Registration, Keys and Style

It’s not unusual to hear a soprano sing a classic music theater song or an American Songbook jazz piece in a key that is simply too high. Not for her voice, not for her comfort, but for the song.

The key of a song makes a big difference to the way it feels when it’s being sung, and how audiences hear it. The mentality of classically trained singers who must learn operas in set keys often gets carried over into other music mindlessly. Songs are meant to be transposed unless you are auditioning for a show and you are singing a specific piece to indicate that you are able to manage it. Many times the feeling for the style is there, but the artist doesn’t seem to know how to find the right “home” for the song. In that case, the whole thing suffers. The vocalist looks and sounds only so-so, the song isn’t really represented at its best, and the audience is cheated of a satisfying experience.

During a master class or when judging a competition, listening to classically trained singer after classically trained singer, it is so very clear that the earmarks of what we call classical training can easily be picked out like cans of Campbell’s soup at the supermarket. You can see and hear the poor vocalists who have been taught to sing with a “low larynx” that never moves because they tend to sing heavily in low and mid-range and go flat or constrict on top. You can tell the females who have been taught not to use “chest register” because their voices are limp, sometimes insipid and are frequently wobbly. You can tell the people who have been taught to sing exactly what’s on the page and do so diligently, regardless of the effect that has on musical expression and personal communication. You can tell who has been taught to “breathe in the diaphragm” because the belly is busy, but there is little connection of the rib and abs to the postural muscles during exhalation. You can tell the ones who have been taught to bring the sound forward at all costs, because the brightness is sometimes overwhelming, causing a warm voice to lose it’s attractiveness and a brighter voice to become thin and shrill. And one finds over and over the folks who sing with wet spaghetti arms and frozen bodies. Sometimes these singers sound just fine, so if one were listening to a recording, there would be no issue. In a live performance, however, singing with a lot of emotional conviction and no movement at all flies in the face of what we know the body does. Have you ever seen anyone get out and argue about a fender bender with limp arms and a frozen body? But you can see vocalists who passionately expressing something without any congruence with their own body language. This is either taught or ignored. The job of the teacher is to see that things are connected, so you can assume that if the vocalist has studied and gotten away with this behavior, either the teacher encourages it or just pretends that it doesn’t matter.

If you sing CCM styles and you are classically trained, and most particularly if you are a high voice, please consider lowering the keys of your songs. Chirping away on “Someone To Watch Over Me”, trying to do an “arrangement” of it is not a great way to present yourself. And, if you can’t belt but think that you can talk or yell your way through a belt song, you are not doing yourself any favors. You actually have to know what you are doing and why and practice it.

And, if you do not really know and live a style, just singing it thinking you do is really a mistake. Like anything else, all styles deserve to be respected if you take them seriously. Guessing how a style should sound only makes your performance fall short of the mark. Performers should seek out experts in a style in order to get some feedback when attempting more than one style, especially if the singer is primarily a classically trained person, else they run the risk of sounding and looking foolish. You, too, may not know what you do not know.

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5 thoughts on “Registration, Keys and Style”

  1. Amen, Amen and Amen. Keys are chosen for their color and not all keys work for all songs.

    Once again, you’ve said something that needs saying. Maybe I’ll sing “Goose Never Be a Peacock” for you sometime, but only in my best Harold Arlen style. :)
    judy wade

  2. Amen, Amen and Amen. Keys are chosen for their color and not all keys work for all songs.

    Once again, you’ve said something that needs saying. Maybe I’ll sing “Goose Never Be a Peacock” for you sometime, but only in my best Harold Arlen style. :)
    judy wade

  3. That’s actually one of my favorite things about being a so-called “jazz singer”; unless I’m singing with a large ensemble, with full arrangements, I can pretty much sing whatever song I want, in whichever key feels best for my voice, and my interpretation of the tune. Also, being able to use lead sheets, as opposed to fleshed out accompaniments, certainly makes it easier to transpose.

  4. Yesterday, while hanging putting up our Christmas tree, we selected the local Christian Contemporary Music (one of the other many CCMs) station. After about the fourth song, I giggled quietly. Then, after another verse and chorus, I giggled more audibly. My wife (who is not a musician) asked, “what’s so funny?” My reply was simply, “the style.” Over and over, from song to song, I kept hearing the SAME THING. Traditional Christmas carols played by pop/rock bands, sung in a sort of over improvised, choppy, pop technique. It literally got to the point where it was humorous for me. Now, I realize that pop music has its own set of rules, one of them being that there are NO rules, per se. But it seemed as if these musicians didn’t know how to handle traditional music. I would like to hear them stretch a little, musically speaking. Not sing them in a Classical style. But perhaps a bit more musicality to the phrasing (ie. don’t breathe wherever you feel like it). I hope this response is at least somewhat related to Jeanie’s original post.
    Jeff Costello

  5. This is a fantastic post, Jeanie. Thanks! It is particularly poignant for me as I set out to plan music for my parents 50th Anniversary party and CD. Their requests are mostly Sinatra-era jazz and customized hymn arrangements that my pianist and I will put together. I’ve already begun playing with the keys to get the effect I want, and not sound like a soprano warbling along at a party. Thanks so much for the (inadvertent) affirmation of my endeavor, and for all your wise words!

    Kelly Himes

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