If you’ve ever been part of a school choir, or a church congregation, you’ll know a bit about what it means when someone is singing “off-key.” While you may not be able to identify the correct key, you can certainly hear it.
The easiest keys for both men and women to sing are between middle C and the D key. Gender plays a critical role in determining which keys are easiest to sing. Most females tend to fall into the mezzo-soprano category (A3-F5), while most males fall into the baritone category (G2-E4).
There are ways of identifying which key, or range of keys, are the easiest for you to sing. Once we understand the various singing voices and keys, we can then determine your vocal range and the easiest key for your voice.
First Things First: What Is A Key?
Essentially, in music, a key refers to a series of notes that affect the overall tone of a piece of music (source).
Although it can get quite technical, it’s important to remember that keys are either defined as major or minor.
They tell you what notes are flat (♭), sharp (#), or natural in a song. There are 12 keys overall; they are A, A#/B♭, B, C, C#/D♭, D, D#/E♭, E, F, F#/G♭, G, and G#/A♭ (source).
The key of the song is most often found, although not always, in the first chord or note of the song (source).
If you are interested in expanding your musical knowledge, check out this article on the difference between polyphony and homophony.
What Is A Vocal Range?
A vocal range is the range between the highest possible notes and the lowest possible notes that you can sing. You must be able to sing these notes both consistently and comfortably for them to be a part of your range (source).
When one talks about vocal ranges, this includes singing voices. There are six types of singing voices, namely, soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, countertenor, baritone, and bass.
The first three are considered the female singing voices and the latter are the male singing voices.
As the main six singing voices do overlap, we can further break them down to include alto and tenor.
Male voices can reach much lower notes because their vocal cords are much longer than female vocal cords (source).
Young boys can sing much higher notes because they are born with much shorter vocal cords. As they grow up, their vocal cords lengthen.
It’s important to remember that there is a lot of discussion among vocal scholars regarding where one category ends and another begins (source).
Next, let’s take a closer look at the six most common singing voices (source).
Female Singing Voices
The soprano is the highest female voice. They usually sing between the ranges of C4 to A5. Well-known sopranos include singers like Celine Dion, Sara Bareilles, and Mariah Carey.
Both women and young boys can fall into the soprano category; however, hitting those very high notes is not always easy, so many women tend to fall into the next category.
Mezzo-soprano is the middle range for women and is the most common singing voice for females. They typically sing between A3 and F5.
There are quite a few famous mezzo-sopranos in the pop industry; in fact, most female pop singers and Broadway singers fall into the mezzo-soprano category, including Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift, and Beyonce (source).
Contralto is the lowest female voice, and it is considered the most uncommon of all the female voices. They’re usually in the range of about F3 to D5. Famous contraltos are singers like Cher, Adele, Tracy Chapman, and Amy Winehouse.
Male Singing Voices
The countertenor is the highest male voice. Like their female counterpart, countertenors can hit the very high notes, making it a more difficult vocal range.
Their range typically falls between B2 and G4. There have been loads of really famous countertenors, including Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
While countertenors occur quite frequently, they are not the most most common singing voice in the male category — that belongs to the baritone singers.
The baritone is the middle range for men and is the most common male singing range. As it does not include the very high or very low keys in its range, it is the easiest for men to sing.
The typical range for a baritone singer is from G2 to E4. Baritone singers include people like John Lennon, Michael Buble, and John Mayer.
Bass is the lowest male voice, which ranges from E2 to C4. Famous bass singers are not as common as baritone singers, and they are quite rare as far as musical voices go.
This rarity makes bass the most challenging singing voice in the male category.
Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong are two very famous singers who could really master those low notes.
It’s important to note that while these singing voice types can overlap, it is the quality of the sound produced that distinguishes one from the other (source).
Your singer’s voice is determined by how well you reach specific notes clearly, comfortably, and consistently.
Depending on your singing voice, you’ll find some keys easier to sing than others.
It’s important to remember that professional singers sing so well because they have a wider vocal range, which allows them to master pitch so that they hit both the sharp and flat notes.
Vocal training and singing lessons can help you to broaden your vocal range, and you will then be able to reach a greater variety of notes.
Everyone had a singing voice that they can be taught how to use. However, not everyone’s singing voice will be grammy worthy (source).
Joanne Rutkowski, who is a professor of music education at the Penn State School of Music, says that often people are taught to sing with their talking voice, which is a bad habit and one which is difficult to correct.
Our speaking voices tend to be lower and quite limited, while singing is in a much higher tone.
She also says that, while anyone can be taught to sing, there is a level of musical aptitude and talent required to be a really accomplished singer.
Another factor in determining your singing voice will be age. Both girls and boys, before puberty, often have very high and light singing voices.
Because their voices are still developing, children are encouraged to sing using their “head voice” rather than their “chest voice,” which tends to be much lighter and higher (source).
As higher notes are sung with our “head voice,” and lower notes are sung with our “chest voice,” children find it easier to sing higher keys over lower ones.
Just as our bodies go through physical changes throughout our lives, so do our voices. As you move from childhood to adulthood, your singing voice will change; this is especially true of boys as they become men.
Children of both genders will have a similar vocal range until they hit puberty, and then boys’ larynx grows, and the vocal cords lengthen and grow thicker, resulting in a drop in pitch (source).
Men’s voices continue maturing even into their 30s.
Sopranos are usually women, but young boys may also fit into this category –– their soft and airy tone works well in choir music.
How to Find Your Vocal Range?
To discover the best key for your voice, you need first to determine your vocal range.
One of the simplest methods to do so is to use a piano; although, there are now apps available that help you to discover your vocal range. This is especially useful if you don’t have access to a piano or keyboard.
Here’s how to find your vocal range using a piano (source):
- First, warm up your voice. You can google voice warm-up techniques.
- Find the middle C key on your piano, also called C4.
- Middle C should be comfortable women. Men can go down an octave.
- Play the key and sing an open “A” sound.
- Sing up the scale until you can no longer sing comfortably.
- Sing down the scale until you are unable to sing any further.
If you are uncertain about trying it on your own, you can ask a professional singer or music teacher to help you. They will also be able to hear when you are not staying on key or are straining your voice.
You will also need to know the correct numbering system for your piano or keyboard, which they can help with too.
After you’ve found your vocal range, you can then go on to figure out which key is most comfortable for you to sing.
Try Different Keys
Choose a song that you like. If you are unsure of the song’s key, there is a handy website called tunebat, where you can search a song, and they’ll give you the key that it’s in.
Try singing the song in three or four different keys. You can choose keys in a similar pitch and tone to the original song, or you can try a much higher or lower key.
Remember that the easiest key will be the one in which you feel the most comfortable singing. You should not have to strain your voice to sing the notes. If you find this happening, then change keys.
Listen to Yourself Sing
Once you’ve decided on a key, it’s a good idea to try to listen to yourself sing in that key so you can see how it sounds.
Use your smartphone to record yourself singing, and then listen to it. If you notice that your voice sounds strained, tired, or breathy, then the key might not be right for you.
You can change the key and re-record yourself. Ideally, you are looking for your natural range (source).
The most natural key to sing will be dependent on your singing voice, but the easiest key will be somewhere near middle C for most.
Singing voices are determined mainly by gender and by experience. While women and boys tend to find higher keys easier, men find lower keys easier.
Determining your vocal range will give you an idea of the scope of keys that you will find most comfortable to sing. From there, you can experiment to see which key best suits your distinct voice.
Remember that the best key for you is the one that you can sing both comfortably and consistently without straining your voice.