Derek and the Dominos

Using a Key Change as a Musical Surprise

In most songs, key changes happen for any one or more of the following reasons:

  1. It raises musical energy. The most typical example of this is the song that has a minor key verse, then switches to a major key chorus. That brightening of the key from minor to major increases musical momentum as it moves from verse to chorus.
  2. It provides musical contrast. Changing key is a powerful way to change things up and create a difference from what came before the change.
  3. It puts the upcoming melody in an accessible key. When a melody sounds great but is hard to sing, a key change can move that melody into a key that makes it possible.

There’s another reason you might change key, and it relates to the second point above of providing musical contrast: creating a musical surprise.

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When the key you move to doesn’t closely relate to the key you’ve just come out of, or if it happens at an odd moment, it grabs your attention in very important ways. It makes you listen, as your brain tries to make sense of that change.

One of the best examples of this kind of key change is in Layla (Derek and the Dominos, written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon). It features an intro and chorus in the key of D minor, with a verse in C#minor:

Dm  Bb  C  Dm/ (3X)/ Dm  Bb  C /

C#m  G#m  C#m  E…

That switch is probably one of the most astonishing key changes in pop music, as the two keys (D minor and C# minor) are considerably far apart, theoretically speaking. But it serves that all-important purpose of grabbing the listener’s attention.

There are other less astonishing ways to use key changes as a musical surprise. The old key and the new one don’t have to be so unrelated. Even closely related keys can serve the purpose of keeping audiences interested.

If you’re looking for some examples to experiment with, try the progressions that follow. Some tips regarding these progressions:

  1. You can either use the first key as the verse and the second new key as the chorus, or you can even try to find ways to use them both within the same song section.
  2. Start by strumming each chord for two beats, and they will work in any genre and any tempo.
  3. Change them in any way you like. Hold some chords, play others quickly, even leave some of the chords out and see what it does for your song.
  4. In these particular progressions, the end of the new key provides a good transition back to the old key, but that’s just an idea. Try leaving the final chord off the new key and jump right back to the old.
  5. Use your imagination… you might even string several changes together.


• Old Key: C Major | New Key: Eb Major (From I to bIII)

C  Am  Bb  F |G  C  F  G ||Eb  Ab  Bb  Cm | Eb  Cm  Bb  G||

• Old Key: F major | New Key: G major (From I to II)

F  Gm  Bb  C | Bb  F/A  Gm  C ||G/B  C  C/E  D | Em  C  Gm  C||

• Old Key: G major | New Key: F major (From I to bVII)

G  C  Em  D | G  C  Em  Dm7 ||F  Bb  Dm  C | F  Bb  Dm  D7||

• Old Key: D minor | New Key: Bb major (From i to VI)

Dm  F  Dm  C | Dm  Bb  Gm  Am || F7  B  Eb  Bb | Gm  Eb  F  A7

• Old Key: G minor | New Key: C minor (From i to iv)

Gm F  Gm  Bb | Gm  Cm  Gm  F || G7  Cm  Fm  G | Ab  Fm  Db  F

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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