Sometimes the best key changes are the startling ones, the ones that make you blink and shake your head.
Someone wrote me a while back to ask what was going on harmonically in the song “Your Dark Side” by The Morning Benders (now known as POP ETC), specifically between the verse and the chorus. It’s a startling harmonic effect, and he wanted to know if it was due to a key change, or perhaps an altered chord or melodic effect. In a sense it was all three, but it’s worth some study. It’s a simple key change to a closely-related key, but done in a way that intentionally drives a musical wedge between the verse and chorus.
The verse is in F major, and the chorus is in Bb major. Normally, it’s quite easy to move seamlessly between those keys. For example, you can do something like:
F Bb Gm C F |Bb Eb Bb Cm F7 Bb C7 | F… etc.
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The F7 makes the move to the key of Bb major easy. Moving from one tonic (F) to a new tonic (Bb) is smooth because both those chords exist in each other’s key. But what The Morning Benders do in “Your Dark Side” is pause on the ii-chord (Gm), and then leap to an Eb chord, which doesn’t exist naturally in the key of F major.
So what could otherwise be a smooth transition from one closely-related key to another becomes a more startling leap, and it’s a great effect. It works so well with the lyric. If you were looking to accentuate the difference between the mood that comes from, “so I fade into your arms/ into the place where I have what I want,” to the starkly different and immediate switch to, “I shoulda known/ I shoulda been on the defense all along/ now I see your dark side…”, a key change that sounds like an altered chord (i.e., an abrupt modulation) is going to work really well.
If you want to give abrupt modulations a try, here are some examples to play around with. Each one is in two parts, where the first part acts as a verse progression, and the second one works as a chorus. The end of each chorus progression gives you a way back to the verse.
These can of course be played with any performance style and/or tempo, and you can optionally repeat verse and/or chorus progressions and they’ll still work:
- From F major to G major: F Dm Am C F Dm Am C |D Em C D7 Em C G D Bb C [LISTEN] (Opens in a new browser window)
- From F major to Bb major: F Gm Bb C F Gm Bb C |Cm7 F Bb Cm Eb F Bb C [LISTEN]
- From F major to C major: F C Dm Gm Bb C Dm Bb |G C F G C F Dm C [LISTEN]
The progressions don’t really deal with the issue of melody, which usually needs to be higher in the chorus, especially if you want to create that startling effect between verse and chorus. The modulations are all to closely-related keys, but the surprise to the listener is that the first chord of the new key (i.e., the first chord of the chorus) is considered an altered chord in the original verse key.
The startling effect can be further enhanced by changing performance style in the chorus and also by simply playing louder. There’s lots to experiment with here.
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