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When it comes to a band, all musicians should be aligned and agree on the most parts (if not all) of the musical adventure they're about to embark upon.

This question aims to evaluate how, as a band, we decide the key of the song, especially if it's a cover and not the band's own content where things can be a little more flexible in my opinion.

Being a novice vocalist, I feel the need to tailor each (cover) song's key to something I'm comfortable with so as to have one less thing to worry about when singing (positioning, belting etc.). This suggests that due to the variety of the songs we cover as a band that the target keys might end up looking something like an irregular waveform meaning that one song would be on key, another might be +4 semitones, another could be -3 semitones, so on and so forth.

The band disagrees with this approach and would like to keep the songs' original keys as they'd be able to play them in standard (E) tuning. I understand that doing what I described before is not easy but I also believe that an instrument is more flexible in terms of tuning and/or transposing.

Are there wrong and right sides on this? How do we decide on the target key of the song when playing as a band?

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    There is no objective reason to cover a song in the original key. The range of the singer is more important than the limits of the rest of the band. There are many ways to compensate or substitute their problems. – Albrecht Hügli Jun 17 at 7:40
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    @AlbrechtHügli there are objective reasons particularly for guitar-oriented music. Try playing Nirvana's "Come as you are" guitar riff in different keys on the guitar - it needs the low notes to be low, and it sounds wrong if you transpose it up a seventh. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jun 17 at 8:19
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    Yes, piiperi, that's what I mean in my answer. There have been many bass riffs (or even bass riffs plus chords I was able to play in E but in any other key. I just doen't make sense to transpose a song in E to Eb a semitone down or a major 7th up because it is to high. There was a song I'd like to sing in G, where the Guitar solo was fitting, but it was too high for me. So the lead guitarist could sing it. And when I wanted to sing it, sang it in E adapting the solo to my skills on guitar or even in C playing the guitar solo on the piano. Young bands must be flexible and be good chaps. – Albrecht Hügli Jun 17 at 9:53
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    If you have horns in the band, that adds yet another dimension. Going from B-flat to B is a big jump for them. – Duston Jun 17 at 13:13
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    If you're only dealing with guitars, there's a simple solution for quick retuning on the fly which is just to use capos. (Note these can only tune a instrument up, not down.) Tuning a wind instrument or piano (non-electric) is much more difficult. As to how it sounds after transposition, that's a more subjective matter. – Darrel Hoffman Jun 17 at 19:00
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I can totally relate to your dilemma from personal experience. Let me share my thoughts based on my own experience as the primary vocalist in the bands I have been a part of.

It is vitally important that someone in the band (either the lead singer or another band member) can actually sing any song that the band plays - in the key that it is played in. Most singers have a limited range which would preclude certain songs in particular keys.

As a group, a cover band needs to agree on what songs they want to cover in their repertoire. Things that feed into those decisions will be the personal musical taste of the band members, the musical taste of the target audience the band will perform for, and the musical ability of the musicians.

Most cover bands will stay within a particular genre or genres that the instrumentation lends itself to. For example a bluegrass band would likely have a "fiddle", a mandolin, perhaps a dobro, and an acoustic flat top guitar and maybe an upright bass. A rock band would probably have a couple of electric guitars, electric bass guitar and drums. Jazz band might add some horns and electric piano.

The bands I have played in did "classic rock" and "country" featuring acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, drums and sometimes harmonica.

In all of the bands I played in, I was the "lead singer" on most songs but other band members sang harmony and there were certain songs outside my vocal range that other band members would sing lead on. Spreading the vocals among various band members allows for greater flexibility in terms of key selection as well as prevents the lead singer from becoming hoarse by the end of a 3 hour gig.

Every band I have performed with consisted of musicians who were capable of playing any given song in more than one key. The band would decide what key to play a particular song in based on the vocal range of whomever was going to sing that song.

Many songs feature signature guitar licks that are required to give authenticity and recognizability to the song. Some of those licks are easier to play (or better match the familiar recording) with the use of some open strings. In those situations, the key can be altered by using a capo on the guitar that will play those particular licks - thereby allowing the licks to be played in the new key - the same way they are played in standard tuning in the original key. On some songs one guitarist might play in the key of E for example while another uses a Capo on the 2nd fret and plays chords from the key of D to match the guitar playing in the key of E. The Capo Key Chart below might be very helpful to you if any of the guitar players in your band would consider using a capo to alter the key. Bass players can generally play in any key with no problem since they don't have to worry about chords that don't work well on guitar in certain keys.

