaches.
Second, study the music.
Do the highs and lows of the vocal line create an effect that paints the lyric, or are they just a natural part of the vocal line? Did the composer write the music generally low or generally high? What might that mean? For example, s/he might have chosen a relatively low key to express sadness or evil or death, or s/he might have chosen a higher key to express happiness or triumph or insanity. Which is it? How does the harmony show you the composer’s intention?
Third, think of how those things apply to your own instrument.
Is your voice, for example, naturally warm in the lower middle, bright and ringing in the top, thunderous in the lower part? You can use those attributes to paint the lyric by choosing a key that accentuates the quality that best expresses the feeling of the lyric and music.
Also, consider how even the most minute adjustment can change the color of the entire song. If you sing a song a half-step lower or a half-step higher, the overall color of the voice and the emotional effect of the song will be completely different. Once you think you’ve chosen the key, try it a half-step up and then down to see which of the three keys expresses the song the best. You might be surprised.
This might lead you to other questions: “This is the best key in my voice to express this song … but that high note lies right on my passaggio! Might I take it down a half step, which would make it easier?” You might, but you might also find that doing so changes the overall color of the song in its entirety and doesn’t work as well for the song. The song isn’t about one note.
You want to find the key that reaches the audience, that makes them feel the meaning of the song on a visceral level.
In art song, as well as popular music, the composer was usually writing with a particular singer in mind and chose a key comfortable for that voice. That does not mean that you are conflicting with the composer’s intention when you choose a key that works for your voice and expresses the lyric in the best way that you can with your particular instrument. Composers of art song and popular music usually expect that their songs will be transposed.
Transposition was once an arduous and expensive undertaking. Now it’s a breeze. I find PhotoScore to be the best software for transposition purposes for singers, but if you happen to be a whiz at Sibelius or Finale, you’re a step ahead. I’ve used PhotoScore for years, and it’s easy to learn. If you really don’t want to learn or buy PhotoScore, you can pay someone to do the transpositions for you, and the cost is quite affordable. Once you come up with a likely key, you can transpose the song to that key, plus one or two others while you’re at it, to be sure that you get the best one.
I hope I’ve encouraged you to consider how the key in which you choose to sing a song represents the composer’s intention musically and expresses your artistry.
I invite you to look at all of your art songs and popular songs this way. Welcome to a world of options beyond high, low and medium!
See Elena’s bios for more information about the author.