There’s a lot to consider when deciding if a new song is a good fit for you: Does it suit your vocal range? If not, can (and should) you change the key so it does?
Here’s the process for deciding whether or not you should change the key.
1. Determine the (actual) original key.
Before trusting what you find online, remind yourself: the internet sucks and it lies. Don’t automatically believe something marked as the “original key.”
Many older songs may have been performed in multiple keys over the years. The song “Someone to Watch Over Me” was first performed in A-flat Major in “Oh, Kay!” (1926), then in B-flat major in “Crazy for You” (1992), and most recently in B-Major when sung by Kelli O’Hara in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (2012). There may actually be several “original keys” to consider.
So, go back to the recording of the version you want. Play the opening vocal line on a keyboard along with the recording. Use your ear—are they the same? If not, determine if it’s too low or too high. (If you can’t tell, email your coach.)
This is always something you want to do before heading into a lesson or coaching. Don’t arrive and then discover your music isn’t in the key you want.
2. Determine if that key (and the song in general) is right for you.
Sing through the original key first. If it isn’t a great fit—either the beginning lives too low, the middle sits uncomfortably on your break, or, like your rent, the climax is just too damn high—you might want to contemplate a switch.
But give thought to what this new key will do to the rest of the song, not just the trouble spots. If you lower it a whole step, the high note might now be within reach but, it might make the low notes too low.
When trying on a new key, sing the whole song. It’s possible there isn’t a good solution. If that’s the case, the song just isn’t ideal for your voice.
3. Now you know your key, but should you change it?
If the song is rock/pop: (almost always) yes. There is a long and storied tradition of covering songs in rock and pop. Every time an artist gives his or her own take, they do so in the key that suits them.
Just remember to exercise good taste. For example, please don’t lower something iconic like “Respect” without a really good artistic reason to do so.
If it’s musical theater and for an audition, exercise extreme caution. If the song is well-known (like, say, “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from “My Fair Lady”) or one that famously shows off a specific range (say, “Maria”), don’t.
If it’s a standard, your pianist will be seriously weirded out playing it in another key. And if you have to lower “Maria,” you should probably just find another song. Otherwise, you might be okay. Ask for input from a trusted coach first, but as long as neither of those two things is true, you should at least give it a shot.
4. Beware of too many accidentals.
The last thing to consider is how many accidentals are in your new key signature. Say you’re singing a Madonna song in G-major and you want to lower it a half-step. That would land us in F-sharp major which has six sharps.
Aim for five or fewer accidentals (flats or sharps) in your key. In the above example, going one half-step further—to F-major—means the pianist only has to manage a single flat. Much better! Keep experimenting by half-steps to find the ideal key for both you and your pianist.
5. How to change the key.
The first and best option is to find your song on musicnotes.com. (“Singer Pro” editions are best.) Odds are pretty good that you can select your new key from the drop down on their page, and be all set. If that isn’t an option, you’ll need to get it transposed. It’s an extra fee but if it’s a cut you intend to use a lot, it’s worth it.
*This post was originally published on June 8, 2018. It has since been updated.
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and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.