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Key changes within a song need to be done with care. A key change is the equivalent of lifting someone out of one chair and placing them in another. You can either carefully “slide them over gently” (the common-tone or common-chord modulation), or you can toss them into the new chair quickly (i.e., the abrupt modulation). Abrupt key changes can be successful, such as the ones that occur in Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla”. They’re usually done to grab a bit of attention. But I want to mention one other use of the abrupt modulation: lengthening a short chord progression.
Abrupt modulations are ones for which there is little or no preparation. Usually these type of modulations make no attempt to connect the previous key to the new one. Some of them are more startling then others, so any key change requires some experimentation to make them work.
But other than offering a harmonic surprise, there’s another quite useful application for quick key changes. By quickly shifting the key centre, you can take a very short chord progression double or even quadruple its length. Here’s how that works.
Take a short progression – something from C major, like C F C G. It’s unremarkable, and if you’re trying to create something imaginative, it will probably seem unadventurous. But you can liven it up and extend it by using a quick key change. Let’s find those 4 chords a new key, Eb major: Eb Ab Eb Bb.
Now simply put them together, and you get this: C F C G Eb Ab Eb Bb.
At that point, you can abruptly return to the original key of C major and repeat the entire progression. So your original progression of four simple chords get a new lease on life. The modulations offer something unique to an otherwise predictable progression.
It’s a great way to create a progression for a verse melody. Once you’ve done the quick modulations, you can return to the original key for your chorus, or keep the new key. It’s the technique that was used in Northern Lights’ “Tears are Not Enough“, (Canada’s Ethiopian Famine Relief fundraising song from 1985) written by Bryan Adams et al.
This minor-3rd relationship of C major to Eb major is only one possibility. Try experimenting with others. Here are some suggestions. Each one listed below gets a little more “outside”, but may be something closer to what you’re looking for. At the end of each progression, try abruptly returning to C:
- C F C G Ab Db Ab Eb
- C F C G Bb Eb Bb F
- C F C G D G D A
- C F C G E A E B
- C F C G F# B F# C#
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