If you’re looking for a way to make your chord progressions a bit more interesting, you’ll find that changing key is a good way to do it. You might, for example, have your verse in one key and your chorus in a different one.
The most common way to do that is to use a minor key for your verse, and then change key (“modulate”, as the theory folks call it) to the relative major.
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You’ve likely heard the term “relative major” or “relative minor” before, but not known what it means. It’s quite simple: every major key uses its own particular key signature. For every key signature, there is a major key that uses it, and there is also a minor key that uses it. Those two keys are therefore said to be “related.”
So G major, for example, uses one sharp in its key signature (F#), and if you go down by three semitones, you’ll get the note E. The minor key based on E will also use that same one sharp, so we say that G major is the relative major of E minor:
G major: G A B C D E F# G
E natural minor: E F# G A B C D E
Writing a song where the verse is in minor, then switches to the relative major for the chorus, is very common. It’s so popular because it gives a nice “lift” to the mood of the chorus of the song. Listen to Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” or “Drive By” (Train), and you’ll hear that relative minor-to-major sound.
Getting It Done Without Changing Key
There’s another way to get this same kind of contrast without actually changing key. Here’s how it works:
Let’s say that your song is in C major. There are seven chords that exist naturally in that key, and you find them by building 3-note chords on top of each note of the C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B), like this:
- I (C): C-E-G
- ii (Dm): D-F-A
- iii (Em): E-G-B
- IV (F): F-A-C
- V (G): G-B-D
- vi (Am): A-C-E
- vii (Bdim): B-D-F
As you can see, some of those chords are major (C, F and G), some are minor (Dm, Em, Am), and one is diminished (Bdim).
You can give your listeners the impression that you’ve changed key by choosing mainly minor chords for your verse progressions, and then using mainly major ones for your chorus.
In particular, you’ll want to start the verse progression on a minor chord, and start the chorus progression on a major chord. And if you want to fake a relative major-minor relationship, you should start your verse on Am, and start your chorus on C. Like this:
VERSE: Am Dm Am Em | G Am Em Am…
CHORUS: C Dm F G | C Dm F G…
As you can see, it’s not necessary to only use minor in the verse for this major-minor effect to work. You simply have to focus on it, using mainly minor chords, switching to mainly major ones for the chorus.
The benefit to switching focus is that it helps you get past a possible creative block that comes about by thinking you are working with two different keys. In fact, all the chords you’re using come from C major; you’re just being judicious about which chords you use when.
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