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Changing key within a song can add that spark of variety and uniqueness you might be looking for. Of course, key choice will be closely related to the vocal range of your melodies; you can’t put your song in a certain key if it puts the melody out of your own vocal range. But the good news is that since most melodies don’t extend to the upper and lower limits of your vocal range, you’ve probably got room to move the key around.
And it’s well worth trying. A key change in the middle of your song can add momentum and raise the harmonic interest level in very satisfying ways.
Changing key is also called “modulating.” And there are lots of ways to do it. So here are some ways you can change from one key to another:
1. Common Tone Modulation. Find the spot in your melody where you want to consider a key change: perhaps as the verse moves into the chorus, or maybe at the end of the bridge. Make note of the melody note you’re singing, and the chord that’s accompanying you. Then find another chord that will accommodate that melody note. That new chord becomes the new replacement chord.
For example, if your song is in A major, and you end your verse on an A note, accompanied by the tonic chord (A), try finding another chord that uses an A: perhaps an F chord. While singing the A in the original key, hold on to the A and switch the accompanying chord to F, and you can now work out a chorus harmonization in F major. At the end of the chorus, you can simply switch back to A major for a second verse.
Here’s what it might look like (try 4 beats per chord):
VERSE: A D Bm E F#m D Bm E A—- (F) CHORUS: F C/E Dm C Bb F Gm C F—- (A)
2. Common Chord Modulation. A common chord modulation means that a particular chord in your progression is used in the new key, but with a different function. This means that the two keys you’ve chosen have at least one chord in common, and it’s used as a “pivot” to move from one key to the next.
Here’s an example of a progression that begins in C major and ends in G major:
C F Dm Am G C D7 G
The underlined G chord is the common chord. It acts as a pivot between C major and G major. In C major, it was the dominant (V) chord, and in D major it becomes redefined as the subdominant (IV) chord.
Here are some other examples of common chord modulations, with the common chord underlined:
From G major to F major:
G D/F# G C Dm Gm C F
From Bb major to C minor (tricky to make this work, but give it a try):
Bb F7 Gm Cm Ddim G Cm
3. Abrupt Modulation. An abrupt (also called direct) modulation means that the previous key and the new key have nothing in common, and the melody note is not going to be a common tone between the two keys.
Here’s an example:
VERSE (in G major): G Am D G G Am D G |CHORUS: E major) E F#m B E E F#m B E
One other great technique is to choose your key, then figure out the 7 chords that belong naturally to that key. Then use mainly minor ones for the verse, and mostly major ones for the chorus. It gives the effect of changing key without really doing so.
-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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As another reply to Robin, and Gary’s response, with replacing the Eb with a C, as an alternative to this good-sounding idea, try the C chord there but with an Eb (just Eb octaves/notes is fine, not the whole chord) in the bass (I know, it doesn’t normally go with the C-Major chord, but it gives a unique sound. In other words, the chord is: C/Eb. We had one piece of music in our Praise band at church, and it sounded really neat (it was in the Bridge of the song — no key change, just this neat “chromatic” chord treat!
David : )
C F Dm Am G C D7 G
The underlined G chord is the common chord. It acts as a pivot between C major and G major. In C major, it was the dominant (V) chord, and in D major it becomes redefined as the subdominant (V) chord.
ERROR: ‘in D major it becomes redefined as the subdominant … ” that should be the IV chord, not the (V)
Thanks Diane – You caught a very old error!
Do you think it is to a abrupt to go straight from e-minor to g-minor and than back?
The verse is in e-minor and the chorus is in g-minor.
It creates an effect but it might take a few notes before the audience is on the new journey?
I think that it makes an interesting key relationship that can work quite well. I like it even better if the G minor key is actually G Dorian. So you might get something like this for a verse: Em Am Em Am…. D, and then this for a chorus: Gm C Gm C… D | with a return to the next verse starting on Em.
Hello Gary, I have been trying to analyze the modulation in ‘Unaware’ by Allen Stone.
The verse and chorus before the modulation is: Emaj7-D#m7-C#m7. The IV-iii-ii in B major.
The modulation is: Em7-Bmaj7-Dm7-Amaj7-Cmaj7-F#–Gmaj7.
(The F# might actually be F#7)
I understand that the Em7 is the iv in the key of B minor, which would be a parallel modulation. And that it goes back to the key of B major in the next measure. But I don’t know where the other chords come from.
