Behind the Scenes


A Peak behind the Curtain: A Solopreneur Self-Produces an Album Recording

by Elena Greco

Photo by Benjamin Lehman on Unsplash

Note: All text and media on this blog are copyrighted and protected by federal copyright law.


This series can also be found on Elena’s Substack. Follow Elena there (she’ll Follow you back!) … or better still, Subscribe to Elena’s Substack to stay current on her offerings.

01. The Theme
02. The Image
03. The Web Page
04. The Music
05. The Plan
06. The Funding
07. The Key
08. The Preparation
09. To come

Typical reading time: 20 minutes

I’ve been producing musical concerts for close to twenty years now. And now, for the first time, I’m self-producing an album recording.

During the pandemic, live performances came to a halt. It came to me that I was at a time in my life to start thinking about legacy, and recording an album seemed a natural thing to do. I decided to focus on recording, rather than performance, at least for a time.

I’d done some small one-off recordings before, just a song here and there, but I hadn’t been satisfied with the results, and I knew that I really had a lot to learn about recording and how to get what I want in that environment. Unlike promotions of pop singers where you see a singer in a recording studio step up to the mic wearing headphones and start singing blissfully, it’s not quite that simple. There’s a lot to learn. This time around, I wanted to master the art and business of recording, since I expect that I’ll be doing a lot of it for the foreseeable future.

I decided to approach the production of this album as a learning experience, and it occurred to me that this might be useful to another musician, whether classical or non-classical, who wanted to learn how to approach recording with an eye toward a professional product. Singers do pop into a recording studio now to do an audition clip or two in one session, but there is so much more to recording, and it would be advantageous for any singer to learn at least the basics.

And the steps involved in this process are adaptable for self-producing any project, whether a recording, a concert, or a multi-media project, so if you’re a singer who hasn’t produced your own project before, this is a good place to start.

It also seems to me that the average non-music-making person probably has no idea what goes into creating a performance, whether live or recorded, and that that might be of interest to them. I’d like for musicians to be recognized for the hard work they put into every project.

BEHIND THE SCENES is a peak behind the curtain of self-producing an album. I’ll take you along on my journey as I do everything a solopreneur is required to do to create, fund and promote such a project. You can’t just create a recording and move on; no one would hear it! To get people listening to the work, promotion is required. And you can’t create a recording without funding; it is not an inexpensive venture. Join me on this adventure!

The Theme

The Theme. Any musical project begins with a theme. A musical production of any kind needs a unifying idea that allows all the elements to merge to elicit a feeling or tell a story through the music and lyrics.

Sometimes the theme comes to me suddenly, and I want to create a project that supports it. At other times, I feel an itch to create a project but the theme hasn’t appeared yet. At those times, I allow my unconscious to be with the question of what the theme might be as I go about my daily life; it usually reveals itself rather quickly. (I recommend you read my article Incubating Ideas: The Essence of Creativity and watch my video Incubating Ideas for ideas about supporting your unconscious in being helpful to you.)

I had previously produced a concert called ELEMENTS™ that focused on the environment; the programming was nature-themed music encompassing several genres. I had lots of material left from that project that didn’t make it to the concert, and it’s a topic I’m still passionate about.

As soon as I committed to recording an album instead of producing a concert, I knew that this project would also focus on nature, and it felt right to call the album ELEMENTS TWO™.

Like its sister production, this album will celebrate the elements of the Earth which, along with the many sensually rich expressions of nature, will be reflected in an album recording of jazz and American Songbook standards with just a dash of musical theater.

The Image

Choosing the Image. The image that represents the theme colors the entire project. Here’s how I approach choosing that image.

As the theme takes shape in my mind, I need a reference point, and the best reference for me is an image. I usually think in pictures, and once I have the image of the project in mind, everything flows from that. The colors, the style, the message of the image all play a role in the choice of music and the style of presentation of the project.

The image is also what will represent the project to the public. An image is more provocative than a title; pictures speak louder than words. The image gives the project’s audience an idea what the project is about on a deeper level.

The image will be used on the project’s webpage, on social media, in publications and in my Newsletter, and possibly on promotional emails or postcards. It will also appear in this project on the album cover (for a concert, it would appear on the printed program).

So the image that represents the project is really very important.

In choosing the image, I often review 200 or more images on various image-vending sites before I settle on the finalists.

