Sometimes I play a given song in different keys, but I'm wondering if its preferable to play a song in its original key especially in performance in order to appeal to the audience the most. I read about the "Levitin Effect" which is the ability that people have to remember a song in its original key, even those without any musical ability. According to Levitin's research study, "Forty percent of the subjects sang the correct pitch on at least one trial". These findings were also confirmed in a subsequent study. So if I play a given song on an instrument in a different key maybe it wouldn't sound as good/nostalgic to them?

  • 1
    What's an original key? Hotel California was written in a different key from that played on Eagles tracks. Some songs have had two (or more) versions in the charts, in different keys.To reproduce early Kinks songs, you have to tune 'in the cracks'. – Tim Apr 27 '19 at 8:17
  • I' ve never heard befor about the Levitin effect before but it is an interesting study. But before answering your question I would ask why is a song written in a certain key? You will get some different and interesting answers - I assume this point has already been discussed here. But your reason to appeal to the audience makes me chuckl. Is this your own purpose or are you asking in proxy of some karaoke singers? – Albrecht Hügli Apr 27 '19 at 8:21
  • @ Tim, we are switched parallel: My first sentence in my comment was What is the original key ;) – Albrecht Hügli Apr 27 '19 at 8:22
  • In your question you use 'play' rather than sing. This is a relevant difference. The answers presume 'sing' but maybe that isn't what you are getting at? – Tim Apr 27 '19 at 8:49
  • @Tim that's right, I don't mean singing. I mean playing a song with an instrument. Although some of the answers with the singing were interesting, but that wasn't my intention. – foreyez Apr 27 '19 at 8:58

Maybe you woudn't. But if its a song, there's a singer. And it's rather more important to be in a key that suits his/her voice than to copy an original key.

  • and thats why solo albums by classical composers are edited for tenor, sopranos etc. in different keys respectively pitch. – Albrecht Hügli Apr 27 '19 at 8:46

There are multiple reasons that a performer would perform a song in a key other than the key it was originally recorded or performed in:

  • 1) they have aged and can’t hit the notes that they could formally hit
  • 2) the singer is not the original songwriter and can’t perform the song in the original key
  • 3) the song was original performed on an instrument that is more suited to a particular key and the current performer plays a different instrument.
  • 4) the song is being performed as part of a set and performing in the original key would require a retuning, or addition or removal of a capo, or perhaps even using an entire different instrument (think harmonica for example) than a previous or following song, so for the sake of the set flow a different key is used.
  • 5) there are multiple versions of the song and both were hits and they were in different keys. Some people may know one version and not the other, therefore no matter what key you pick it would be “wrong” for some people.
  • 6) the performer picks whatever key they want out of seer ignorance.
  • 7) the performer picks whatever key they want because they have never heard of the Levitin effect and thinks nobody at a show or listening to a recording will ever say “hey that was a really awesome version of that song but too bad they played it in the wrong key, never going to see them again”.
  • 8) because they want to
  • 9) probably 1,000 other reasons that I can’t think of at the moment.

Ok, so 7,8,9 are sort of tongue in cheek but also totally valid. If you are going to see your favorite artist and they are playing a song in a different key maybe you might think something sounds a bit off, but really unless you have perfect pitch I really doubt anyone would notice. If you are not the original artist and you are doing a cover of a hit that people are familiar with I would hope that you have brought enough of your own style to the song to make it different enough that this would be a moot point. I think you are over thinking this. I wouldn’t worry about this at all.

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    Harmonica players (good ones) will have at least half a dozen in different keys - that's what they do! – Tim Apr 27 '19 at 8:11
  • hey that was a really awesome version of that song but too bad they played it in the wrong key, never going to see them again”. I think that's what always happened to me :) – Albrecht Hügli Apr 27 '19 at 8:49
  • @tim I know but it was the only example I could think of ;) – b3ko Apr 27 '19 at 11:54

Well, it depends on whether you want to impress as a singer or as an imitation. If you take a look at the commercial success of cover songs, it's mostly covers adding a substantiably new twist that were able to outdo the original. Of course, if you sum all the payment of nameless cover bands not contributing anything except a live rendition, that may end up still more in total.

I think it was Stravinsky who said "lesser artists borrow, great artists steal". If you have what it takes, own the song. That includes owning the key. Some of it may not just be tied to making the singer sound best, though.


So if I play a given song on an instrument in a different key maybe it wouldn't sound as good/nostalgic to them?

Maybe yes, maybe no:

You mean the original key will be the most important factor to reach the public?

I can tell you from my experience as singing teacher with 100reds of classes that not the original key is the critical factor. There are other points:

for the performers:

  1. is the pitch singabel and comfortabel to the voice?
  2. is the tempo of the lyrics adjusted to the voice building (regarding vowels and consonants and changing of pitch within the tune)?

(e.g. classes always discussed: this is too high for my voice! or *with Mr. XY we used to sing this song faster! etc)

to the audience:

  1. it is not primarly the original key they want to hear, it is the unique timbre of the voice they miss.
  2. the accompaniment of guitar sound or piano, the groove of the pianist, and whether the there is a drum set or not.
  3. you can try to imitate the original singer or perorm your own personal unique stile. The more you will differ from the original the more interesting you will be and the more success you will have.
  4. There are thousands of cover versions of yesterday, but only very few give me goosebumps.

just one other example:

Hey Jude by Wilson Pickett

Mind just one exception: Classical composer defined a certain key in respect to the aspect of the historical or psychological charcteristics of the keys. eg. Requiems in D-minor or Dorian) (I can't find the right term. but I knwo this has been discussed here too.)



To add to earlier answers, there is more than one way to tune an instrument. Today we see equal temperament widely used. It is a compromise that allows a song to be played in any key to address other constraints as mentioned in other answers..

Quarter Common Mean Tone is another way to tune. My Yamaha digital piano has a setting for mean tone buried in the menus. I understand Baroque period composers used iQCMT and other temperaments. QCMT gives purer / sweeter sounding intervals around the tuning centre. But as the notes played move further away from the centre the tuning takes a different character. Also, different keys have different characters. There are Wikipedia articles on this subject. The ABRSM performers guides to music of different periods also discuss the composer's use of temperament among many other things.

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