Guitar - Songwriting

How Common are Key Changes in Songs?

When we talk about a song’s key, we’re usually talking about the key of the chorus. That’s because it’s not that unusual for various parts of songs to have different key centres. The chorus, the part that gets the most attention, is the section we usually think of when assigning an overall key to a song.

So how common is it to change key? It really depends on what you mean by being “in a key”. Often, music will dwell on a minor set of chords for the verse, and then switch to a mainly major set of chords for the chorus. You could argue that the song hasn’t really changed key, just changed the chords it focuses on at any one moment. I’ve used Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” as a recent example of this, where the verse uses the chords Cm-Gm-Fm-Ab, and the chorus uses Eb-Bb-Ab. All those chords come from the key of Eb major.

But whether or not the song changes key in the traditional sense of the word is just splitting hairs. Let’s just say that “Mirrors” is a good example of what we often mean by changing key in a song. How common is that?

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I doubt there are stats on this, but it probably happens in one out of every four songs, and might be happening less these days, now that pop songs that use the same progression from beginning to end are becoming more common.

If you’re interested in experimenting with changing keys, here are a few ways to do it:

Moving From a Minor vi-Chord to a Major I-Chord

If you want a more thorough description of this kind of key relationship – relative minor/major – read this. For now, you can take a major scale and chord progression, find the 6th note of that major scale, and you’ve got the minor chord that will be the relative minor.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’ve written your chorus to be in C major. That means that your chords are going to be chosen from: C-Dm-Em-F-G-Am-Bdim, with the chord C sounding as a tonal centre:

C  F  G  Am  Dm  F  G  C

Go to the 6th note of C major – A – and now simply use that chord as the new tonal centre, one that will work well for a verse:

Am  Dm  G  Am  C  F  Em  Am

This is what the writers of “Mirrors” did, and it provides a really nice lift for your chorus.

Moving From a Minor ii-Chord to a Major I-Chord

With this key relationship, instead of using the relative minor relationship, you’ll put your verse in the minor using the ii-chord as a tonal centre, and then switch to the I-chord for the chorus.


Verse: Dm  Am  Dm  G  Dm  F  Em  Dm

Chorus: C  F  G  C  Am  F  G  C

Moving Down a Major 2nd

In this kind of key change, if your verse is in C major, your chorus will be in Bb major. It’s a bit of a strange key relationship, but it’s one that McCartney used in “Penny Lane“, where the verse is in B major, switching to A major for the chorus.

This kind of key change has a way of drawing a thick line, so to speak, between your verse and chorus. The two keys have only the E chord in common, so there’s little hiding that a key change happened. If you want to experiment with this, here’s a progression to play with:

C  F  Dm  G  Em  Am  Dm F  ||Bb   Eb  Gm  F  Bb…

Moving Up a Major 2nd

This modulation happens in R.E.M.’s 1989 hit “Stand.” The way they apply it is called an abrupt modulation, because there’s no attempt to smooth the transition from one key to the next. An abrupt modulation from C major to D major might look like this:

C  F  Gsus4  G  |D  G  Asus4  A

Abrupt modulations can be exciting, so don’t try to avoid using them.

For any of these key changes, keep in mind that the more distinctive the switch sounds, the less you should try to use it. Key changes can add a shot of energy to a song, and it can also help put a chorus in a key that’s easier sung.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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