If you do a web search for “free non-royalty images” you’ll see that there are many sites you might use. I currently most often use 123rf and Shutterstock, both of which are low-cost and have a good selection online, as well as the free site Unsplash. I like Shutterstock because they’re good to photographers and let them sell their images alongside some of the more well-known sources. And sometimes I find a particular photographer whose images I love, so I can always go there first and be sure to find something I want. But there are lots of affordable alternatives, both low-priced and free, that have royalty-free images with no worries about copyright.

Once you settle on a few image vendors to focus on, use search words or phrases that relate to your theme. As you surf through the images, more ideas for related words will likely come to you. I can tell you from experience that it is easy to go down the rabbit hole and spend hours on this over a period of days. So I often set a deadline for myself to make my decision for the semi-finals within a certain time frame so that I don’t spend too much time.

Focus on how the images feel to you, not whether you think they match intellectually. The images don’t have to represent your theme literally. Go with those that grab your eye and make you say “yes.”

After the initial winnowing down, you’ll want to find several images to start—but no more than, say, 10 to 15—that really speak to your theme. Sometimes you’ll feel a sense of recognition when you see them. Others you might not be totally certain about, and that’s okay.

Save all of those images that make the first cut to your computer (with watermarks, because they’re only going to be seen by you, and you don’t want to spend money on them just yet). You might want to make a digital folder for this project’s images so that you can keep all the images together. While each image site has a Lightroom, rather than jumping from site to site, you’ll want to see all the images you’ve gleaned from all sources in one place for comparison.

I use Microsoft OneNote for the final gleaning. I copy and paste all the “finalists” onto a OneNote page, print the page to pdf (saving the pdf in the image folder) and print out the result in color. I put that pdf printout on the wall or bulletin board in front of my computer; that way I can see I can see all the final images at once every time I walk by for a few days. Eventually, there’s one image that stands out to me as “the one.”

Finally, I purchase that image in jpg format in a high-resolution medium size. Now I’m ready to roll!

The Web Page

Creating the Web Page. Now that the project concept “lives” in my head, it’s time to create a web page to give it a digital home. The page will initially contain only a description of the project’s theme and the project’s image. Later on, the album cover—which will be used at the website where I sell the album—and the personnel roster and bios will appear there, too, as well as a link directing the user to the place to listen to and purchase the album and relevant material.

The web page will be used initially for showing potential musicians and other collaborators to get them onboard. When I’m ready to publicize the project, it gives me a place to direct my audience to learn more.

Once I see this very public declaration of the project in this format, it helps me clarify the project further for myself, as well.

As a former webmaster for a law firm, I became handy with HTML, along with CSS and a bit of Javascript. I used that expertise to create my own website and later create websites for others. Now I just manage my own site, which is a large job and a blessing, because I use it for sharing my work with the public and as a place for all of my creative efforts to live. As a friend once said to me, “It’s you, in digital form.” My apartment is my physical home; my website is my digital home.

As a result of my past web experience, I’m able to do my own web work for my music projects. For those who are less experienced with websites, I do recommend that you learn to do your own editing and updating, even if you hire a professional to get the site up initially. It’s so easy to do now!

The basics you’ll need are a web host, use of a server, and a template to get you started on the design of your site. But you needn’t worry with all that. There are some very low-tech, easy and inexpensive solutions for getting a professional website up now which I think are quite lovely and which will take care of all three of these needs at once.

I’ve seen excellent results with Squarespace and Wix, both one-stop shops, for example, and I personally know people who are not at all comfortable with technology who have managed to create excellent websites with both of those platforms. Those providers (and probably others in the near future) offer hosting, templates, web stores, blogs and more.

You’ll want to check if the provider you choose offers a newsletter service, because that’s something you’ll definitely want now or later if you are a solopreneur of any kind. You have to keep your followers informed about what you’re doing. The same goes for a store or some means to sell things on your site, because you will almost certainly use that eventually.

I use WordPress for my own site and will likely continue to do so because I love all the plugins that WordPress offers. It’s perhaps a bit less easy to work with than the two services I mention above if you’re a beginner, but it has many benefits for those with a little basic HTML expertise.

I’m also quite fond of my Newsletter service, MailPoet, which is currently available only as a plugin for WordPress users and which also interacts with WooCommerce, a commonly used web store, which is what I use for commerce on my site, such as offering workshops or selling books or courses.

