Article by Camille van Niekerk
The quickest way to make a song easier is to change the key so that it fits comfortably within your range. But most beginning singers - whether or not they play an instrument - don’t know how to change keys without the help of a teacher. Today, I’m here to help!
First - what is a key?
A key is a collection of pitches that serves as the foundation for a song, with one pitch that is “home base”, also called the “tonic”. That pitch is the name of the key. So, if a song is in the key of C, then “C” is the tonic: the pitch that makes the song feel settled and complete. For this reason, the melody of most songs ends on the tonic and can sometimes be used to determine the key of the song. For example, if you hear someone sing the “Star Spangled Banner” and the very last note they sing is an Ab, you can reasonably guess they were singing in the key of Ab. That’s the case for Whitney Houston’s iconic version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_lCmBvYMRs. (Many singers assume the first note of the melody determines the key, but that’s not the case! It’s more often the final note.)
The key also determines the scale (pitches in a specific order) and the chords (usually three notes or more played at once, creating the instrumentation for the song). While the melody can “borrow” pitches from another key, the scale and chords within a given key make up the bulk of the song.
How do I know what key a song is in?
The easiest way is to look it up on a reliable database. The best I’ve found is https://www.karaoke-version.com/. Let’s walk through the rest of this process with the song “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran. You can see here that the original key is Ab: https://www.karaoke-version.com/mp3-backingtrack/ed-sheeran/perfect.html.
Which key do I choose for my voice?
Here’s where a little math comes in. We need to know (1) the key of the original song, (2) the range of the original melody and (3) your range. We know the key of the original (Ab in this case), and you may already know your range - but if you don’t, you can follow the steps within this article: https://www.30daysinger.com/blog/finding-your-vocal-range. What we don’t know is the range of the melody, meaning the lowest pitch and the highest pitch.
How do I determine the range of the melody?
We need to listen carefully for the pitches that sound very low or very high (compared to the rest of the melody) and name those pitches with a keyboard or chromatic tuner. We’ll listen to “Perfect” for this step: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPhpHvnnn0Q.
The lowest pitch of the melody is actually the first pitch he sings, which is an Eb3 on the word “I” (“I found a love”). When you’re doing this on your own, you’ll need to listen to the entire song and take note of which pitch sounds the lowest. If you can sing that pitch, you can determine the pitch letter name (and octave number) by singing into a chromatic tuner like this one: https://tuner.ninja/. (Please note that chromatic tuners work best when they analyze one pitch at a time, so you may need to pause the video and only sing that pitch into your device.) If you can’t sing the lowest pitch, you can click around a keyboard like this one (https://www.musicca.com/piano) until you find it. You’ll do the same for the highest pitch. The highest pitch of “Perfect” occurs in the first line of the chorus on the word “dancing”, and it’s an Ab4. Now we have the range of this song: Eb3-Ab4.
Note: if you click “key assist” twice, you can see both pitches and octave number on this virtual keyboard - https://virtualpiano.net/. It only displays sharps, rather than sharps and flats (like Musicca does). I know that’s confusing, so here’s an explanation of what we call “enharmonics”: https://www.aboutmusictheory.com/enharmonic-spellings.html. The short explanation relevant to “Perfect” is that D# and Eb are actually the same pitch (frequency), but they are spelled differently. You’ll run into this concept, so check out that article for a thorough explanation!
If those pitches (Eb3-Ab4) are within your comfortable range, then we don’t need to change the key! Furthermore: if these pitches worked within your range either one octave lower (Eb2-Ab3) or one octave higher (Eb4-Ab5), you also wouldn’t need to change the key, because you would be singing in the same key, one octave lower or higher. But the reality is: this key and range works best for altos and tenors. Basses or baritones will probably find the Ab4 too high, and sopranos will probably find the Eb3 too low.
Let’s change keys!
When we change keys, we also shift the range of the melody by the same number of semitones (half-steps). Let’s head back to https://www.karaoke-version.com/mp3-backingtrack/ed-sheeran/perfect.html and begin shifting the track. First, click the up arrow once, and see the key is now listed as A. That means the new range of the song is E3-A4. Click again, and the key is Bb (range of F3-Bb4). Click a third time, and the key is B (range of F#3-B4). Click a fourth time, and the key is C (range of G3-C5). I recommend you have some paper nearby and reference your virtual keyboard to transpose the range! On your own, go back to the original key (Ab) and then click down, one semitone at a time. See if you can shift the range with the help of a virtual keyboard, remembering that one semitone on the keyboard is the interval from any key (white or black) to the key directly next to it. See below for the answers:
Key of G (range of D3-G4)
Key of F# (range of C#3-F#4)
Key of F (range of C3-F4)
Key of E (range of B2-E4)
You’ll notice that you can’t shift beyond +/- 4 semitones in either direction, due to the fact that the audio begins to distort when you shift by a larger interval. In fact, it’s safest to choose the instrumental version without backing vocals since vocals sound even more distorted than the instrumental. This +/- 4 semitones limit does leave some keys out! But this is a great place to start, and you can always shift further using an online transposition tool like these (though you’ll still run into some distortion on wider intervals): https://filmora.wondershare.com/video-editing-tips/pitch-changer-online.html.
I don’t want to buy the track. How can I get a transposed track for free?
The first place to look is YouTube - and in fact, you can often find karaoke tracks in different keys there. For example, here’s a piano version of “Perfect” in the key of C (found by searching “Perfect karaoke higher”): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spanzO1mHfg. Here’s a version that says it’s “4 notes lower” than the original, which makes it the key of E: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRVew2wBjxI.
If you have a karaoke track, you can upload the mp3 and transpose it yourself using one of these sites: https://filmora.wondershare.com/video-editing-tips/pitch-changer-online.html. There are also plenty of apps you can use, most of which contain other helpful features: https://filmora.wondershare.com/video-editing-tips/pitch-changer-app.html.
Important note: low voices sometimes do better when they shift the key UP
When your range is radically different from the original artist’s, you may shift the track up and then sing in a lower octave (or shift it down and sing in a higher octave). For example, a bass singing “Perfect” may be most comfortable shifting the track UP to the key of C (which would shift the range to G3-C5) and then sing the melody starting on G2, putting the highest pitch at C4. Notice the pitch letter names remain the same, and only the octave number changes.
Will I find a key that always works for me?
You may find that some patterns emerge, but there’s no such thing as “your perfect key”. This is because songs utilize a range of pitches within a key, rather than just the key itself. A key can technically span across the entire keyboard since the scales repeat at each octave. I wish it was as simple as “just put it in G every time!” but unfortunately, it’s a little more work than that, as you now know.
When choosing the best key for a specific song, consider (1) your registration (chest voice, mix, head voice), (2) the desired tone, and (3) your tessitura (the range in which your voice feels and sounds its best, which is narrower than your overall range). You’ll find that you could sing a song in multiple keys, but it may take some adjustment and experimentation to find the sweet spot for your voice. Thank you for reading, and I wish you luck!