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Here’s how that usually works: a song might start by using the following chord progression for the verse: Cm Bb Cm Ab, repeated over and over. When it gets to the chorus, you might then get something like this: Eb Ab Eb Bb. Depending on how those chords are used, it’s likely (or at least possible) that the verses are in the key of C minor, switching to the key of Eb major for the chorus. That’s called switching from a minor key to its relative major.
The American rock band 3 Doors Down demonstrate this with their song “Here Without You.” The verse is in Bb minor, switching to the relative major key of Db major for the chorus.
But I want now to talk about changing key so that there isn’t that kind of very close relationship. In other words, modulations where the two keys aren’t so closely related, at least from a music theory point of view. A classic example is The Who’s “My Generation”, which starts in G major, moves up to A major, then again to Bb major.
Those keys (G major, A major, and Bb major) don’t have a lot to do with each other, at least on paper. The Who used those key changes for two main reasons:
- to mask the fact that the song consists of a very short musical idea, repeated incessantly; and
- to generate musical energy by moving the melody higher.
Speaking of that second point, most modulations you encounter in music will be upward ones, for that very reason: it tends to boost musical momentum. But that’s not to say that a downward modulation can’t work, but it comes with an inherent problem: if an upward modulation boosts energy, how can you get a downward one to work (assuming you want to keep building energy throughout your song)?
A great example is The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” the verse for which is in B major, while the chorus descends to A major. Why does it work so well? And even despite the descending key, you definitely get the feeling that the musical energy gets a bump upward in the chorus.
The reason it works so well is because of the design of the melody. The verse melody consists of short melodic ideas that are mainly downward, strung together. At the chorus, the first two short cells are upward moving ideas, giving us the highest notes of the song:
The chorus melody makes the new lower key work for the following reasons:
- The listener perceives a higher energy level that comes from the melody that starts in an upward direction.
- Higher vocal energy is created by placing the highest notes of the song at the start of the chorus.
- The chords that accompany the melody in the chorus provide a bass line that moves in the opposite direction (upward) to that of the verse (downward).
- The new key offers a “clean slate” — a new musical landscape.
Of all those, you’ll make a downward modulation work best if you have it happen at the same time as 1) the melody is moving upward, and 2) giving the audience the highest notes of the song.
Another example to look at is The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice“, which gives an intro in A major, and then immediately descends to F major for the first verse. That downward key change is startling, but works because the verse starts on such a high note.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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