In short, if you’re creating a music project of any kind now, you need a web page on your own website, and it needs to be easy for you to access and edit yourself at the drop of a hat. Unless you’re a Big Name with thousands to spend without a care, I strongly advise you to spend a few minutes learning to edit your site, whether you choose to put up the website initially yourself or hire someone else to do it. You don’t have to ask, and wait for, someone else to add every concert, every blog post, every photo you want to add to your site. There’s just no need for that now.

If you do hire someone to create and/or design your website initially, make sure you tell them, “I want to be able to edit the site myself.” Use those exact words. The person should be accustomed to that request and will not take offense (if they do, find someone else). Ask them to show you how to access the editing feature.

As for me, I’ve finished the initial web page for Elements Two™. Have a look! Changes will follow as I add personnel and after I get the recordings up and available for purchase. Now my project has a digital home!
You can also view the page here: ELEMENTS TWO™.

The Music

Finding the Music. After settling on a theme and title for the album, and choosing an image that represents the theme, the next step in any music project is to choose the music. This is a BIG job! In the case of ELEMENTS TWO™, there are hundreds of nature-themed songs in the popular song genre. How to choose? Listen to them all, of course!

When I began this project to determine which music might make it to the final product, I searched for nature-related music and created a private Playlist to contain the resulting 200+ songs. I’ll use this Playlist throughout the project. Then I began listening to the songs with the idea of weeding out any that I know won’t work. The complete initial search and listening took me around 8-10 hours spread over a couple of weeks. Listening to music in this way requires absorption, and I often listen to the songs in semi-darkness.

From that original 200+, I narrowed it down to 30-35 songs that seemed viable for this particular project. That gleaning process took another 5-6 hours spread over several weeks.

When I’m choosing music, I’m listening not so much for style or genre as for the meat of the song—the harmony, lyrics and emotional impact. Does this song mean something to me, and will it move the audience? Those are the questions I always ask when choosing music for a musical project.

It all starts with the songs. And I have to love them.

Now we’re getting to the part of the project that I feel passionate about! The songs are what move me, ignite me, push me to continue to the end.

At the end of this process, my Playlist contains at least one version of each of the 30+ semi-final songs. This album will have only about 20 songs (as do most concert programs), but the final cut has to wait until I’ve taken the semi-finalists for a test drive to see how they fit with my voice, my style and my soul.

Now I’m ready to try out the music! Only then can I make the final cut.

The Plan

The Plan. This series is about a particular project that I’m self-producing: recording an album. But many of the steps I use to produce this project are the same as those I’ve used in all of my projects over the years. And they might be useful in your projects, too, musical or otherwise.

I have a concert production schedule template that I developed years ago that serves me well for all sorts of musical projects. Most projects have a schedule of around 200-250 items from beginning to curtain. While many things about this recording project are similar to concert production, others are totally different, and I knew that there were things I didn’t even know about yet that would be required. So I’m creating a new production schedule as I go along, one specific to album recording.

Organization and planning are essential to the success of any production. You probably got drowsy just reading that sentence, didn’t you? Yes, organization is pretty much the opposite of creative. It isn’t sexy and it isn’t fun. But I make it fun for myself by seeing it as a challenge—which it certainly is. A music production is a giant mess of tasks and scheduling and problems and impossibilities … after which you have to be creative and fresh and ready to perform or direct. But I have a system!

1. My System

To start with, you have to handle a lot of information—about people, places and music. And you have to have a firm grasp of the calendar aspect of the project. Here’s how I do it.

The Intention. The intention you have for your project colors and supports everything you do in connection with it. It’s what will get you through the difficult times. Why are you doing this project? “I love to perform” is not a reason! Is there something you hope to happen as a result of presenting this concert or recording? Establish world peace? End world hunger? Your intention doesn’t have to be quite so grand. It could be “to gain exposure to people who can potentially help me get jobs at a higher level in the profession.” That’s a perfectly reasonable intention. Are you really committed to that? Will that get you through the difficult times when you’re fed up with the project? Find something meaningful about this project that you can hang on to. Once you have that, the rest is cake.

When you find your intention for the project, print it out and put it where you can see it regularly throughout the day. You can be sure that I have my intention for this recording project, along with the image that represents the project, on my bulletin board where I see it and repeat it to myself daily.

