Changing Key (While Not Really Changing Key)

Most songs will keep the same key from beginning to end. For songs that do change key, the most common circumstance is when you have a minor verse that moves to a major chorus. You hear this in lots of songs. I did a video a while back regarding how songs change key, and referred to the song “Take Your Time” by Sam Hunt, which starts in G# minor, switching to B major for the chorus. It’s just one of many that do this kind of key change.

Most of the time, the change from minor to major is a very smooth one, because in reality the key isn’t really changing. Here’s more about what I mean.

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Most songs in the pop genres will use any of the chords that naturally occur in that key. For any major key, there are seven of them, and they’re fairly easy to figure out: Just play a major scale, and you’ve found the roots of those seven chords.

Now play a 1-3-5 triad above each of those notes and you’ve got the seven chords. Do that in C major and you’ve got this:

  • C-E-G: (C)
  • D-F-A: (Dm)
  • E-G-B: (Em)
  • F-A-C: (F)
  • G-B-D: (G)
  • A-C-E: (Am)
  • B-D-F: (Bdim)

So if your song is in C major, the chords you choose will most often be selected from that list. Occasionally you might choose to throw in a chord that doesn’t belong naturally to your chosen key. Those so-called non-diatonic chords can add a wonderful sense of spice and surprise to your music. That’s when songwriting can get interesting.

When Minor-Sounding Music isn’t Necessarily In a Minor Key

Going back to Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time” (key of B major), even though the verse is very much a minor-sounding section (sounding like the key of G# minor), it’s simply taking two chords from B major — G#m and C#m — and alternating between them.

Other than those two chords, there’s not a lot that indicates G# minor. There’s a much lengthier explanation for what’s going on here, but let’s just say that in traditional harmony, you need a leading tone to the minor tonic to occur somewhere that would unambiguously announce G# minor as the key.

To illustrate this, listen to “California Dreamin’, which is IN D minor. We get that crucial leading tone note C# every time we hear that A chord move to D minor.

In the verse for “Take Your Time”, however, we simply get an alternating between two chords:

Chords from B major

So what good is this information? Perhaps we’re just playing around with terminology, and maybe there isn’t a lot of difference between being “in a key” and “using minor chords.”

I think the best use of this information is simply this: if you want to switch from a minor-sounding verse to a major sounding chorus, it simply requires you to know the chords of the major chorus. Once you know the seven naturally-occurring chords (as you see listed above for B major), you can carefully select primarily minor chords for your verse, in whichever order pleases you.

Some other possible primarily minor-sounding progressions from B major:

  • C#m  F#  G#m  C#m
  • G#m  F#  G#m  D#m  E  G#m  F#  G#m
  • D#m  B  C#m  D#m

You get the idea. By improvising with the minor chords of a major key, you create progressions that tend toward sounding introspective and moody.

For your chorus, you’ll often find that an abrupt change to B major can work well, with a minimum of fussing about the transition:

Verse —-> Chorus

G#m  D#m  G#m  D#m  E  G#m  F#  G#m  ||B  G#m  E  F#…

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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