Transposing a Song for Your Voice
By Annie Bzdawka
Have you ever wondered why your favorite singers sound so great when they sing? There’s lots of reasons behind what makes a great singer sound great, but one of these things that YOU can learn how to do, possibly without ANY singing lessons, is to learn how to figure out what is the best KEY for YOU to sing the song in that you are working on. Sometimes the best key for you to sing a particular song in may not be the same key as sung by the original artist. Fortunately, if you are the same gender as the original artist for the song, there’s a pretty decent chance that you’ll be able to sing that song in the same key. But there are some artists who have a particularly higher or lower singing voice than the “normal” vocal range for the general population of their gender. And of course, if you’re a female looking to sing a song originally done by a male artist, (or a male looking to sing a song originally done by a female,) there’s a chance you’ll have to transpose that song in order to sing it in the best key for YOUR VOICE.
The best key for YOUR voice will depend upon the particular song in question, and what is the highest note sung in the song, and the lowest note. So the first thing you need to figure out is: For the key that you are currently playing the song in, (which is likely the original key sung by the original artist) what is the highest note sung in the song, and what is the lowest note?
If these notes are already comfortable for you to sing, then Great! You’re in good shape! You can probably do just fine singing the song in the original key! And of course, if it feels too low for you to sing, you can always use a capo, which will bump up the song to a higher key!
The song will probably sound just fine on the guitar as long as you don’t have to apply the capo higher than the 3rd (or maybe the 4th) fret. But once we start getting higher up on the neck with the capo, the guitar can start sounding a little too bright (depending on the song in question). It can start to sound like a ukulele! You’ll have to start experimenting with transposing the song to keys that are more than 4 frets higher than the original key by figuring out what those chords are (or using a tool to transpose the song if you can’t do it yourself).
Then there’s the problem of the song being too high for you to sing. The capo will probably not help you out in this case. You’ll most likely have to transpose the song to a completely different key. But this won’t be as hard as it sounds, especially if the song is one of those great 3 or 4-chord songs!
Your focus should be on the part of the song that’s most difficult for you to sing. So, if a song is too high for you to sing, focus on the section of the song that features the highest notes. Play the chord progression a full or half step lower, singing the section with the highest notes, and see if that helps. If it’s still too high for you, go down yet one more full step or half step. Keep going down until this section is comfortable for you to sing. Then try out the whole song, to make sure this key isn’t too low for you to also properly sing the lowest part of the song!
So, let’s pretend your song is “Jane Says” from Jane’s Addiction. Perry Farrell’s voice can be pretty high for other male singers to copy, so you might want to transpose this song to a lower key, especially if you’re a guy. The highest part of the song is in the 2nd verse with the lyrics “That’s OK, man, she don’t like them anyway.” The original chord progression of this song (it’s only 2 chords, yay!!!) is G – A. So, you can try this section of the song now playing F – G (although F is a barre chord). You can also try E – F#. Either way, you know that whatever the first chord is in this progression, the 2nd chord will be one full step up. So, your other choices (if you want only open chords in your new progression) would also include D – E, and C – D.
If you simply aren’t having any luck finding a key that will work perfectly for you, you can always change the melody line a bit for the section that is too low or too high for you to sing. This is acceptable, especially if you are able to “sell” it! I am a believer in covering songs in such a way that the singer sings them very close to the original artist, because people who know and love that song generally love the song the way it was originally done. There’s also the type of musician that likes to change the songs he/she covers to be totally different from the original, and that’s fun, too if they do it well.
The most important thing for you to remember in this process is that you sing the song with CONFIDENCE. If you change the melody line, change it & then sing it with confidence. If you keep the melody line close or the same as how the original singer sang it, sing it with confidence!
About the Authour:
Annie Bzdawka is the founder of the Milwaukee Music Academy, located in Milwaukee, WI. She’s been singing professionally for over 25 years, and has gained critical acclaim as a singer and songwriter. She teaches voice, guitar, and piano.