Arranging a Session Song I: Key, Tempo, Repetition

How many times have you thought, ‘I love this song – but it’s not a session song’? You’re not obliged to sing any song the way you originally heard it, or as it was recorded by the original artist. Many songs can work well in sessions, with a little creative arrangement.


We’ll talk more about keys in another post, so if you don’t really understand them yet, skip this bit. Those who do understand keys might want to consider a few points when arranging a session song.

Choose a key that works for your voice: pitch the song for your voice and then find the guitar chords, not the other way round. Pitching the song in a comfortable key is trickier if the song has both high and low notes (covers a big range) or if it contains big jumps as in Happy Birthday, or Joni Mitchell’s Carey. This kind of song may not work well in a session anyway, because most people won’t be able to sing along. I love Carey and Both Sides Now, but they’re never going to be session songs.

Think about the people in your local session – will they be able to play along? Folk sessioners tend to use a limited range of keys, and while some instruments can be played using familiar chords and a capo, some can’t. Do you have melodeon at your local session? Typically a melodeon only plays easily in two keys (e.g. Dmajor and Gmajor) and the relative minors of these (in this case, Bminor and Eminor). Many flautists and fiddlers, especially inexperienced ones, are used to playing without too many sharps or flats. Whistle-players rarely bring along, say, an Eb whistle. The take-home message is that if you’re most comfortable singing the song in, say, Eb/D#, but you can manage it in D, you might like to make that adjustment to maximise participation by other players. Of course, if you’d rather just sing the song where your voice can absolutely nail it, do that. Flautists and fiddlers benefit from being pushed out of their comfort zone!

There are ‘girl keys’ and ‘boy keys’. Usually, a song can be arranged so both boys and girls can join in. It may feel awkward when one gender or the other needs to move out of unison into harmony for part of the song, but don’t let that put you off – the more people work with harmonies, the better they get. My friend Sam and I both sing Sloop John B – I lead it in C and Sam leads it in G, a fifth away, so we take turns doing our harmony practice!


A song will take on a completely different feel, depending how fast or slow you sing it. Pick a tempo that’s true to the spirit of the song. A light-hearted celebratory song shouldn’t drag like a dirge. A song recounting a tragic true story shouldn’t swing along at a cheerful clip. If the song is very wordy, don’t sing it too fast – your tongue will trip over the words and your listeners will be frustrated at not hearing them clearly. This is especially important if you want people to pick up the chorus and sing along.

Arranging can involve varying the tempo. Think about Don McLean’s American Pie – slow for the first verse and chorus, gets into a groove in the second verse, slows down and even pauses for a beat in the last verse, then there’s a slow chorus, then an ironically up-tempo chorus to finish. The pacing underlines the meaning, all the way along. Many songs work well with the final line slowed and the final note held (especially for folkies, who like to show off their harmony skills on slow final lines!)


Repetition is the sessioner’s friend, on many levels. We learn a lot of our repertoire from hearing the same songs sung over and over. Repetition can also be helpful within a song.

A great song that lacks a chorus can sometimes be adapted for sessioning, by turning a suitable verse into a chorus (so long as it doesn’t start to sound silly). The Blackleg Miner doesn’t have a chorus, but some people sing the final verse (‘So join the union while you may’) as a chorus between the other verses.

If the song doesn’t have a chorus but does have a refrain (repeated line) or a call-and-response format, these provide singers with a chance to join in.

Look for opportunities to repeat a bridge, verse or chorus as you come out of a lead break – only, of course, if it makes sense within the song. Often the lead break indicates the passing of time, or a change of mood, so be sensitive to the story being told. I like to put the bridge of Fields of Gold before and after the instrumental break; it feels right musically, and doesn’t interfere with the sense of time having passed before the last verse.

Another good place to consider repetition is at the end. A lot of folk songs repeat the chorus at the end (that is, sing it twice – even three times) building to a powerful finish. Instead or as well, it’s often good to repeat the last line or a section of the last line, to give a strong sense of closure. I like Rocky Road to Dublin with ‘Whack fol-lol de dah’ sung three times at the end, slightly slowing the last one. How Will I Ever Be Simple Again ends with the title as the last line of the chorus – I like to sing it again, slightly slowed and with the instrumentation whispering gently off, to underscore the mood of the song.

The word count is creeping up here, so I’ll come back next week with more on Instrumentation, Lead Breaks and Flow. What else do you think about when arranging a session song? Feel free to Comment.



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