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Another thing that I have done when performing is to tune all the instruments a half step flat because many of the songs we cover strain the upper limits of my vocal range in standard tuning. Also, many original artists routinely recorded and performed with guitars tuned half step flat. You would be surprised how much a half step (one semitone lower) will make in hitting the high notes in certain songs. I have a list of songs that I can only sing if tuned half step flat and I like to group those into one of the three sets. So perhaps the first two sets are in standard tuning and during the break between the second and final set, all guitars and bass are tuned down a half step for the final set.

One final option that I can offer is if a song is too high or low for you to sing in the key the band insists upon playing the song in, try singing it an octave higher or an octave lower as the situation dictates. While the vocals won't sound exactly like the record, the instrumentals will, and most times the audience will still enjoy the song. You could also try a vocal processor that can alter the pitch by up to an octave in either direction. So for example - you sing in the C4 range but the PA renders the vocals to the audience in C5 (an octave higher) or C3.

Hopefully at least one of the ideas presented above will help you and your band mates find a solution that allows everyone to agree on an approach that allows for an acceptable and achievable performance of all the songs the band wants to incorporate into their repertoire.

Have fun sharing your music and be safe out there.

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Maybe not right and wrong - but impractical and stubborn come to mind.

As far as covers go - if the band wants to be entirely faithful, then they will need to play in the original key. And that includes tuning down for songs in open E♭ or drop D.It also involves the singer being able to sing in that key. And sound like the original.

Otherwise, do your own version of songs, in whatever key suits the singer in particular. That raises the next problem. Some songs are guitar led, riff-wise, and consequently need to be in a certain key, using certain open strings or voicings to sound authentic. What if that doesn't suit the vocals?

Then there's the potential problem that someone in the band can't play well in a certain key. What then?

The premise that everyone needs to be in agreement over something like this is folly. Sooner or later, someone's not going to be happy. The guitarist who can't play something, 'cos the key's different, or the singer who can't reach certain notes.

The compromise is scrapping some songs, doing others that someone doesn't particularly want to do, changing the way the song is performed - or simply disbanding. Or simply leaving. Been in all those situations, and the latter was occasionally the best option for me, seeing how much time was wasted arguing about all the other options. In the meantime, the drummer is sitting there, getting really peed off...

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    The compromise is scrapping some songs, doing others that someone doesn't particularly want to do, changing the way the song is performed - or simply disbanding ..good answer, Tim! It seems that very often such conflicts are rather a problem of having influence and "who's the boss?". There always enough good other songs to cover, or to write your owns, (and there are enough good other groups, but this was never my choice). – Albrecht Hügli Jun 17 at 9:57
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    Thank you for considering the plight of the drummer, here I was thinking discussions like this made drummers invisible somehow :) – Douwe Jun 17 at 16:09
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    Well, leaving the band seems like a last resort to me because I believe that we can work this out or at least try to the very end. To what extent is suggesting key changes acceptable? p.s. poor drummer always in the crossfire. – Valamorde Jun 17 at 17:02
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    I got to the point with several bands that the fuss just was not worth it. There were plenty of other opportunities to play with others with more mature attitudes, and generally speaking, they were more experienced, better people to play with anyway! – Tim Jun 17 at 18:11
  • @Douwe - having been that drummer (!) I sometimes felt like grabbing someone's guitar and saying 'just do it like this!'. But drummers are better mannered than that...aren't they? Good time for a drum solo - in whatever key yer like. – Tim Jun 18 at 14:29
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I think the answer depends A LOT on the kind of music you play.

Just to make a point, imagine you play in a tribute band aiming to replicate every aspect of whatever band, exactly. If your tessitura is not that of the original singer, you simply don't suit the project.

Also, some genres use certain keys (and don't use other keys at all) because of the instruments and their tunings (e.g. modal music including unusual tuning in certain instruments, music played mostly with diatonic instruments, etc.)

A jazz band, on the other hand, will be happy to play in any key that makes sense (for example, a "near" key in terms of circle of fourths, a usual key such as Bb or F, etc.)

What does your band play?

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If a group starts to play in a band and they are not able to play riffs and chords in another key it doesn't matter if you ask things that reach out of their abilities. Just by trying to play difficult songs and transposing the guitarists are improving their playing and knowledge of the instrument. If a passage is out of limits an instrumentalist can pass this section. Probably in six months he will manage it.

