Songwriting Tips and Tricks: Changing Tonal Focus

When changing key is not working for you, how about just changing tonal focus?


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Piano keyboardThere are times during a song when you want to allow the chords to move off and explore harmonies that are a bit further afield. Typically you’ll want to consider this for a middle-8 (bridge) section, after the second chorus. That’s because most bridges will intensify song energy, and using alternate harmonies can help. One solution is to actually change key for the bridge. But changing key can be a bit more than what you’re looking for. If you want chords that move away from the original key, why not try simply pulling the tonal focus away from the tonic chord.

When you pick the key for your songs, you’re normally using vocal range as the main determining factor. With that chosen key, it’s normal for the chord progressions of the verse, and especially the chorus, to point to the tonic chord as being the most important.

Any kind of harmonic complexity will usually happen after the second chorus, during the bridge. Your choice may have usually been to either change key temporarily or start adding in altered chords. But there’s another simple alternative: choose a different chord from your chosen key, and treat it like it’s a temporary tonic.

Here’s how you do it. Let’s say your song is in C major. That means that the seven chords that naturally occur are: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim. That means that you’ll probably be choosing chord progressions that all point to C as being the tonic. So some progressions you’d be considering might be: C  G  Am  Em  F  G… C  F  Dm  C/E  F  G… that sort of thing.

For your bridge, decide on one of those chords as taking the role of a temporary tonic chord. So let’s choose Dm. One of things that strengthens a chord’s position and make it sound a bit more like a kind of temporary tonic is if you leave and approach that chord by a 4th or a 5th. So here are some progressions that use the chords from C major, but put the tonal focus more on Dm:

  1. Dm  Am  Dm  G  Dm  Am  F  G  Dm
  2. Dm  G  Dm  F  C  G  Am  Dm
  3. Dm  C  Dm  G  Dm  Am  Dm

As you can see, the Dm is often approached by an Am or a G, giving it a Dorian mode feel. In short order, your listeners will forget C major, and start hearing D minor/dorian as a new “key”. But in fact, you haven’t really changed key as much as simply changed the tonal focus.

A good analogy would be taking a picture of the north end of your city, and then the south end. Both views are from the same city, but you see completely different things from the two vantage points. And you did it without leaving your city.

To get back to the original tonic focus, simply use progressions that use C as the tonic and G as the dominant. Dm  F  G  G7  C, for example.

The nice thing about changing tonal focus is that it’s really easy to do because you aren’t using altered chords or changing key. In a way, it’s like changing key without having to actually do so.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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