Chord Progressions for Changing Key

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

 

The word “modulation” is a music theorists’ term that means“to change key.” Changing key in the middle of a song is a great way to add interest and prolong a song. Done correctly, it can generate excitement and make a good song even better. Done poorly will sound forced and amateurish, so it’s important to think about why you’re wanting to change key, and then consider the best way to do it.

There are several reasons one might choose to change key:

  1. To intensify the energy-level of a song;
  2. Especially in duets, to put the song in an appropriate key for the singer;
  3. To create interest, especially in songs that feature a constantly recurring melody, such as in “AAA..” type songs


In other words, it’s important to remember that modulating should not be done haphazardly. There should be a reason for changing key. There are several ways to change key, and they all require you to think carefully about the chords you choose. Take a look at the following two examples, and you’ll probably find a method that will suit your situation:

1) The Half-Step Upward Method: This is likely one of the more common ways to modulate, and it’s the one whose prime reason is to increase energy. To put it simply, your basic chord progression ends, you then play a chord that is the dominant chord of the key you’re about to go to, then you repeat the progression a half-step higher.

Example:  C  F  G  C  //Ab//  Db  Gb  Ab  Db 

The Ab in the middle is the so-called “dominant chord” that sets your progression up for the new key.

2) The Miscellaneous Modulation (more than a half-step): This kind of progression can be somewhat unpredictable, so you really need to use your ears and decide if you like what you’re hearing. This is the one that you might choose for duets, to put the music in the right key for each singer. Consider that the dominant chord of the new key is going to be a safe way to change key no matter what key you’re going to.

In addition to using the new key’s dominant chord, you might also consider what is called “pivot chords.” These are chords that can exist in the old key as well as the key you’re going to. Here’s an example:

C  Dm  G  Am  Dm  Gm7  C11  F

The progression moves from C major to F major. The pivot chords in this case are the Am and Dm chords; they can be seen to be the vi-chord and ii-chord from C major, but also as the iii-chord and vi-chord in the new key, F major. If this progression exists in order to allow the second singer in a duet to sing in a more comfortable key, you’ll need to consider a way to get from F major back to C major if the first singer needs to sing another verse. In that case, you could end the verse in F major, play a G major chord (i.e, the dominant chord of C major), and that sets you up nicely to get back to the key of C major.

Let me finish by giving you a few tips regarding changing key:

  1. Upward modulations are easier to manage than downward ones, because downward modulations can sap the energy of a song. Moving down by a 4th (key of C down to G, for example) can be seen also as moving up by a 5th (key of C up to G), so that’s fine. But moving down a semitone or a whole tone is tricky and should be avoided.
  2. If you’re not modulating up a semitione, then modulating to closely related keys (i.e., keys that use almost the same key signature… D to G for example) are easier on the listener’s ears. Moving from E major (4 sharps) to Bb major (2 flats) is weird, and hard to make work.
  3. Upward modulations should be accompanied by an intensifying of the lyric, singing style, or volume level.
  4. Save a modulation for later in a song. Changing key near the beginning will sound too abrupt.
Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , , , .

14 Comments

  1. I play an instrumental tune in key of G, using c & d, what chords do I play to move into playing it in the kay of C using ,f & g (Carter style of melody & rhythm) without stopping in a smooth way please ?
    Thanks,
    Andy.

    • Hi Andy:

      Changing key from G major to C major can be done by inserting a G7 at the point where you want to change key. So let’s say you’ve been using the chords G C D (or D7), maybe like this:

      G C G D | C D D7 G

      Now, to change key, change that final G to a G7, then continue in C major, using the chords C F and G (of G7), like this:

      G C G D | C D D7 G7
      C F C G | F G G7 C

      Hope this helps.
      -Gary

  2. would you recommend or want to shift my perspective on the following key change.

    My objective is to make a chord progression throughout a pop song be more catching and entertaining than repeating over and over.

    For example,

    D min F maj A min D min could be the standard progression

    and it could be used for choruses

    while

    G min D min Fmaj A min / G maj D min Fmaj A min / G min D min Fmaj Amin/ G maj…

    repeats.

    My intention is to highlight the sadness and happiness of a song by switching from d min to a min (using the g maj chord) key signature. since the only difference between them is the b
    flat and b natural.

    any critiques..I’m mostly a beginner and experimenting with verse chorus pop songwriting.

    • I quite like it. Both progressions you mention would work well for verse and chorus, and I like the switch back and forth from minor to major G.
      -G

  3. I just wanted to say thank you so much for this article. I was working on a commission and I was completely stuck with how to link two sections of my piece together. Your info about the half step up key change was priceless to me!

  4. Great Article, thanks for sharing.
    I think the song ‘I See the light’ from Disney’s Tangled is a good example of changing key, can you also share some great examples of changing key. I know there are many, but may be some of your favorites?
    thanks.

    • Hi Sam:

      There’s a song on Chicago’s 2nd album called “In the Country”. At one point, the band plays and sings a sus4 chord. Normally, a sus4 is a note that “needs” to resolve downward. But in this case, they use that chord as the moment to change key upward. And they do it by moving all chord tones upward except for the sus4. I think that would have to qualify as my favourite modulation.

  5. I am working on a song called “No One’s Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
    It has male and female parts… If I’m correct the first part is male and the key of “A” then the female part answers and is in the key of “G”. Will you share your thoughts with me about this song.

    • If by “in between” you mean to modulate to a note that is in between a semitone, that would require music written in a tonality where the octave is divided into intervals smaller than a semitone, and such a system (like the quarter note system, for example) would not use these kinds of chords.

      -Gary

  6. Thanks for this write up. It answered my search for ways to ‘change key’. I immediately applied it to a song I composed.

    K.
    From Philippines

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