This has been always a problem to me. My voice range is Bariton (too low), the pop songs were mostly in Tenor range (Beatles, Bee Gees, Beach Boys, and all others). I was hardly able to play an F chord on the guitar, E (open chord) was much easier, many riffs or solos have been originally in the lowest frets in E). But the range of the singer was deciding primary before the limits of the instrumentalists. Give a solo passage to the keyboarder if the guitarist isn't able to transpose it. (We are speaking about beginners, of course.)

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    I believe that down the road, the one who decides the key is the one who can't tune his instrument aka the vocalist. Unless of course you're Freddie Mercury and have a vocal range from F2 to F6, there's only so much you can do about your voice. – Valamorde Jun 17 at 17:05
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    @Valamorde the players don't necessarily need to re-tune their instruments, they could transpose the songs, meaning that they play in a different key. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jun 17 at 19:11
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica I totally agree on this. – Valamorde Jun 18 at 6:38
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica I just suggested down tuning as an easier approach than transposing since they would be playing the same thing but it would just be in a different key without any further action on their part. – Valamorde Jun 18 at 6:46
  • Tuning down has major disadvantages: some instruments can't do it at all; some can only do it a short way without losing tone/volume/stability; performers with any level* of absolute (‘perfect’) pitch will have real trouble; and audiences aren't usually prepared to wait for several minutes in between each song while the band retune their instruments… – gidds Jun 18 at 8:18
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As so often, the only answer is 'it depends'. Maybe there's a guitar riff or other instrumental feature that only works in the original key. It might be reasonable to ask a guitarist to capo up for one song, tuning down is not quite so quick and easy. (But maybe the original recording used a tuned-down guitar?) Or maybe it's a vocal feature and placing it to suit YOUR vocalist's range takes precedence.

Discuss and co-operate. Like in everything else.

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    Co-operate. Exactly! It's a matter for negotiation and compromise. Some musicians on some instruments can transpose very easily; others have more trouble; and others have hard limits. In my experience, the vocalist is often the most restricted, so they take precedence. So we start by seeing what keys they're comfortable singing the song in; if that doesn't include the original key, then we try to find a key they are comfortable with that makes things as easy as possible for the others. Once we've picked a key, we can work out whether any musicians need parts transposed, &c. – gidds Jun 18 at 8:27
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I feel compelled to post this because the other answers only allude to it.

The choice of tonality is part of the composition.

If someone was to plays Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, transposing it so that all 24 pieces were in the key of C, that musician would not be playing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier but something else. Based on it, sure, but radically different. I'd even go further and say that even if they kept all the tonalities the same, but played every piece one octave higher on the keyboard, again, they wouldn't be playing the actual pieces, but their own re-interpretation of it.

Changing the key of a song is a creative decision just like changing a chord or a note from the melody or repeating a chorus one extra time. There's nothing wrong with doing that and almost every cover bands do it, but it is a consequent change. A certain bass note might make your chest vibrate but 4 semitones higher it won't, because it isn't the same note. And bear in mind that the person(s) who wrote the original song also had the possibility to transpose it, heck, they probably even did so, but eventually they settled on a certain key because it felt right. And who knows, maybe this song wouldn't have been a hit if they'd chosen a different key.

The big difference when changing tonality, as opposed to changing a note in the melody or some of the lyrics, is that the audience are unlikely to be conscious of it. But that's not to say they won't feel it, unconsciously.

In practice

Now this was just my take about the theory side of things and I understand that your question is about transposing songs for practical reasons like vocal range or ease of playing. The other answers covered that pretty well, from selecting songs that are more appropriate to actually transposing. And yes, eventually it all boils down to compromising with other members of the band. So no rights, no wrongs, just decisions!

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  • All accurate observations and good points when applied to musical compositions, particularly those without lyrics to sing. My musical exposure is rather shallow, relegated to popular songs one might hear on the radio and as a songwriter, I like songs with lyrics. But your point does apply to certain popular recorded songs with lyrics. Sometimes transposing too radically changes the feel and other visceral elements of the song. – Rockin Cowboy Jun 29 at 15:52
  • Not totally agreeing with this. I often wonder - particularly with instrumental solo pieces, why a particular key was chosen. Quite often a different key makes a piece easier and batter to play. I think it is somewhat depenent on the composer's whim at the time, and usually a piece started in a particular key ends up staying in that key, warts an' all. It's fingering I'm considering mainly, and piano in the main too. – Tim Jun 29 at 16:21
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    @Tim That might be the result of two different approaches to composition. Sometimes I get a melody in my head, when I get home find the chords on the guitar and turns out it's in F# or something nuts like that. Other times I compose using an instrument and in those cases, fingering is gonna be a big factor in deciding the tonality. – wilks Jun 29 at 17:40

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