Keyboard & Guitar

How to Change Key in Mid-Stream

Songs, especially in the pop genres, normally end in the same key they start in. But every once in a while you’ll come across songs that feature key changes in various spots. This is called modulation in music theory circles.

One of the most common key changes happens in the final chorus repeats, when the key is moved up a semitone, much like what you hear in “Man In the Mirror” (Siedah Garrett, Glen Ballard, recorded by Michael Jackson).

You might also hear key changes between verse and chorus. This might be a minor verse that changes to a major chorus (“Mirrors” – Justin Timberlake, which moves from C minor in the verse to Eb major in the chorus). Or you might find the key of the chorus is simply a new, higher key than what was found in the verse — perhaps something like “You’re the Inspiration“, which moves from an intro in Ab major, a verse in B major, and a chorus in Eb major, which then moves higher into F# major.

The question is, how do you do a key change so that it sounds natural and unforced?

Perhaps the first questions should really be why would you want to change key at all? Is it necessary? And how do you know if it is necessary?

What Key Changes Can Do For a Song

In the case of “Man In the Mirror”, and any other song that does a semitone-higher key change, you typically do this to inject a bit more energy into the music. It’s extremely distinctive, and so you should be cautious with overuse.

In the case of “You’re the Inspiration”, the move into Eb major allows the chorus notes to be higher than the verse. The second-half modulation that visits F# major allows the melody to go even higher.

How to Do a Key Change

It’s impossible, at least in one short blog post, to describe all the different ways you can change key, so let’s focus on one attribute that’s going to be successful for you no matter what genre you write in: the smooth joining of one key to the next.

To do this well, it’s best to end the old key with a chord that’s going to work well in the new key. That is what makes the switch as seamless as possible. It might help to start with an example, so here’s a progression that shows what I mean. It starts in C major, and then modulates upward to D major. The two chords at the end of the verse are the ones that help to move the progression into the new key:


C  Am  F  G |C  Am  F  G  |Am  G  Dm  G  Am  G  A  A7||


D  G  Asus4  A…

To create the key change, find the dominant chord of your new key. The new key in this case is D major. The dominant chord is the one that’s built on the 5th note. The 5th note of D major is A. So I created an A chord (added a 7th to it, just for some added colour), and now it moves easily into the new key.

No matter what the relationship is between your old key and new key, if you can find a way to get to the dominant chord of your new key, you’re going to have a smooth transition.

Here are some examples of other key relationships you can experiment with. The double line in the middle of each progression shows where the old key ends and the new key begins. Chords with a slash indicate inversions, in which the note before the slash is the chord name, and the note after the slash is the bass note that should be played:

1) Up a minor 3rd, from C major to Eb major:

C  F  Dm  G  |Am  G G/B  Bb7||Eb  Ab  Bb  Eb…

2) Up a perfect 4th, from C major to F major:

C  G/B  Am  Am/G  |F  G  Dm  C7||F  Bb  Gm  C7…

3) Up a perfect 5th, from C major to G major:

C  F  Am  G  |Em  Am  G  D7  ||G  C  Em…

Transposing by finding the dominant chord is only one way to change key, and over the next few weeks I’ll look at other ways you can do key changes. Just to reiterate a point, it’s quite common to stay in the same key throughout a song, and so don’t assume that key changes are vital to the success of your song.

But if you find that your music sounds a bit lifeless, or if you find that your verse and chorus melodies are very similar, you might find a way to pop the chorus into a higher key as a way to inject a bit of musical excitement.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Posted in Chord Progressions, Modulation (Key Change), songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , .

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