When and How to Change Key Within a Song

A key change can add that extra bit of energy you’re song’s been craving.


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Michael JacksonMost songs don’t change key (called modulation), and even when they do, the majority of listeners won’t notice that a key change has taken place. They may notice that something “interesting” has just happened in the music, but relating it to a changing key centre is probably beyond the musical abilities of the average audience. A key change may be just the thing that will breathe new life into your song. There are several ways a key change can happen, so let’s look at how it’s done, and why you’d possibly consider it.

The vast majority of songs in pop music genres establish a key centre right away in the song’s intro. By the time verse 1 has begun, there’s usually no question about where the music’s tonal centre is. Occasionally, songwriters will write the verse to be slightly ambiguous regarding tonality — you might wonder if the key is C major or A minor, for example. But by the time the chorus happens, any and all uncertainty is gone, and the key of the song is clear.

And that tonal “clearness” is usually a good thing. So why would you consider changing key? Many key changes happen as a way of boosting song energy. And as I say, there are several ways that can happen. Here’s a list , and examples you can listen to:

  1. Moving the key up a semitone or whole tone. This is a way of generating song energy by moving everything upward. This kind of key change gets criticized by many as a cheap way to build energy, because the technique is quite transparent and rather obvious. But some great hits in the past have made great use of the semitone key change. Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” (written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett) features a semitone key change at the repeat of the final chorus. The way that key change happens is called an abrupt modulation, because there is no attempt to smooth the transition with a common chord or tone.
  2. Common chord key change. Pulling the music into a new key centre is somewhat dramatic, and so it often makes sense to try to ease the transition if possible. A common chord key change does just that. It finds a chord that exists in the old key and the new key, and then uses that chord as a kind of “pivot”. Example: Changing from C major up to D major: C  F  Dm  Em  F  G  A7 D. The G chord exists in both C major and D major, and so it’s the pivot.
  3. Common tone key change. For this kind of key change, you’re looking for a melody note that exists in the old key that also exists in the one you’re about to move to. These kinds of key changes are often abrupt, with the key changing rather dramatically at one moment, and the melody note at that moment holding through the key change. A good example is the key change at the final repeat of the chorus of “Invisible Touch” (Genesis)
  4. Change key immediately after the intro. This may seem a bit odd at first, since it seems strange to let an intro establish a key, and then change key to something new before a word is even sung. It’s startling, but it’s a good way to inject a bit of energy right at the start. Examples: “One More Colour” (Jane Siberry). The intro is in Eb major, the song is in G major; “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” (Chicago). The intro is in E minor, the song is in C major (with an eventual key change to A major for the ending.)
  5. Downward key changes. These are rare, and they often sound a bit awkward. The Cryan’ Shames had a minor hit in 1966 with a Fred Nightingale song, “Sugar & Spice“, which features a downward modulation at the midway point, from the key of C major to Bb major.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. The Hall and Oates song whose verse-to-chorus modulation is most interesting to me is “One on One”: Bb major and C major (which is a really unusual relationship: it’s not diatonic to the home-key of C and it’s not a common-tone relationship. . . in fact, his sort of relationship has no precedent in classical music at all).

    Following the C-major intro, B-flat is established as the key of the verse (what had functioned as ii7 in C major (the Dm7 chord) is now iii7 in Bb). And what’s interesting about the way B-flat major is established is that you never actually get a triad or seventh chord build on the tonic note of Bb (because the two chords that alternate back and forth –BbM/Eb and Dm7– furnish all 7 notes of the Bb major scale, we understand Bb to be the key).

    The absence of tonic harmony in the verse makes for a wonderful type of instability that sets up the welcome arrival of C major for the chorus (which is established by way of its dominant, a G major chord (which comes after the Dm7 –which was functioning as iii7 in Bb, and which will now function as ii7 in the upcoming key of C). The ii-V-I progression into C major (Dm7-G-C) is especially powerful and important to the overall structure of the song, as it’s the first (and only) circle-of-fifths progression in the song.

  2. hi
    am i right in thinking that Hall and Oates’ Maneater changes key from Intro to Main Song?

    Also, there’s a Bowie song called Candidate (Alternative Version) [y’tube it], which seems to do the same thing. Could you confirm, for a musical ignoramus? thanks

    • Yes, Maneater starts in B minor (actually, B Aeolian), then switches to D major and wanders back to B minor. That’s not too rare… there are a good number of songs that start in minor and then change to the relative major. What makes this one a little different is that it goes back and forth between B minor and D major within the verse, and does the chorus in B minor.

      Regarding Candidate, the intro starts in B minor, and the verse switches to F# minor.

  3. There is a song by the group Skillet called The Fire Breathes that has a downward key change at the end. It is pretty effective. This is the only one I have ever heard of though.

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