Tips for Choosing a Key for a Jazz Arrangement

One of the first, and most basic, decisions you will need to make when starting an arrangement is – what key should it be in?

Most everyone has a Real Book lying around somewhere, and that can give you an idea of the key, but that is not always the best source for deciding on the key for your chart.

The appropriate key choice has to do with some basic factors.  In this lesson, I cover some tips that you’ll want to think about when choosing a key for your arrangement – combo, small band, big band, or vocalist.

9 Replies to “Tips for Choosing a Key for a Jazz Arrangement”

  1. David Michaels

    Jim, great lesson! You answered a lot of my questions. I’ll probably come up with another one or two on re-watching a couple of times. This site is a really good resource, nothing else like in on the Internet. I’ve learned more about arranging since joining this site than all the time I’ve spent over the years buying books and trying to do it on my own. Thanks again for helping us out!

  2. 814jazzer

    Words of wisdom on many levels to be kind to your trumpet players!

    A trick I often use to get through a shout chorus that’s in the “wrong” key for my brass is to move the melodic lead line to a different pitch level within the key.

    So, if a melody line is MI-FA-SOL over the tonic maj7 chord—but is too high for the trumpets—I might write it instead on TI-DO-RE. This retains the melodic integrity of the line and is consonant with the harmony.

    What other ‘tricks’ do you guys use?

    ~ Rick

  3. Jim Martin

    David: Wow, thanks for the nice comments regarding the site. I feel like the site is now just barely scratching the surface on what it could be. I wish I had more time to do these lessons. (I’m always too busy arranging charts!)

    The good news is that I have tons of examples from the last couple years that I can use to point out specifics in future lessons. and now that I have Finale 2010 it will playback nicely with good sounds so you guys can really get an idea of how things sound.

    One thing I would like to do in the future is to analyze a specific writer’s style, like Ray Wright does in the book “Inside the Score”. I learned alot from that book and I always wanted something similar to it analyzing other arrangers, like Bob Mintzer, or Jim McNeeley, etc. We’ll just keep it going and see what happens.

  4. curt streuli

    As a trumpet player I really appreciated the be kind to the trumpets thoughts.

    A couple comments. In High School I had a good strong Eb (concert Db) and absolutely no E (concert D) at all. So if you are writing for a specific band like a HS band, ask the trumpet players just like you’d ask a singer.

    For some reason having to do with valve combinations and where the intervals fall, B (five sharps and concert A) is a really nice key for trumpet. Those 5 sharps are easier to play than a lot of keys with fewer sharps or flats. At least that’s my experience.

    When I do charts for our little band with vocals, I always ask the singer if they like the key.

    I’m curious. Given that vocal ranges vary by individual singer, why is it that generic male keys and female keys are different? Is the average (if there is such a thing) female voice a particular interval away frome the “average” male voice?


  5. Jim Martin

    Curt: Thanks for your input. As far as HS tpt range goes, I would definitely stay in the staff if at all possible. You might have only 10% (if that) of players in HS be able to play above the staff with any accuracy. As far as male and female vocal keys: I”m not exactly sure why they tend to fall in certain keys. Must be like our instruments that are transposing instruments, its just the way they fall in the whole range. It seems that alot of male keys fall in Eb, and female keys are more like G and C generally. But ever singer is different. Just don’t let them have you write a chart in B major when it could easily be in Bb, or C.

  6. Shane Kershaw


    Thanks again. I have had the good fortune to work HS trumpeters who have a solid 6th above the staff over the years, so my charts can explore those regions when writing for specific ensembles.

    Vocalists – there are at least 5 voice types – Sop, Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass. Which voice type will often determine the key to write in – Sops F, G, C, D; Altos, A, G, Bb, B; Tenors G, A, B, F; Baritones Eb, D, E, F, C; Basses G, D, E, F. Of course there are always the exceptions.

    On HS players again, I have over the years had an arranging assignment as part of my teaching (in Australia, so different curriculum and objectives). One of the first things we do is explore the implications of key choice for each instrument in the ensemble – usually using a table to show the relationships between each instrument in each key. You have made most of the points in your discussion, but sometimes seeing it helps more:
    Inst |Keys
    C | C | Db | D | Eb | E | F | Gb | G | Ab | A | Bb | B |
    Bb | D | Eb | E | F | Gb | G | Ab | A | Bb | B | C | Db |
    Eb | A | Bb | B | C | Db | D | Eb | E | F | Gb | G | Ab |
    F | F | Gb | G | Ab | A | Bb | B | C | Db | D | Eb | E |

    I make a deliberate choice to show only flat keys as most of the comments I get from HS players and JHS players is that they find flats easier to read.

    I’m enjoying reviewing all of this stuff, as you sometimes forget the obvious and the simple, and even the tough stuff gets lost once in a while.


  7. Jim Martin

    Shane: Thanks so much for your input. And yes, I have been known to forget the obvious and simple! As far as singers go, I still find them to be all over the place usually. For example: I wrote an orchestra arrangement of Hello Young Lovers for a singer, and another singer I am writing orchestra charts for needed it a 5th higher to make it work for her. Both female singers, but a 5th apart! Needless to say, I couldn’t just have Finale transpose it that far, the violin and flute lines go into the stratosphere when transposed that far. I’ve learned to never assume anything when it comes to singers. And finally….you have HS players with high D’s and E’s? Ship them over here!

  8. Jim Martin

    Shane: Horn players generally like to read in flat keys, but string players are the opposite. I was on a recording session once with strings and the chart was in Gb major. They really whined about that. I should have put the chart in F# major for them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.