(To learn more about working powerfully with intentions, do try my Abracadabra! workshop and the corresponding Abracadabra! book that comes out in 2023)!

Macro to Micro. I’ll let you in on a secret. Whenever you want to accomplish or manage anything at all in life, always think macro to micro. Never think about details in the initial stages of planning; those are for the very last stage. Always start with the largest or most general objective. Then work down to specific goals, then sub-goals and tasks. Only in the final steps of planning will you consider details.

Often the first thing our mind does is to burden us with worries about details. Don’t listen to it! That’s one way our unconscious sabotages us. Once the larger goals are in place and in process, the details will be handled naturally. If you don’t get the Intention and the major goals clearly defined first, you won’t be successful in producing your project, whatever it might be.

Production Schedule. Every musical or theatrical project must have a production schedule. I recommend, at least at the beginning, that you use broad strokes. In order for it to be useful, you want to be able to glance at this list and grasp instantly what’s next or what’s coming without reading a lot of text. For that reason, you don’t want your production schedule to be overly detailed (while you do want your task list to be as detailed as possible).

The production schedule needs to be sortable or filterable so that you can see the various categories of information, such as different types of rehearsals or marketing tasks, at once or together. Notion does this beautifully, and I do recommend it; see the Apps section of this article to learn more. You can also use a Word table for this purpose (I don’t recommend an Excel spreadsheet, though); in that case you’ll need to have specific columns for the things you want to filter or sort. The best app is one that works well for you and that you feel comfortable using!

Music List. I keep a working database of all the pieces in a musical project, with columns for information such as song title, composer, genre, metronome markings, category (e.g., up-tempo versus ballad, art song versus aria), key, instrumentation, personnel, notes about its history, and any changes we make along the way. This database needs to be sortable, as well. This list or database will contain information about the specific thing you’re doing, whether it’s music, theater or an art showing. For a theatrical production, for example, this database might contain scenes, ensemble, props, costumes, and lights.

People and Places. You’ll need to maintain a list of the people, with their contact details, who are working on the project with you, whether musicians or technical or PR people. The list should also include places such as rehearsal studios, concert venues and recording studios. You could use a Contact folder in your email software or a Notion database for that purpose. I add any pertinent personal information that might prove useful in working with the person, as well as their birthday, their work schedule and any upcoming commitments they have that I might want to schedule around.

Deadlines and due dates. A project must run on schedule. If there’s a performance date, obviously you have to produce the show by that date. With a project that doesn’t end with a performance, such as recording this album, there are still lots of deadlines, because you’ll need to plan for a release date and a launch, and for every recording session. A calendar and a task list are required!

I use Todoist® for all project-related tasks (see below in Apps for more information). I don’t assign a due date to everything at once; I start with the first two weeks or so of work and assign dates to those tasks, and I add due dates for things that aren’t negotiable, such as a rehearsal that’s already been booked with the venue or a concert performance. So I start off with the beginning and the end scheduled. Then I start at the end and work backwards to make sure there is enough time to cover everything and pinpoint where certain milestones must be. And at the end of every week I reassess what needs to happen going forward and revise due dates.

Weekly review. I always do a weekly review of the project at the end of the week to see what transpired in the past week, how I want to create the coming week, and if adjustments are needed. If any items are past due, I assign a new due date to them; you don’t want to see a red date in the past every time you look at the schedule because that has a negative psychological effect. You’ll need to make adjustments all along the way as things change, so it’s good to have a regular time in place to catch up.

Working with others.  Musicians and actors do almost all of their work with other people. This complicates things.

Every time I rehearse music, I must schedule time with at least one other person; in my case that’s usually a pianist. If we’re meeting at a rehearsal studio rather than in our own space, I must also schedule time with that studio—which is always tightly scheduled—as well as the other person—who is likely also tightly scheduled, so I have to match those two schedules with my own.

When I was working full-time at a survival job, my time was also tightly scheduled! So booking just one rehearsal with three tight schedules is already challenging. Imagine adding several other musicians to the mix! And for a concert, then there are multiple rehearsals, followed by a final rehearsal in a performance venue, followed by a performance or two or three in that performance venue. For a recording, there are multiple rehearsals, followed by multiple recording sessions. You can see how this might become a little stressful! It’s also time-consuming. Scheduling has always been one of my least favorite parts of making music.

