Pianist - Songwriter

Songwriting: Changing Key Within a Verse

Most of the time, a song will start and end in the same key without ever changing. But once in a while, it can be interesting for the audience if they hear the music move off to some new key, even if that key change is just temporary. In music theory terms, it’s called “modulation.”

So let’s say that you’d like to spice up your verse by changing key. One possible scenario would be to move to a new key, but then move back to the original one before hitting the chorus:

Verse that changes key

There are a few reasons why you might like to change key. One good circumstance would be if the chord progression you’re using is a very simple, basic one; doing the same progression in a new key makes it sound like you’ve come up with something new, when in fact you’re just repeating the old progression in that new key.

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So let’s say you’ve got this progression:

C  F  C  F  C  F  Am  G (I  IV  I  IV  I  IV  vi  V)

And lets assume that you play each chord for two beats. You get something that sounds like this:

To make a full verse, you’re going to want to repeat that, and possibly add even more to it. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, and I’ve often said on this blog that I think songwriters sometimes worry too much about repetitive chord progressions.

But if you’re looking for a way to make that progression sound fresh and new, try moving up into a new key at least temporarily. Which key you choose can be up for some experimentation. I’ve often liked the minor-3rd relationship: moving it up into Eb major, and then moving it back down to the original key again:

From C major to Eb major

…which sounds like this:

As you can hear, the kind of modulation here is a so-called abrupt modulation, in the sense that there was no attempt to alter the chord before the key change to smooth out the transition to the new key. I kind of like the abrupt nature of the modulation.

One of the reasons I like the change to Eb major is the fact that the Eb major chord has a note in common with the C major chord, so that helps to make a connection between the old and new key.

It also works to switch to F major, though I find it a bit less satisfying, mainly because the last chord of the F major section is a C, which is the first chord of the C major section. That means you get two C major chords in a row:

From C major to F major

…sounding like this:

Anther option you might want to consider for making a key change within a verse: Switch from minor to major. This works well if you use the relative major/minor relationship. So let’s say that you use the progression above, but in C minor rather than C major: Cm  Fm  Cm  Fm  Cm  Fm  Ab  G. You can then use the Eb progression from above as the nice contrasting middle section.

The examples I’ve given above make for a 12-bar verse, and so if you want a 16-bar verse, you might consider creating a 4th phrase that connects well to your chorus. Or, when you come back to your original key, you can change that progression to be something longer — different from the original progression.

Switching key in the middle of a verse works best if you consider the following:

  1. Use a simple progression if you want to simply repeat the progression in a new key.
  2. Don’t feel you have to use the same progression transposed. You can move to a new key and then come up with something completely different.
  3. There’s no need to switch back to the original key for the chorus, but it can feel a bit unbalanced to move to new key in the middle of your verse and stay there for the chorus.
  4. Switching key in a verse can be just one part of several key changes that happen in your song. You can then move to a new key again for the chorus, and move up for the bridge, etc. But the more you modulate, the stronger the need to keep the progressions simple.
  5. Don’t use this technique a lot! It’s something you want to use sparingly. Listeners like feeling rooted in a key. It’s why I’d favour moving back to the original key before hitting the chorus.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Songwriting: Changing Key Within a Verse — The Essential Secrets of Songwriting | I Write The Music

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