Working Major and Minor Keys Into the Same Song

Moving back and forth between major and minor within the same song gives a really great sense of contrast and balance.

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Carole King - You've Got a FriendUsing opposite elements within a song is an important feature of good songwriting. One easy way of doing this is to contrast major and minor tonalities. There are many songs that feature a change between major and minor, and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” in the duel keys of F minor/Ab major, is a good model to study. To move easily, the two keys should be closely related. Most of the time, the best choices are a major key and its relative minor. To find the relative minor key, identify the 6th note of the major key, and that’s the note upon which the relative minor is based. So the relative minor of Ab major is F minor, and they both use the same key signature- 4 flats.

“You’ve Got a Friend” is in standard verse-chorus-bridge format, with a short instrumental intro. Let’s take a look at how the tonalities shift as the song progresses:

  • Intro: Ab major
  • Verse 1: F minor
  • Chorus: Ab major
  • Verse 2: F minor
  • Chorus: Ab major
  • Bridge: Mainly Ab major, with altered chords (Gb, and secondary dominant Bb)
  • Chorus: Ab major

As you see, the minor tonality is reserved for verses, while the chorus (including the intro, as well as the connector that gets us back to the verse after the chorus) is in the relative major key. This is a typical way of doing it, and it supports the lyric perfectly. Verse lyrics in this song, “When you’re down and troubled/ and you need a helping hand“, focus on troubled circumstances, and the minor tonality is a stereotype for these sorts of sentiments. The chorus lyric focuses more on the solution: “…You’ve got a friend.” And so the tonality brightens.

Moving from minor to major is the normal procedure, but lately I’ve mentioned two songs on this blog that do this tonal contrast in reverse – moving from major to minor. The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy”, and Kool & the Gang’s “Too Hot”, both of which use the minor key in the chorus. They both feature lyrics that move from “happier” statements in the verse to darker ones in the chorus, and so the tonality follows.

In most songs from popular genres, the stereotype still works that major keys portray happy emotions, and minor keys support darker, sadder ones. When writing your own songs, follow these tips when deciding if and when changing tonality makes sense:

  1. Analyze your lyric. If you find that the verse and chorus lyrics portray opposite emotions, your song is a good candidate for tonal contrast.
  2. Consider the transition from minor to major. If your keys are relative to each other (i.e., use the same key signature) consider using a iv-chord as a pivot chord. Here’s the example from “You’ve Got a Friend” that moves the tonality from F minor to Ab major: Fm  Bbm  Ab/C  Eb11  Ab.
  3. Consider the transition from major back to minor. It doesn’t take much: Ab  Gm7  C7  Fm. In place of Gm7,  you could also try Gdim7
  4. Use the bridge to explore further afield. Carole King’s solution was to stay in Ab major, but to use altered chords- bVII (Gb) and secondary dominant V/V (Bb). You could opt to move to another key, something closely related such as Eb major or C minor. And again, use lyrical direction to guide you. Stay in major keys if the bridge lyric is generally positive, and minor keys if the lyric returns to something negative.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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