Changing key is a great way to inject a bit of song energy. But it’s got to be done well, or it can just sound confusing.
The key that you choose for your song has more to do with your (or your performer’s) vocal range than anything else. That original key choice is a whole topic that requires considerable thought. There’s a notion that you should choose a key that allows your voice to reach all melody notes easily. But good performers know that you sometimes want to sing in the highest range possible, even if it means straining to get those notes out. But that’s an entirely different topic. What we want to look at right now is how to change key in the middle of a song, and why you’d do it.
Watch a related “Songwriting Tips” Video by Gary Ewer:
“How Songs Change Key From Start to Finish”
Putting a key change within your song will usually dramatically alter song energy. Listeners get used to a key, and even though most of your audience doesn’t really know much about music, they know enough to know when chords belong, and when they don’t.
In other words, most people can say that “something just happened” when a key changes, even though they can’t usually say what it was.
So you can use that awareness to your advantage. Changing key can bring a song to life. But it can be done well or badly, so check out the following 7 tips for doing key changes:
- Changing from minor to major. This is a common musical device, involving writing a verse in a minor key, and then switching to relative major for the chorus. The minor to major shift has the advantage of brightening the overall mood of a song. ADVICE: Use the bVII of the minor to make the change to major. Example: From the key of A minor to C major: Am G Am Dm Em Am G___||C G C F…
- Changing from major to minor. This is less common, because switching to minor can tend to feel like a bit of a downer. But in songs that have considerable instrumental energy it can put a desirable edge on the feel of a song. ADVICE: It can work to do a switch to the relative minor (i.e., switching from C major to A minor), but it can also add the energy you’re likely looking for by doing a switch to the parallel minor (i.e., from C major to C minor). Example: Relative Minor: C F G Em Am G Em___ || Am G Am… or Parallel Minor: C F G Am D7 F G||Cm Gm Cm…
- Moving key up by a semitone or whole tone. Be careful with this one, because it can sound tired and trite very quickly. Many listeners interpret this kind of modulation as a cheap way to get an energy boost. ADVICE: It’s relatively easy to make this modulation work: simply end a progression with the dominant chord (the V-chord) of whatever key you want to move to. Example: Semitone modulation: C F G C Ab ||Db Gb Ab… Whole tone modulation: C F G C A7 ||D G A…
- Avoid downward modulations. It’s not that they can’t work, but they’re definitely trickier. ADVICE: Try sliding into the new lower key at an unexpected moment, like in the mid-point of a progression. Example: C Am Dm F Gb7 F C/E F7 ||Bb Eb Bb…
- Modulations that build energy should be accompanied by an intensifying lyric. We know that all aspects of a song need to work together. The energy that comes with upward key changes can sound odd and out-of-place if the lyric doesn’t intensify. ADVICE: Lyrics need to ride the energy wave created by a key change.
- Most modulations feel more natural at structurally important places. In other words, it’s hard to make sense of a modulation that happens near the beginning of a verse. ADVICE: The most common places for key changes are at the change between verse and chorus, or in final repeats of a chorus.
- Most songs don’t need a key change. And in fact, since key changes result in rather distinctive moments, they can sound predictable and hackneyed if used too often. ADVICE: Look for other ways to boost song energy, like intensifying instrumentation, moving the melody line higher, and increasing volume.
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