The Power of the "Oscillating Key Change"

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Choosing a key for your song is usually a no-brainer. Just find the key that works for your voice, given the range of your melody. Usually, you’ll choose lower keys if you want a relaxed feel, and higher keys if you want to bring out more intense emotions. But there’s another way of dealing with keys: choose two different keys for your melody, and move back and forth between them within the verse. It may seem a bit random, but changing keys quickly can give you a rather unique harmonic treatment for your song. Here’s how it works.

This “oscillating key change” works best if 1) your verse melody is not overly far-ranging, ideally within an octave; and 2) your chosen chord progression is quite simple.

Begin by composing a short 2- or 4-bar melody that works with a basic chord progression, perhaps I IV I V (C  F  C  G).

Now choose a second key, one that’s not too far out in left field, but not too closely related either. Perhaps Eb major. Now simply jump into Eb major and do the same I IV I V progression (Eb  Ab  Eb  Bb).

So now you’ve got a progression that looks like this:

C  F  C  G  |Eb  Ab  Eb  Bb

Now jump back to C major and repeat the whole process. You’ve now got 16 bars of music that’s oscillated back and forth between C major and Eb major.

When you create the melody that uses this progression, it works best if the melody note you’re using at the end of the C major section (i.e., the melody note over the G chord) moves easily into Eb major without a big jump. This will take some experimentation, because you’ll want to be sure that the melody note moves easily back to C major once you get to the end of your Eb major section.

And one other thing: you’ll want the end of your verse to slide nicely into the chorus, so choose a second key that works well for a chorus.

Here’s a quick MIDI file (converted to MP3) in a ballad style that demonstrates this principle, using the chord progression above. (opens in a new window.)

The benefit of using this oscillating key change technique is that for your verse, you only really have to come up with one phrase of your verse. The second phrase is simply a repeat in the new key. Then the eight bars are repeated, so you’ve got a verse while only having to compose 4 bars.

Keep in mind that you’ll not be able to use this technique very often. It’s got a very unique sound, and using more than once in the same set list of tunes will sound a bit trite. But it’s got a bit of an “anthem” kind of feel to it, and one that you might find useful in the right song.


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