I use a Google® Form to figure out scheduling when multiple people are involved. You can insert a few potential days and times, email a link to the form to the others involved, and they can each check which times are available for them. Then you choose the time everyone can do and inform everyone of the date … and then contact the venue or studio and hope they’re also available for booking at that time.

2. Ready for anything!

I’ve found that the way to be good at producing projects of any kind is to be flexible, adaptable and ready for anything. You need an excellent plan—one which you can expect to be broken. Repeatedly. Learn to pivot on a dime.

Know that there will be problems; that way, you won’t be surprised or stressed when they occur. See each problem as a puzzle to be solved. No need to fret. Just think of all the ways the problem might be solved, choose one and do it. After each calamity, have a good meal and a good long sleep. Then adjust whatever needs to be adjusted in the production schedule as a result of what transpired.

Focus only on the immediate next step. One of the primary reasons you do a production schedule at the beginning of the project with all the steps leading up to the end is so that you don’t have to think about all those things except at the appropriate times. Obviously, the plan will need to be reviewed and updated regularly, but in between, it’s best to focus only on the tasks (or messes) at hand.

Oh, and do back up everything regularly—apps, documents, emails, messages and media. At the end of the week, I back up anything I’ve worked on that week. That way one surprise you won’t have is losing your production schedule or your marketing materials, for example!

3. The Apps

People frequently ask me what apps I use. Here they are! These are the apps I use and love. What suits you and your particular brain might be different. The important thing is to find what works for you and use it. Even more important is the structure I discussed above. Without that in place, apps won’t help you much.

Less is more. I find that less is more when it comes to using apps in life or production management. I tend to use apps in a fairly simple manner rather than using every advanced function possible. It’s easy to get caught up in playing with the app and lose valuable time that could be spent actually living and producing.

Laptop not phone. I also recommend, for project management, that you use all of these apps primarily on a laptop and not on a phone. The phone is much too small to give you the big picture and I find it to be ineffective for this purpose. I use the online versions, but of course you have the option of downloading the apps to any device so that you can make minor changes on the fly.

Free. I use the free versions of all the apps I use, except for a Microsoft 365® subscription. Other than the Microsoft apps, I find that the free versions have everything I need and more. Paying more money is not necessarily going to make the app more useful to you.

Learning. As with anything good in life, you have to make a little effort to get the most out of your apps. You will likely need to get accustomed to the way the apps work. If you search, for example, for “get started” and your app name, you can find many free videos on YouTube that expand on the capabilities of the apps and teach you how to do the basics. If an app is new to you, I recommend using it for at least a week before deciding whether or not it’s for you. It took me about a week to be comfortable with Todoist and a month to be really comfortable with Notion® (and I’m a former IT/applications specialist). It was well worth it!

Functions you need. It’s a good idea to list the functions you need to cover (such as those I listed above) to see where apps might help you be more effective and save time, then explore the options—which are endless! Don’t expect one app to do all of those functions; you might use two or three to handle the majority of your work.

What I use. The two apps I use the most for my music projects are: Todoist® for tasks and Notion® for information and production-related items. I keep the tasks and the production schedule in separate apps because I’ve yet to find an app that does both well. I use a few others for minor things, but those are my two workhorses.

Todoist. For actions, I use Todoist, a productivity app that’s super easy to use in a basic fashion without any fuss. This is the simplest, most straightforward task-related app I’ve found that easily accommodates the specific needs of creatives. It allows prioritizing and date/time setting (including recurring tasks) and has multiple display options. You can build on your knowledge of it as you go, but you can get started and running right away. If you’re new to productivity apps, Todoist is a great one to start with!

Notion is a genius app that I use for organization and information storage. It’s a sophisticated, yet surprisingly easy-to-use note-taking, information-gathering and organizational app that also has a marvelous database feature. It’s perhaps not as user-friendly for a novice as Todoist, but I do recommend that you get to know Notion gradually at some point because its capabilities are nothing short of transformational. It can be set up with endless configurations, but you can start very simply and add layers as you learn through the process of using the app—or not at all.

For music productions, I use a database with columns of categories that can be filtered or sorted. For example, I can set up a View that shows me only the social media posts I need to do for the project or only the rehearsals. It also has a Timeline View that I find useful in seeing my project laid out horizontally and in seeing how close I am to the finish line!

