Changing Key by Using a Pivot Chord

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Changing key is a great device for injecting energy into a song. Known as modulating, it needs to be done with care, being unpleasantly startling to the listener if it’s done haphazardly. There are several ways to change key, including the “abrupt modulation,” but if you’re looking for a way to ease the song into a new key area, you will probably want to try using a “pivot chord.”

A pivot chord is one that can be understood to be in two different keys, and fulfills a different function in each. To fully understand the concept, it’s good to know about Roman numeral analysis. We identify the various chords within a key with a number, and the tradition is to use Roman numerals. Within the key of C major, the following seven chords are created by building triads (3-note chords) on each note of the major scale:

C (I)  Dm (ii)  Em (iii) F (IV)  G (V)  Am (vi)  Bdim (vii)

As you can see, it’s also tradition to use uppercase Roman numerals for major chords, and lowercase numerals for minor and diminished chords.

As I mentioned, those seven chords are the ones that exist naturally within the key of C major. But those chords don’t exist exclusively in that key. For example, the chord G is the V-chord of C major, but it also exists as a I-chord in G major, a IV-chord in D major, and so on.

To change key by using a pivot chord means that we are using one particular chord, and “redefining” its function to be in a new key. Take the following progression:

This progression starts in C major, and ends up in D major. The Em is the pivot chord, because Em is the one used to change direction. In other words, we can interpret it as being the iii-chord of C major, and also as a ii-chord in D major. Here’s how the Roman numeral analysis would look:

That bent bracket in the middle of the progression is the way theorists show that a chord that was a iii-chord in the old key is going to be reinterpreted as a ii-chord in the new key.

The advantage of using a pivot chord is that it eases the ear into the new key, and gives the listener an opportunity to “adjust”. Here are some more chord progressions that move from one key to another by using pivot chords:

1. From C major to F major:
C  F  G  C  Am  Bb  C7  F (The Am is the pivot chord, being vi in the key of C and iii in the key of F.)

2. From C major to A major:
C  F  Dm  G  Am  F  E7  A (The F is the pivot chord, being IV in the key of C and bVI in the key of A.)

3. From C major to G major:
C  F  G  C  Am  D  D7  G (The C is the pivot chord, being I in the key of C and IV in the key of G.)

Changing key is a useful technique for creating a sense of variety in your song, and also for writing a duet, when the two singers need a melody in a different key to be singable. No matter what the circumstance, your sense of musicianship will tell you if the modulation is working or not. And keep in mind this guideline: in general, modulations upward increase song energy, while modulations downward result in diminished energy. Be careful how you do it!
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Gary Ewer has written several e-books to help you improve your songwriting skills. If you’d like to discover the secrets of writing great songs, read more here.

Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , , .

14 Comments

    • Hi Marg:

      Because the keys of C major and g major are so closely related, it really could be either the C chord or the Am chord. Often, issues of theory come down to how a listener hears it. It’s very easy to make a case that it’s the A minor chord that pivots into the new key. In these sorts of modulations, it might be better to identify an *area* that pivots, rather than a single chord.

      Good point!
      -Gary

  1. I am trying to figure out how to analyze music that is modulating and I am really struggling with this! I am not sure how to comprehend it! I have a piece by Johann Phillip Kirnberger, “La Lutine” and it starts in A major and modulates to E. The reason I know this is my teacher told me! How can I figure it out on my own? Any suggestions.

    • Hey Michelle, so if you start to see some chord’s that don’t seem to progress smoothly, or you’re not able to figure out a roman numeral for it that fits, it has probably modulated. Also look at cadence points. if you get that the last two chords are iii and vii or something it’s probably in a different key. Sometimes a sudden change in notes as in accidentals or nonchord tones can help you. And also, listen to the piece, does it sound different in certain parts? Has the tone or mood of the piece changed?

  2. Hi there, thanks for the help, I actually had already gone from C major to F major in a different way, but now I can’t get back to C major. I am composing this piece for a school assignment. I’m sure this will help to get the top marks. Thanks

  3. Hello all!

    Talking in roman numeral chords, obviously a popular “repeat” cord (to repeat chorus to chorus or even chorus to verse) is the V11 (Five Eleven) or IV/V (Four over Five) chord. I’m havering trouble modulating a whole or half step up. Do you do the “Four over Five” cord in the key you are modulating to and then go to the one cord? I feel like that’s what I hear musicians do, but when I do it, it sounds compleatly wrong. Keep in mind, when I’m talking about music I’m talking about church music. I’m not sure if it’s the same for all music across the board or if that’s only the style I’m listening to. (Gospel, Apostolic Pentecostal)

    Thanks in advance for the help,
    Blake

    • Hi Blake:

      Certainly, playing a V11 in the key you’re moving to is fine. It’s not a pivot chord in the strict sense of the definition, since (thinking of moving from C major to D major as an example) V11 of D major does not also exist in C major. But it would work fine, as this example progression shows: C Dm F/G G/A D.

      -Gary

  4. Thank you that helped me. But, I am confused on how to return to the verse Key. I have used C for my verses and D for my chorus.
    I now do get it how to modulate up to D, but what formula do I use to get back down to C?
    Thanks again

    • Hi Larry:

      There are a few options for changing back to C major from D major. Giving you a specific example would depend on what chord your chorus ends on. If the chorus ends on a D chord and you want to get back to C major, find a way to work a G or G7 into a mini “bridge” that you can tag onto the end of your chorus. That G7 will be the chord that pulls the listener back to C major. If you reply with your specific chord progression, I can be more precise.

      -Gary

      • Thanks Gary,
        You know i used Dm G7 C tagged on the the end of the last line in the chorus. Te last line of the my chorus is C Csus Dm Csus G.

        i am going to take the time to study through this whole website. I think it would do me a world of good.
        Thanks again
        Peace
        Larry

    • use the circle of 5ths to tell how many sharps or flats they have in common. You can pivot between any key as long as no note in the pivot chord has a different accidental (sharp or flat) value in either key. It’s easier to do this with closely relate keys as they will only have one accidental difference. closely related keys are adjacent to one another on the circle of fifths.

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