Major Key Brightness in a Minor Key Verse

It’s a common technique for songwriters to write a verse that sits mainly in a minor key, and then switch to a major key for the chorus. The main reason for this kind of minor-to-major relationship working so well is that it considerably brightens the sound of a song. If you think of the verse and chorus as being the main unit in a song, you start dark and end bright, and there’s something very pleasant about that.

But there’s something else you can try, which is to inject a major key moment into a minor key verse. Sometimes all that needs to happen is to feature the relative major tonic chord briefly, and the song “California Dreamin'” (John Phillips, Michelle Phillips) is a good example of what I mean.

The studio version of this song puts the verse in D minor (actually a rather flat D). For songs in a minor key, moving to the major usually means changing to the relative major, which in this case would be F major.

The first line of the verse gives us these chords:

(N/C)              Dm    C    Bb        C     Asus   A
All the leaves are brown       And the sky is grey

The next part of the progression moves distinctly toward the relative major:

Bb            F   A  Dm    Bb       Asus   A..... (Dm)
I went for a walk     on a winter's day;

As you can see, it doesn’t take much. Just the Bb and F chords that start the second line give enough of a hint of F major that it feels that the song has, ever so briefly, changed key to the relative major.

And then right away, they follow that Bb-F pair with A moving to Dm, which pulls the music immediately back into D minor.

California Dreamin' - Key relationships

As you can see, the hint of F major is extremely slight: it lasts for two chords before being brought back to D minor. But it’s enough to create a temporary brightening of the mood, giving the verse a brief moment of harmonic contrast.

It should be noted here that the 4th line of the verse pulls back into D minor due to the Asus-A chords; the D minor chord isn’t necessary to establish D minor as the key.

“California Dreamin’ doesn’t use a chorus, being in a verse-verse-instrumental-verse format. If your song does use a chorus, you can still use this idea of the brief visitation to major in your verse, and then a complete switch to major for the chorus.

In your own minor key song, you can easily move into major by doing the following:

  1. Identify the relative major of your chosen minor key. If you don’t know how to identify the relative major, check out this graphic.
    Major keys and relative minors
  2. Begin your verse in a minor key.
  3. Find a spot to change key. It often works best to have this happen near the midpoint. To make the change, try using the IV-I chord relationship (as “California Dreamin'” does) or V-I.
  4. Once you’ve changed to major, immediately look for a way to get back to minor. You can do this by doing iv-i or V-i in the minor.

As I mentioned, the benefit to inserting a very brief visit to the relative major in the middle of your verse is that it offers a bit of contrast to your music, giving a very short moment of brightness.

That kind of variety has a long historical tradition, a technique used even by classical composers who would start a symphony in a minor key, and then move briefly to major.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. Pingback: Major Key Brightness in a Minor Key Verse - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

  2. Hi.I. really need some clarification on this subject. If it’s not a bother, I would like you to explain using James Blunt’s Give-me-some-love since it’s similar to the example. And also the Fur Elise. Does it change the key when it goes ‘bright’ on the C-G progression and does it change back to A minor on the proceeding Am-E?
    Sorry. I’m learning the piano. I’m not a songwriter, at least not yet. But I find your lessons very helpful.

    • Hi Michael:

      “Give Me Some Love” is not really a good example of what I’m talking about in this article. That song’s verse is mainly in a minor key, and the brightness doesn’t happen until the chorus, which is relatively common. I was talking about minor verses that briefly abandon the minor sound and move toward the major for a bar or so.

      “Für Elise” is a better example, even though not in a verse/chorus format. The first phrase (minor key) repeats, and the start of the second section moves briefly toward the relative major, just for 1 bar, before settling back into minor.


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