I formerly used Microsoft Word® tables for things that require sortable data or databases—e.g., a concert production schedule or a database of my blog articles. I’m starting to move many of those into Notion databases because of the helpful features Notion offers and because it’s so handy to have absolutely everything at my fingertips there. But Word tables are like an old friend, and I’ll probably be using them for a while.

Calendars. For project calendars when other people are involved (e.g., rehearsals for a music concert), I currently use Google Calendar. In those cases I usually create a separate calendar that I can toggle on/off and share with others. There are things you can do with the Calendar print function (timeline, etc.) that make it convenient for that sort of project. I suspect I’ll be researching more options in the future.

Whatever app is the easiest for you to use, takes the least time to use, and does what you need it to do is the best one to use!

So that’s The Plan, folks!

The Funding

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

The Funding. Music does not pay for itself. That means either the producer—in this case, me—has to fund it, or the producer has to get someone else to fund it. For those who are self-producing, in some cases the funding will come in the form of grants (which means you have to know how to do grant applications or hire someone who does). Other sources are a) a fundraising platform, such as GoFundMe, b) benefactors or c) the sale of merchandise.

To fund Elements Two™, I’ve personally funded the production of a demo, which I did in a streamlined fashion to accommodate my limited budget. My plan is to use the proceeds from the sale of that demo to fund the next leg of the production.

Music is expensive to make, and no one in the music world is hit harder in the pocketbook than singers. That’s because, while other musicians are paid to do their work and don’t need to pay anyone else, a singer cannot rehearse or perform without instrumentalists, at the very least a pianist. The cost of a quality pianist is likely to be high. And for a popular singer (as opposed to classical), a couple of other instruments are usually needed to fill out the sound and represent the style.

The singer pays all of the musicians, any technical partners such as a recording engineer or videographer, and any rehearsal studio or concert hall rental. No one else pays anything. Such is the life of a singer.

In order to record this album, I will need several different pianists (since the music spans different styles), a bass player, a drummer and a guitarist. In addition to paying a pianist for regular rehearsals while I develop the music, I will need to pay the other instrumentalists. I’ll pay the recording engineer for recording, editing, mixing and mastering. And when we need to rehearse in a studio, that will be an additional cost.

I won’t shock you with the sticker price of this very bare-bones demo, which is my first serious attempt at recording. Just know that it’s not insubstantial and is in fact quite substantial for someone like me who lives on a fixed income.

So it is my sincere hope that you purchase the songs I’ll be offering shortly on BandCamp, and that you enjoy the songs immensely, since that is the point of the recording!

It is also my hope that you pass on the link to buy the songs to others to help me expand my reach. That will ensure that I can prepare and record the next four songs. I will be humbly grateful!

As a minder of what the album recording is all about … the music of the ELEMENTS TWO™ album celebrates the elements of the Earth—earth, wind, fire, water and metal, each of which has its own special beauty—reflected in the wildly diverse yet perfectly melded group of songs that comprise an album recording of American Songbook and jazz standards, including Latin favorites, with just a dash of musical theater. The album is part of CONCERTS FOR HEALING™, a multimedia series that focuses on issues of health and ecology, uplifting and entertaining through beautiful music while educating about important issues.

The Key

The Key. All this work, and we haven’t even gotten to the music yet! Don’t worry. Now begins the musical part of the journey!

The first step in singing a song is to pick the key. This takes a little work.

I have an approach that might or might not be unique. Sitting at my desk, I start singing the song, then go to the piano to see what key I grabbed. About 95% of the time, that’s the key for me! My unconscious seems to do a better job of choosing the key than my highly-trained brain. But if I don’t do that, I take a look at the sheet music online and choose what looks to me to be a fit with my voice and print a copy in that key. Then I take it to the piano and see how it feels and how it suits the song (more about that below). I might find that it needs to go up or down, in which case I find that key online. We’re fortunate that now we can find almost any song in almost any key online! I used to have to convert and transpose almost every song I sang using PhotoScore, a time-consuming effort.

The key is really a very important issue in delivering a song effectively. It doesn’t just need to fit your voice; it needs to fit the song.

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.

A song in any genre of popular music can be sung in any key in which you chose to sing it. You’re not limited to the key in which the sheet music happens to be written or the key in which the composer wrote it.

With this choice, comes 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 important questions. They go to the heart of vocal music.

