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It is not uncommon for a singer to ask for a piece to be transposed up or down a half step or a whole step. This minute change might be a big change for instrumentalist, like horn players, who have to play the song in a completely different key that the original song. It would make more sense in most cases to transpose up or down a 4th or a 5th to a closely related key that would be well in the range for a vocalist, but this is rarely ever the case.

How much can transposing a song by a small interval (whole step or half step) help a vocalist and does it outweigh the difficulty for the other instruments?

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Not much, if I'm trying to sing anything by Paul McCartney. I need at least a fourth. :) Seriously, though, there are songs I have trouble with that I can do a lot better if I drop it a whole step. I'm pretty much a baritone. If you want a bit of an education on this subject, see if you can find "Am I Too Loud?", a delightful recording of lectures by the great English accompanist Gerald Moore. He manages to be both very educational and funny at the same time. –  BobRodes Feb 28 at 22:56
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In addition to the answers that mention range considerations, there is also vocal transitions that can play a part. Even if a song is well within a singers range a vocal transition (say from chest voice to head voice) may occur at a difficult point in the melody, during a long legato phrase for example. The singer may choose to play the song higher or lower so the entire phrase can be sung without having to transition from one register to another. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocal_register –  Fergus Mar 1 at 0:52
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6 Answers 6

It mainly depends on the RANGE of the song in question.In a song which has notes too high to sing comfortably, it needs to be lowered. Let's take it down a tone. This could make the highest notes easier to sing, and would make the lowest notes only a little lower - no big deal. But - if that song was moved down by a 4th, then the lowest notes would also be a 4th down. At this point, the singer may be having difficulty reaching the lower notes of the song. Top notes = very comfortable. For a singer with a fair range, most pop type songs will stand being moved up, or down, by a 5th.Given a song with a range of say, a 10th, and a limited range singer, we're talking about a small window of key change.

On occasions, working in bands, various singers have asked for key changes to songs. After going through several, and asking the singer to stand up to sing, he/she has said 'yes, that's a good key'. I have never had the heart to mention that they were actually back in the original that didn't work before...

So, it's down to the tessitura of the song, and the range of the vocalist.There was a recent post about a similar issue on this site.

I agree that moving a song a semitone up or down will hardly make a difference to a vocalist, but will mean a lot of re-planning for some instrumentalists.I've usually found the change of key is needed when there is 4/5 part harmony, to get each voice in a comfy range.

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"I have never had the heart to mention that they were actually back in the original that didn't work before..." But afterward they were a bit more warmed up than before, no? :) –  Joshua Taylor Mar 5 at 21:52
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I don't think it's unreasonable for a singer to accommodate the band with regard to a key change interval of a whole or half-step, or not. If your singer cannot do this, then maybe you need to find a better singer. But please read on.

The short answer is that it depends on the particular song paired with a particular singer, and there is no hard-and-fast rule about it. If a particular song contained a lot of notes that are all the way at the bottom or all the way at the top of a singer's range, then I can understand why a singer would want to change the key accordingly.

Most singers have a range of less than two octaves, depending on what they were born with and what techniques they have developed. The different voice types; bass, baritone, tenor, alto, mezzo and soprano, each have a different range of pitches in their natural range. A small number of women have a very wide range, from high tenor to soprano, but most do not. Some men learn to shift effortlessly from their natural range up to falsetto, but few can do this and make it sound musically useful.

The term to describe the range of notes that must be sung in a song is tessitura. It describes not only an "inventory" of all the pitches, but whether or not the melody lines are weighted towards the lower or higher range. This is different for every song, and there is no precise formula for measuring it.

To avoid disagreement, it's reasonable to ask your singer to work out what songs he or she would like to sing with your band in advance, and to agree before the jam session about the keys. If your band and the singer cannot agree on a key transposition on a certain song, then it just won't work, and you should ask the singer to suggest different songs that might work, and sort it out beforehand. Make it the singer's responsibility to provide his or her own written-out charts in the key that you agree on, if the members of your band cannot transpose a chart on sight for a difficult song.

And never ask a guitar band in standard tuning to play a song in the key of E-flat.

(The latest generation of iPad fake book chart software, such as iRealPro, automates the real-time transposition of charts like magic, but this product only provides for transposing the chord progression, since it does not support displaying the instrumental melody lines at all.)

If you get the idea that you are working with a singer with a weak voice and a very limited vocal range, who always asks for unreasonable transpositions, then perhaps you should look for a better singer with better technique. But if the singer is the star of the show and gets the gigs, then you may have to accommodate them.

In 35 years of singing, I have never encountered a song that I could sing if it were shifted a 4th or a 5th higher or lower in pitch than what I asked for. That would be too much for most singers, unless you are talking about a song with a very narrow tessitura, maybe a melody where every single note falls within the range of a fifth. There are very few songs like that.

