The most basic act of singing involves producing a particular pitch using your voice. We consider someone a good singer when they can sing any pitch with accuracy and preciseness. But there’s more to it than that. In this short piece we will make the distinction between singing in tune versus singing in key and why it’s important to understand both concepts.
When we sing in tune it means that the notes we are singing fall within the standard tuning of Western Music. If you sing into a guitar tuner or open up a tuning app on your smartphone it will more often than not give you a reference note of A440. A440 corresponds to the frequency tone of 440hz. This is also the A key below middle C on a piano.
When we are singing in tune it means that we are properly singing a set of notes that correlate directly to this reference frequency. Think of all the keys on a piano. Every one of those keys are tuned at precise intervals from that central reference piano key.
Singing in Key however means that the notes we are singing fall in a particular set of notes that are predefined. The Key of C for example uses all the white keys on a piano and none of the black keys (also known as “accidentals”.) Any deviation from that set of notes is considered to be out of key. Now there’s an important piece to understand here. Being able to singing out of key, when it’s intentional, is the sign of a skilled singer. Think of jazz artists and classical artists. You’ll often hear them sing notes that seem like they don’t quite belong or seem to have been altered. Certain types of music purposefully use notes out of key in order to create a particular sound or texture or to create tension.
Now that we understand the difference let's talk about why this matters to singers.
The most obvious reason is that as singers we always want to be in control of our voice and singing in the appropriate key. There's nothing more displeasing to an audience than singers who are out of key. Check out this funny video someone put together on YouTube that illustrates this perfectly. In the video they took the main vocals and dropped them a half step down from the key of the instrumentals.
The next reason is that being able to sing out of key as an artistic choice in a piece of music adds tension and emotion to a song. It could take a piece of music from good to great. When combined with actual key changes, singing out of the original key could add an element to a song that brings it to a new and interesting place (typically the purpose of the Bridge section of a song). Artists are always looking to define themselves and their sound so being able to sing in and out of any key is a great tool to accomplish just that.
Lastly, having ultimate control over the notes you sing allows you to communicate better with other musicians in many situations. One example is during the song writing process when you're trying to write melodies or chord progressions. Another example is during a live performance when the band is trying to figure out which key the song you are about to sing is in. Having this ability makes you a more capable and well-rounded musician as the voice is actually considered an instrument.
The biggest take-away is actually being able to recognize when you're out of tune and correcting yourself. Train your ear to know the difference between being in key and being out of tune and you'll find yourself with a new found freedom to sing anything with anyone.