In part one of Singers and their Songs we looked at how songs come together- from a songs origin in a scale and then to the arrangement as a means to complete the song.
As singers assemble their songs (known as their “repertoire” of songs), whether it may be a writer creating the full arrangement of their song, or a vocalist doing a cover version, the first step for the singer is to choose “the Key” of the song.
We said earlier that a scale is chosen by the songwriter based in part, on the type of mood, or effect they want to achieve with the melody and accompaniment. The “key” of a song is known to be the first note through to the last note of the scale. If the song includes a melody with vocal, then the key of the song will be chosen with the singer’s vocal range in mind.
The notes of a scale can be structured within 26 keys, 12 are major scales, and 12 are minor scales and each has a letter designation that indicates the first and last note of the Key, such as C or E, or A Flat, or C Sharp.
Major and minor scales each create a different sound or mood; the singer then chooses a key, in part, so that the song melody can be sung unique to that singer’s vocal range (of low and high notes), and the key, sometimes on its own, then has a unique “feel” or sound; thus there are no “good or bad” keys (except maybe to musicians who can at times favor playing songs in certain keys).
Over time, singers become accustomed to singing songs in a variety of keys, and this is so because songs will vary greatly, especially in complexity, depending on the genre of music, e.g., pop, Jazz, country, and then by the tempo or speed, such as a ballad (slow song), mid tempo or up tempo (such as a dance song).
So these variables change the song dynamics, and if the writer has chosen a simple melody, or a complex melody, then these variables will impact the key that a singer ultimately chooses for the song.
If a song becomes a challenge due to melody leaps, high or low, the singer may first consider alterations to the melody to deal with those changes, rather than shift the key. When the melody has a lot of leaps high and low, it may make key choice a challenge at times, but a key choice must eventually be decided upon by the singer. Then the arrangement process continues and the unique version of the song gradually comes to life.
It’s important for all singers to be open to change the key of a song away from the original artist. This is done as a step toward creating the most “original” sound for the song. And the song can still greatly resemble the original. This is where a skilled arranger can come in with expertise to help. Beyond originality, this is also a step towards brand development and image for the singer as well.
If the singer works with a band, then the band must adapt the songs to the key dictated by the singer. Yes, the band should adapt to the singer (not the other way around- as some think).
In some isolated situations a bandleader may demand that a classic song stay in the original key, and then the singer needs to adapt to that key. Of course, this is often worked out ahead of time, and hopefully the musicians and singers rehearse so that there are no surprises.
But wherever possible, the singer should dictate the key of the song, and if the band cannot adapt to that key demand by the singer, then the singer needs to find a band with a level of musicianship and proper attitude that can accommodate the singer.
As the scale and key are established for the singer, arrangement touches are added and may include any special effects of the voice (which we will look at in depth in a future topic), as well as any other arrangement choices that are made in terms of instrumentation, intro’s and endings and other considerations.