Bored With Just One Key? Try Two.

Gary Ewer•Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle

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PianoAs much as I roll my eyes at the songwriters who always seem to be searching for the killer chord progression, I understand the yearning. You’re trying to find something that sets your song apart from all the other songs out there. Here’s an idea that might serve your purposes: create a completely unique progression by using two simple ones from two completely different keys.

I mentioned something similar to this back in November when I did an analysis of “Soon We’ll Be Found” by Sia. In that song, Sia flits back and forth between Eb major and C minor. But moving between those two keys is a no-brainer: since C minor is the relative minor of Eb major (they both use the same key signature), the two keys are easily complementary.

But what about choosing two less-related keys. Can that work?

What if we choose the keys A major and F major? Those two keys are not closely related. We judge how closely related keys are by seeing how similar their key signatures are. A major uses three sharps, while F major uses one flat: not very closely related at all.

So what would make these two keys work together in the same song? While they are not very closely related, their major scales do happen to have certain notes in common. Building a major scale on F and then on A reveal that the following notes occur in both keys: A, D and E.

What does that do for us? If we use either of those three notes in the melody in and around the point of changing key, the keys will transition quite nicely.

I’ve created two quick & dirty MIDI files that show how the transition sounds. (Both samples open in a new browser window).

Example 1 is an instrumental ballad that moves from A major to F major, and back to A again. CLICK HERE

Example 2 is an upbeat blues progression that starts in A major and modulates to F major. CLICK HERE

MIDI files done quickly always manage to sound corny, but they can at least demonstrate what they’d sound like in performance.

These kinds of key changes should work in almost any genre: pop, folk, country, etc.

Because any key change constitutes a fairly dramatic change of song energy, you may find that the less time between key changes, the more frantic the music sounds. So use your judgment.

The point is that you can create really unique progressions by partnering different otherwise rather unrelated keys. Here are a few more keys that might be worth exploring:

A major/F# major
A major/Bb major
A major/ G major

Each relationship gives dramatically different results, so as always, let your ears be your guide. And as in my example, start by figuring out the notes of each major scale, find the notes in common, and dwell on those particular notes at the point of transition.

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