An opera aria, for example, 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. And of course there are all those orchestra parts to consider!

Popular song and art song, on the other hand, are much freer in the choices they offer, not only in their artistic expression but in their key.

In popular music, the composer sometimes writes with a particular singer in mind and chooses a key comfortable for that voice. That does not mean that you’re 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 popular music and art song usually expect that their songs will be transposed.

Choosing the key. So how do we know which key is the one? you might ask.

First, study the lyric.

Allow yourself to feel the emotion of the song’s lyrics and note 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 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 s/he might have chosen a higher key to express happiness or triumph or insanity. Which is it?  Answers to these questions to can be found in the harmony and the vocal line that the composer used, as well as in the lyric.

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 expresses the song and reaches the audience, making them feel the meaning of the song on a visceral level.

Getting the sheet music in your key. Once you find your key, you’ll want to get a copy of the sheet music in that key. Transposition was once an arduous and expensive undertaking. Now it’s a breeze.

Check out and They have automatic transposition available for most of their popular songs. If, once you find your song, you choose a key and purchase the song, then find that you need a different key, you can print a copy in the new key at no charge. So there’s no work at all for you to do!

But if you do need to transpose, don’t worry. In years past, if you had an old pdf or piece of sheet music that you wanted to transpose, you had to do it yourself. I found PhotoScore to be an easy-to-use and easy-to-learn software for transposition purposes; I’ve used it for years. Once you transpose the song to a likely key in PhotoScore, bump it up to one or two other keys while you’re at it, to be sure that you get the best one.

Test the key. There’s more! After I choose a key for a song, the next step is to run through the song with a pianist. At that point I often find that I need to take it up a half step or a whole step. That’s because singing over a piano requires a little more intensity and support than singing alone in my living room. A key that suited me just fine singing alone in my living room suddenly feels too low when I sing with a piano.

Once I’ve had the run-through with piano, I know for certain which key I’ll use. Then it’s back to the drawing board to get the new key, if need be, from the sheet music website, or else transpose it myself in PhotoScore.

And then I do that process for all twenty songs!

I do like to choose the keys for all the songs in a project and print sheet music for them at the beginning of the work on the project. I find that stopping to do this key-finding and sheet-music-finding and printing every time I begin work on another song in the project interrupts the flow.

I do this process for all songs, then move on to the next process for the songs. I’ll bet you can guess what that is!

The Preparation

Photo by Kati Hoehl on Unsplash

The Preparation. Now that I’ve made the initial song choices and I’ve tentatively chosen a key for each song, it’s time to make some music!

But not so fast! In order to begin working on the songs with a pianist and developing my own cover, I have to put together a “book.” The book is a three-ring binder for the project in which there’s a copy of the sheet music for each song and its lyrics, labeled for easy location. Initially there are two books, one for the singer (me) and one for the pianist.

The first order of business is to a) print each song twice, three-hole punched and double-sided, b) print the song lyric sheets twice, c) create and print two labels for the song, d) put the labels on reusable tags which will be attached to the first page of each song, and e) put the songs in the book, initially in alphabetical order. If we’re starting with 30 songs, that means 60 printouts of double-sided, three-hole punched sheet music, 60 printouts of lyric sheets, 60 labels printed and attached to tags, and 60 tags attached to the sheet music. I find that taking it one song at a time is easiest. As you can guess, this takes a while. Hours, even.

At the end of this process, I’ll have two books, labeled clearly for the vocalist and the pianist so that we don’t confuse them (we do different things with our books), each containing all of the labeled songs and their lyric sheets.

I should mention that some people do use an iPad or other tablet, together with certain software and hardware, in place of hard-copy sheet music now. Although it can be convenient to carry a tablet rather than a binder of sheet music, I haven’t found it to be useful for the way that a pianist and I work with music yet, and every pianist I’ve worked with so far strongly prefers to play from and write on a hard copy of sheet music. So while I like the idea of using a digital copy, I haven’t found it useful in real life just yet. There’s also the small issue of the battery running out in a performance. I do of course keep my sheet music library in pdf format on my computer and in the cloud, but until there are further improvements in using digital music in rehearsal and performance, I’ll stick to my hard-copy binders for working on or performing the music.

Now it’s time to try out the songs with a pianist so that the key can be finalized and the initial work on the song can begin.

Next step? Find a pianist!

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