Good Key Changes that Startle the Listener

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If you know Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla”, you know that it contains a key change between the chorus and verse that comes out of left field and surprises the listener. After all, you’d have to look for a long time to find a song that moves from D minor to C# minor. Downward modulations of a semitone aren’t usually the songwriter’s first choice, because those two keys have little to do with each other. Upward key changes are more common because there’s an enormous surge of energy.

If you’re like most songwriters, you’re probably looking for ways of changing key that don’t cause surprise, because of the possibility of simply confusing the listener and turning them off.

Nonetheless, it’s nice to be able to come up with something that’s creative and grabs a bit of attention. So what fits the bill?

First, it’s good to mention the kinds of key changes that are standard in the music world:

  1. Semitone modulations upward: Be careful with this one, because it gets tired and predictable very quickly. Some consider it the cheesiest way to generate song energy, as you slide your entire song upward a semitone.
    What Potentially Makes It Good? Gives a shot of adrenaline to a song that’s lagging.
    What Potentially Makes it Bad? It’s predictable, and after so many songs have used it, a bit corny.
  2. Modulation from minor to relative major. In other words, your verse is in A minor, your chorus moves to C major.
    What Potentially Makes It Good? Brightens the song by moving to major from minor.
    What Potentially Makes it Bad? Nothing – It works really well.
  3. Modulation to the dominant key. Singing in A major, and then moving to E major for the chorus.
    What Potentially Makes It Good? Moves everything upward, a great effect for a chorus.
    What Potentially Makes it Bad? Might put your melody out of range, so you may need to rework your chorus melody.

So now what are some modulations that are a little less common, that might startle the listener? Try one of these. You’ll need to experiment a bit with how long you choose to hold each chord, so try different rhythms and tempos:

  1. Modulating down a minor 3rd. You get to the new key by creating a dominant chord on the 3rd note of your original key.
    EXAMPLE:  F  Bb  C  F  Gm  Asus  A  ||D  G  A  D
  2. Modulating up a minor 3rd. I find that this works well if your original key features a flat-VII chord, which can then act as the modulating chord.
    EXAMPLE: F  Bb  Ebmaj7  F  Eb7  ||Ab  Db  Gbmaj7  Ab
  3. Modulating up a major 3rd. There’s a nice “startle factor” with this one, especially if you don’t prepare the modulation, but simply jump into the new key.
    EXAMPLE: F  Bb  C  F  ||A  D  E  F
  4. Modulating up (or down) a diminished 5th. In other words, this one takes you from F major to B major, which is normally a very tricky one to make work. But try this sequence:
    EXAMPLE: F  Bb  C  F  Cm7  ||B  E  C#m  F#  B

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
– Follow Gary on Twitter


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