On Monday of this week I posted these questions in my Facebook Group:
How do you decide the right key for a song? Are all your songs in the same key? Does it depend on the mood of the song?
The reason I reached out to my group for help on this is because I am writing songs in preparation for recording and releasing them next year. This year I released five singles and really didn’t give much thought to the keys they were in, they just kind of landed where they landed. The whole reason I started releasing my own music again after a 10-year break was to find my voice, which seemed to be disappearing into function singer oblivion. I believe an integral component for rediscovering my voice is through understanding where my sweet spot is.
The members of my FB group are all brilliant in their own rights, and many of them are singers and songwriters, so I felt I would get some answers that I could apply to my process. Wow, was I right.
Keith Simon, singer extraordinaire said, “For me I think it’s about being able to utilize your vocal range to its maximum potential ... every song is different and unique ... and you wanna be able to comfortably sing/perform a song that brings out the best parts of your range.”
My very first vocal coach and piano teacher, Pat Tyson, had this to say: “I tend to write in keys that are comfortable for my voice, but I also write in keys that are easy. Transposing is a gift that I'm grateful for!”
And then, Amba Tremaine, Singer, Songwriter, Vocal Coach, Choir Leader and Teacher took me to school. She dropped a word on me that I had never heard before, Tessitura. Thankfully, she broke it down for me:
Tessitura is the range within which most notes of a vocal part fall. An area of your voice that is comfortable and most commonly used.
Amba goes on to say, “I have discovered that being able to sing high or low is one thing, but being able to do it well and for it to sound good is another thing entirely. Reaching those high whistle tones may seem impressive but 9 out of 10 times it sounds bloody awful. Every now and then we’ll need to pull out some impressive height for certain songs but it really does make a huge difference when you know where your voice sounds the best. This is where Tessitura comes in.”
Amba’s process is to go to the piano and start talking about everything and anything. She then finds the note that most of her words tend to centre around. She then allows a couple of tones either side and that is her sweet spot, aka Tessitura. This can be applied to choosing your optimal key for your original songs or for covers.
Amba goes on to reference Karen Carpenter, and I quote ... “whose caramel tones aren’t that far from her speaking range, but the depth and beauty she can produce is faultless and doesn’t have to be high and full of riffs and runs. It’s all about tone, her delivery and resonance.”
So, I put Amba’s process to the test on a song I’m working on for release next year. Before the process, I had the key in Db which put me solidly in the mix range of my voice with some notes going into my head voice. My speaking voice is quite low (and getting lower with age) so it’s not surprising that when talking at my keyboard my notes were falling in the lower Ab, Bb range. As a result of going through this process, I have settled on Bb for the key and I am definitely in my sweet spot. Some years ago I was working with an arranger on a Gospel song I wrote, and he said that Bb was my key.
Amba just released an amazing song on Mayfield Records called ‘More Than My Mistakes.’ Talk about singing in your sweet spot ... listening to her voice on this song is like being in a candy shop. If you want a living, breathing example of achieving Tessitura, then I recommend you listen to this song, which is available on all the top music sites or you can find a link to the song on my blog.
If you decide to try this process, please let me know how you got on. You can leave comments on the blog post or on the Facebook Group, Gloria Miller Music.
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