Album Keys

Kyle Boreing makes an interesting observation—four of the five song clips he’s listened to on the Oak Ridge Boys’ latest CD are in the key of E. David Bruce Murray adds that on four consecutive songs on Brian Free and Assurance’s latest CD are in the key of D. [EDIT, 6/6/12: Broken link removed.]

They pose the question of which other albums do this, but I think a far more interesting question is why. I think the answer is fairly simple. Some of this happens at random, but many song key decisions are based on the singer’s ranges. Chances are that Jeremy Lile of Brian Free and Assurance has a lot of confidence and a pleasing vocal tone at the low D, Bill Shivers is comfortable at the D above middle C, and Brian Free is comfortable at the F-sharp above that. Ditto with the Oak Ridge Boys a key higher, except that I think it may be that their bass is comfortable at low E and their tenor is often singing E above middle C.

Professional singers do pay attention to these sorts of things. One tenor singer, for example, has told me that he keys his signature song in the fairly obscure key of F-sharp because the third above F-sharp (A-sharp/B-flat) is the power note in the song, and B-flat is his personal strongest power note.

Now some groups may have a tenor who is confident at high A-flat and a bass who’s happiest at D. They would probably have more variety in their arrangements. But when groups are fortunate enough that their singers all click in the same key, don’t be surprised to see them using that key (and its fourth and fifth, e.g., A, D, and E) frequently.


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5 Letters to the Editor

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  1. When I was singing in a quartet, the only thing that mattered was what key the pianist could play the song in! LOL!

    Needless to say, I was that pitiful excuse for a pianist.

  2. One cardinal rule that I’ve always tried to honor while arranging the order of songs on a project is to never start the next song in the same ending key as the last one. It tends to remove the redundancy of sound, as does alternating tempos between songs.

    When one song follows another having the same key and tempo, it tends to make the project all sound the same. Changing the key and tempo clears the emotion of the mind and gives new adventure and a fresh start to the next song.

    Now, if I could just get some imagination into my singing . . .

  3. You forgot on the A,D,E list F#m. Each key has a bunch of different keys such as for (A,D,E) B, F#, Bm, G. Check out Roger Bennett’s styling when he plays Boundless Love or I’ve Read the back of the book. He does this little diddy that’s (Eb,C#,Ab,Eb). I learned it, and now I play it in alomost every song.

  4. I can’t contribute much in the way of the “theory”…but I do find it innately boring when consecutive songs are in the same key–especially if they are nearly the same tempo (the exact points that Neil was making).

    The church that I attend sings nearly exclusively four-part harmony straight out of the hymnal (a cappella to boot!). When I do attend a church that sings choruses or “off the wall”, even though the songs themselves may be good, I still find it frustrating and unsettling in my musical spirit that often one chorus after another is sung in the same key.

    The principle of having variety from song to song in both key and tempo needs to apply to congregational singing, concerts, recordings, etc. As Neil always does, he stated it so aptly when he said, “Changing…clears the emotion of the mind and gives new adventure and a fresh start to the next song.” (Neil, you show plenty of imagination in your singing, too!)

    If I am listening to a recording in which there are consecutive same-key songs, my tendency is to push the “next track” button to find something that DOES afford the variety my spirit is seeking.

    Thanks for bringing to the discussion table one of my “chief beefs”! 🙂

  5. The two keys you mentioned, E and D, are also some of the first chords learned by guitar players. I would consider those two keys very easy and common. I would say the tenor who uses F# major might be the exception, not the rule.