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When you are singing in the key of C and you want to go a bit higher, then do you go to G (next on the circle of fifths) or C# / D (closest tone above c)?

Edit: just to clarify: when I said go higher I meant when someone tells you that they can't sing in the key that you are playing cause it is too low. (and not in the middle of the song).

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    The answer is in your phrase "a bit". A fifth is a huge interval in terms of vocal range (standard classical voice-leading practices tend to assume a vocal range limited to an octave plus a fifth). – Kyle Strand Nov 16 '15 at 22:02
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    Note also that going up a fourth would be just as sensible in terms of the circle of fifths as going up a fifth would be. – Kyle Strand Nov 16 '15 at 22:03
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    If you are just transposing for the singer, push it so it fits in his range, then choose a key everyone can play in. Some of us don't see why we have to play 6 flats just because the singer drank too much last night. Usually one or two tones will do. If it doesn't, maybe find another arrangement? because it may not sound good. – RedSonja Nov 17 '15 at 9:03
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Things to consider when picking a key for your vocal piece:

  • The top and bottom notes for the vocal parts in the range of the original piece - you ideally want to pick a key where the singers can sing both their top and bottom notes comfortably and well-supported. If you can't, you'll have to compromise or get creative to get a musical result.
  • The "tessitura" of the melody; i.e. the heart of the range of the melody. If most of the melody lies within a particular fifth, for example, it may be worth it to sacrifice a little on the top/bottom comfort to make sure this range is absolutely where you want it to be.
  • What impact the change in key will have on the accompaniment. In addition to the range consideration, fingering and playing the instrument may be more difficult in one key than another. This may be the decisive factor if two keys a half-step apart are equally viable.
  • What impact the key change will have on the timbre of the piece. A jump of a fourth or fifth or more may result in a piece that sounds dramatically different because of where it lies in the person's voice. In some cases, the change can weaken the composer's intent. The calculus can be even more complicated when you consider the changes of timbre in the accompaniment as well.

Finally, my understanding is that the idea of tying music to absolute pitch didn't exist in Renaissance music and earlier, so transposition to the right key for your voice is generally correct and common practice when performing those early pieces. In practice I've found these shifts are usually limited to a semitone to a minor third in either direction, for reasons of timbre and range indicated above.

  • This answer's the true question which is not about modulating to a higher key within a song, but transposing the entire song to fit the singer's range. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 17 '15 at 6:06
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    Beethoven would have disagreed. "I wrote it in that key - it'll be sung in that key!" – Tim Nov 17 '15 at 8:27
  • Sounds about right - but in a clash between the composer's will and what a musician can musically perform (as noted in the question), the composer sometimes loses. But yeah, hearing say the Moonlight Sonata mvt 1 in anything but C#min would bug me - and I'd absolutely be able to tell! – Owen S. Jan 21 '16 at 20:15
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The two usual changes up are one semitone and one tone. The tone is probably the better one, as it uses two notes from the original tonic in the new dominant, whereas the semitone uses one. Either has been used successfully. Going up (?) to G is the next in the circle of fifths, but may well be difficult to sing, as the range will be much higher (or lower).

Don't know why this was voted as best answer. Maybe it answered the un-edited question. For the new answer, it will depend entirely on the tessitura of the vocalist that can't reach certain notes. As before, a tone, tone and a half, is usual, but that will also impact on the ability of the accompanying musician to play in the new key. C is fine on the guitar, Eb not so for some. Same on keyboards. A capo is good for taking keys up, not so for going down. I sing a particular song with one guitarist, who refuses to take it down a tone to suit my range, because of the new chords.

  • I think this is a great answer if the question was about modulating to a new key within a song. But the question is about transposing a song in it's entirety to a new key to better fit a singer's range. Before the question was edited, I also thought it was about modulating to a new key within a song. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 17 '15 at 6:09
  • Find the sheet music of Mack The Knife. It goes up a tone for each verse. Which can make life hard for the vocalist. It's also a bit hard on the musicians, but if it's got 6 # it's only one verse, hang on for the next one. – RedSonja Nov 17 '15 at 9:00
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    @RedSonja - It goes up a semitone at a time. The range is only one octave, from the second note in a key, to an octave above. Given that most vocalists would have a tessitura of a couple of octaves, it doesn't usually cause problems. Start low enough! For the instrumentalists, however, it's a slightly different story, as you allude... – Tim Nov 17 '15 at 9:50
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From what I know from experience, it purely depends on the singer. What I mean is that if you sing a song from C, it might be too low for your voice and moving it to C# or D might still be too low. So, you might have to move it to F or G. I don't think there is any rule as to where to move it to. Sing the song from a couple of different tones and see which one fits you better. This won't only be easier for you, it will be better for your voice too (you won't stretch it and possibly damage it).

  • Thanks for the reply. What you said seems to match what Tim said. Will accept his answer since he answered first. – Basil Dsouza Nov 16 '15 at 21:53
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Well, if your accompanist is playing a chromatic button accordion (good chances when Russian/Serbian/Swiss/French/Belgian/Finnish), the "natural" transposition is by multiples of minor thirds. Those are trivially achieved, moving by columns on the treble side and by three columns on the bass side. Chances are that an experienced CBA accordionist will not overly complain about other transpositions (assuming he has at least a five-row instrument where moving inwards by one or two rows is usually an option without having to change the fingering significantly). But the minor third is the trivial option pretty much any player can do.

Unfortunately, it does not lend itself all that well to "stepping up", the practice of moving every or at least the last stanza up by a semi- or whole tone. Stepping up by all of a minor third is sort of weird harmonically and takes quite a bit of getting used to.

But as "adapt to singer's range", a minor third is usually finely grained enough, and if your whole accompaniment (that isn't electronically transposable) is such a chromatic button accordion, this is the change you'll not have to start negotiating for.

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