Sounding your best: Optimising songs for your voice

There’s a quote falsely attributed to Albert Einstein:

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live the rest of its life thinking it’s stupid.”

While Einstein appears not to have said this, and this quote can often be misapplied, the underlying sentiment is an important one when it comes to getting the best out of your voice.

Make sure it’s not the song leading your voice astray

If we are judging our vocal ability based on songs that don’t suit our voice, we will forever be disappointed in what we can do. Perfectly chosen song choice is so case-by-case and hard to give generalised advice on via the written word, ergo it’s beyond the scope of this article.

However, almost any song can be adjusted to work better in someone’s particular voice, especially when it comes to key choice. All too often, people find songs feel awful, when in reality an often subtle key change can radically transform how the song feels to sing. But a wrong key that’s too high/too low (often by even one semitone), will often leave us disheartened and frustrated by how “off” our voices feel and sound.

This is especially true for those who sing in bands, where key choice is imposed upon them. Even for singers who maybe accompany themselves, they know all too well how key choice can make some songs soar and others crash and burn. And very often in bands, other musicians simply don’t quite realise how critically important key choice is for singers.

As such, I thought I’d comment a little on this topic, primarily regarding how to make sure you sound your best in the face of ignorance or even our own ego.

The challenge

For those of you who play instruments, you may notice that you can – to some extent – play any song in any key. Some keys might require a capo on guitar, or alternate chords that aren’t quite as easy to finger, but the notes are all available.

Most instruments (piano, guitar, etc) have sufficient range and enough ease of playing that changing keys using a capo, different set of chords or even a transpose button isn’t hard, and the changed key won’t sound dramatically different to the original.

In contrast, with singing, even transposing up or down a single semitone can change the entire feeling of the song. Just one note-worth difference can change the ease, tonality, timbre and quality of a given song in a singer’s voice. With every key shift you are placing the melody into a wholly different place in the landscape of the singers voice. This means that a simple key change could mean the difference between hitting sweet spots in their voice or missing them, making it significantly easier or much harder, or massively upgrading vocal quality versus massively downgrading it.

NOTE: Musicians tend not to “get” this
This stark contrast is something musicians who are not primarily singers do not appreciate and do not understand. If they can play a song in a given key, why can’t you as the singer do the same? The answer is manifold, and really beyond the scope of this article. If you want to know more check out the various articles on my blog on this.

The consequence for us as singers

What this leads to is when we insist on certain keys for songs (e.g. band members sometimes even outright refuse to modify the key), there are often severely negative implications of their key choice on the overall sound of the band.

This may be one musician insisting on the key for another who is doing the singing, but sometimes it’s the same person – i.e. a musician who also sings, and who doesn’t explore the optimisation of their voice through carefully picking better key(s) for their songs and their voice.

What this boils down to is (at best) ignorance and (at worst) ego preventing a singer from sounding their best.

Advice: For singers

Whichever camp you fall into, ALWAYS try other keys. Spend time in other keys and figure out where your greatest ease and quality lies for each and every song. Even try this out for different times of day, for different degrees of health, for different stages of life.

I have a particular warmup song I used to have two key changes in, just because it would help get my voice going at any time of day. This approach of being willing to optimise the key for your voice is what it takes to be at your best. It will also help you continue to develop over the years as a singer.

Advice: For musicians

Yes, this means there is additional work for you. If you are working with a singer, work at being able to play any of the songs in at least a few different keys. This will maximise the potential for quality vocal output of your singer, and in turn your overall band sound.

This is the kind of level that professional instrumentalists operate at, and without complaint. Professional musicians understand that it’s all about maximum quality of the whole band (including the singer, which is often the focal point of the group) and nothing else.

Advice: For everyone

Don’t just jam it in whatever key the original singer did it in, or any old key. There is only a 1-in-12 chance that such a key would also be the best place for that song in your voice.

There’s no prize for singing a song in the original key badly. The only prize is for sounding great.

And to do this, to hear it for yourself, you need to optimise songs for your voice. This is true no matter what stage of development your voice is at.

Truthfully, no-one really cares whether you did it in the original key or not – unless they have a pitch pipe or perfect pitch they really won’t know. We are interested in finding that perfect place in your voice for each song, and this takes work.

So, now you know. And all you need to do to leverage this, is try songs in multiple keys and see which one sounds and feels best. Spend time working out the most favourable key for your voice so that it shines in a given situation, and learn how to sing AND play it in those relevant keys. It really is worth the pay off.

Learn More: Related Articles

If you want to learn more about performing and improving your own performances you may enjoy these related articles:
Performance Anxiety: What is it, where does it come from, what can we do about it
Performance Workshop with Rhonda Carlson: Part 1
Performance Workshop with Rhonda Carlson: Part 2
Performance Workshop with Rhonda Carlson: Part 3
5 Simple Tips to Improve Your Performances
Pacing yourself: Micro- and macro- rests in songs and sets

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