BTW, the Gmaj7 is the chord the modulation resolves to, as the progression is then: Gmaj7-F#m7-Em7 for the remainder of the tune. (The IV, iii, and ii chords in the key of D major)
For the start of that bridge section, I wouldn’t describe what I’m hearing as a modulation, at least not right away. I think one’s ear hears the Em7 as a kind of modal mixture (a iv7 within B major). Once the Dm7 happens, we’re starting to search for a new tonal centre. I think the eventual key, which is affirmed when the chorus returns, is D major. He gets there by doing a kind of circle of 5ths: Em7 – Bmaj7, repeated down a tone (Dm7 – Amaj7). He then starts down a tone once more (Cmaj7), but then jumps to F#, which mimics the D# chord from B major we previously heard at the end of the chorus). That F# chord allows him to “slide” easily up to the Gmaj7 chord, which mimics the Emaj7 from the chorus, and he’s now completed the modulation.
Does that make sense?
That definitely helped. Although I knew it modulated to D major, that sort of circle of fifths threw me off since he just starts down a tone for the pairs of chords (Dm7 – Amaj7 & Cmaj7 – F#) and since the F# and not Gmaj7 followed the Cmaj7.
Your explanation that the F# is mimicking the D# from the chorus in B major is a real eye-opener for me. Because F# is the leading tone of G major, it is a nice way to lead into the Gmaj7 rather than simply going directly to it from the Cmaj7.
Would this be considered abrupt modulation since it is kind of a circle of fifths, and there is no solid connection established between B major and D major? It seems the jump from Cmaj7 to F# itself would be an example of abrupt modulation.
Yes, it’s a kind of abrupt modulation in the sense that there’s no attempt to smooth the transition. That jump to F# is the one that will be most noticeable, coming from C.
Hi Gary – I have two pieces that I’m working on. One modulates from F to Bflat. The other from Bflat to F . I’d appreciate any help on an elegant modulation for both (or either).
I would recommend that you check out this post that I did on modulation a few months back. That will show you progressions for modulating upward by a 4th and also by a 5th, which is I believe what you’re looking for.
One you’ve read that, I’d be happy to come up with a few more suggestions for you. I’m on the road for the next couple of days, but could probably do that before the end of this week.
Hi Gary – Thanks for the response. I did indeed check out the post. I’m trying to merge two songs, both in 3/4 time:
The first is in Bb
The second starts in Fminor then changes to Fmajor.
For the Bb to F minor modulation I’m thinking as follows:
Bb Bbm Eb Fm.
What would you recommend? Will this work or is there a better solution?
That progression should work, and another option would be to replace your Eb chord with a C. That C will act as the dominant chord of F minor.
I am doing a composition for GCSE and i am using the key of F major. We need a contrasting section so i would like to do a key change. my current chord progression is:
F C Bbm Am Bbm Gm Am C
i cant decide what key to put it into, please help
It’s typical for compositions in a major key to move into a key that contrasts with, yet isn’t too far removed from, the original key. For songs in a major key, moving to either the dominant key (original key: F major; new key: C major), to to the relative minor (original key: F major; new key: D minor) are good choices.
The chord progression you mention appears to be F major, if you consider the Bbm (the minor iv-chord) to be a modal mixture. So creating a contrasting section that makes D minor (or D aeolian – the so-called natural minor) sound like a temporary tonic chord would work (Dm Am C Gm Am Dm…)
Question… What if I need to transition from Dmajor to Gmajor?
Would u mind advising on good transition chords or progression? Thanks!
To transpose from D major to G major, it works to change the function of the D chord to a dominant one by adding a m7 to it. So here’s an example of a progression in D major that then shifts gear to be in G major using this method:
D G Em A D D7 |G C Am D7 G
I have a question… I have a song that is in E+ and changes to F+. I’ve played it a few times and can’t come up with a good transition – do you have any suggestions?
One easy way to move the key up a semitone (from E+ to F+) is to use the flat-VI chord as a way to pivot to the new key. It works best if your E+ progression ends on a I-chord (E) with the melody note also on E. Then as you’re singing the E, play a C chord (the flat-VI of E+). That C chord will transition nicely to the key of F+. There are other possibilities, but none that move smoothly (that I can think of offhand).
Great tips. I think my favorite modulation occurs in Things We Said Today by The Beatles when they just jump from Am to A. Spine tingling.
Yes, that’s a type of modulation (parallel modulation) that’s really effective. It really dramatically changes the mood because it keeps the same tonic but brightens the 3rd. Good example!
Thanks – Gary
Thanks for the change key tips!