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I was asking how much can a half step or whole step transposition helps a vocalist not why do singer need to sing in different keys. To me and other instrumentalist, it seems like transposing up or down a half step won't really make a difference on the range of a piece, but I could be wrong. So does a half step have a big impact on vocals? –  Dom Feb 28 at 18:51
    
OK, maybe I went a bit overboard in my answer! The short answer is that for some songs, a whole step might make little difference, but for other songs, it might make a big difference. It just depends on the melody. I'll modify my answer and tone down my response a bit. Give me a minute to think on it. –  Wheat Williams Feb 28 at 18:55
    
No problem, the insight is very helpful. –  Dom Feb 28 at 18:57
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E-flat? Don't get me started on D. Some songs you can play in E-flat though by going E drop D, but that usually requires pen and paper, at least for me. –  Cole Johnson Mar 1 at 5:03
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Speaking as (primarily) a vocalist: A half step can be the difference between the singer being able to hit the high or low note at acceptable volume/clarity -- or at all! -- and not being able to do so. And that can vary from day to day, which is why it's a good idea to know and avoid the limits of their range (and to sanity-check during the band's warm-up).

I'm not a great singer, just adequate. There's a song I do which just about covers my range. If I start in the right key I can sing it. A trifle higher or lower and I can't. It really is that simple. Not a problem for me since I'm doing it acapulco; not a problem for folks who either are comfortable with my key or who can capo or transpose into it; definitely a problem if someone has an instrument which has trouble with that key and can't figure out a way to cheat around it.

Figure this out in rehearsal. The answer may be that that singer, and that instrument, just aren't going to be able to do this song together without a lot of re-arranging. And that's OK; if you can't find an answer you like, drop it and move on... or find a set of performers that work better together. Sometimes it just doesn't click and that's nobody's fault.

(My girlfriend and I will probably never be able to sing as a duo. We're both in the baritone range, but our ranges and the breaks in our voices are offset just enough that we strain to sing unison and can rarely sing harmony... and from day to day, it's never clear which of us is going to be singing above or below the other. Some day maybe we'll figure out a way to make it work, but I'm not counting on it. There are a few songs with a limited range that we can get away with, but...)

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I accompanied a singer singing "O Holy Night" at a Christmas service. At rehearsal it was clear that the high note was just out of his range. I took it down only one-half step and it made all the difference in the world! –  Mark Lutton Mar 1 at 0:21
    
That should be 'a capella', not 'acapulco'! –  No'am Newman Mar 1 at 5:49
    
Deliberate misuse, @No'amNewman. Traditional minor joke. Very minor. –  keshlam Mar 1 at 5:54
    
@keshlam Start growling. You never know... she might be the next Angela Gossow ;) (absolutely NO offense intended) –  Soham Chowdhury Mar 2 at 7:58
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Just like everyone else said, it depends. If the song stays at the top, or near the top of your range, bringing it down makes it WAY easier. For example, I am pretty comfortable hitting an F#4, but I dread having to sing a G4. I can somewhat hit a G#, and I have hit an A once or twice. Also, like some have said, if the instrumentalists and the singer are constantly clashing about key changes, maybe there isn't the chemistry you need. Every band I have been in has had instruments like piano, drums and guitar. No horns or violins. So in the past, transposing has not been too big of a deal. But just being considerate of the other band members is also really important. I've played piano songs transposed without any notice or practice in the new key because of one other band member. I've also sang a song in a key that's half a step higher than I'd like just because it's not plausible for our guitar player to play in Db. They'll understand if you sound bad for the first little while. Although I can see that it is a little bit different for horn players.

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Naturally I agree with the posters who have mentioned vocal range. In addition to range, however, there are two other considerations: breaks and color.

A break is where a vocalist's voice cuts over from head voice to chest voice. Sometimes a vocalist isn't all that stable where the break is. If (s)he is singing a song that hovers around C, and his or her vocal break is around C, it's going to be a nightmare. Moving the melody up or down even a little bit can be very helpful.

Color is also important. Some vocalists have sweet spots in their range that make certain vowels shine. Moving out of that range even a little bit can change the color of their sound.

Naturally, a well-trained vocalist has worked very hard to make their vocal break and changes of color unnoticeable to the extent possible. A vocal coach teaches us how to make things even and smooth. Nonetheless, if you're singing something very challenging or very expressive, every little bit helps.

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It makes a huge difference to a vocalist, in my experience.

The transpositions for instruments will depend on what sort of music you're playing and how well can the musicians transpose on the go. Wind players are usually much more used to transposing everything. I think it's safe to say that everyone will like to have a pre-transposed score instead of having to do that on the go though. So it's best to get someone to do the transpositions and then supply the musicians with scores ready to go.

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