guitarist - songwriter

Quick Key Changes Can Solve a “Too Much Repetition” Problem

It’s not uncommon for songwriters to be looking for unique chord progressions that will, in turn, make their song sound unique. But some of the best songs written use very basic chord progressions, usually dictated by the expectations of their chosen genre.

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If you’re writing songs in a genre that doesn’t tend to accept complex or otherwise unique progressions, one common problem is repetition: you tend to hear the same simple progression over and over. But there are things you can do to make standard progressions sound a bit more interesting.

One of those things is creating a brief key change — a quick switch to a new key for a couple of bars, and then another quick switch back to the original key.

The song “One More Mountain to Climb” (1971, by Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield) is a good example of a gospel/pop song that does this kind of quick key change. The entire verse is a simple, predictable progression (with chords given below in G major):

IV – I6 – ii – V – I (C – G/B – Am – D – G)

That phrase is played four times, but in fact for the third go-through of that progression, it’s transposed upward by way of an abrupt modulation to the key of Bb major. We still get IV – I6 – ii – V – I, but now the chords are: Eb – Bb/D – Cm – F -Bb

So the four phrases of the verse are this, with the jump up to Bb major shown in green:

IV – I6 – ii – V – I (C – G/B – Am – D – G)

IV – I6 – ii – V – I (C – G/B – Am – D – G)

IV – I6 – ii – V – I (Eb – Bb/D – Cm – F -Bb)

IV – I6 – ii – V – I (C – G/B – Am – D – G)

What does this quick key change do for the music? There’s probably no good reason that the modulation had to take place, but if you find yourself concerned that four phrases all using the same short progression might be just a little repetitive, that key change will solve the problem.

In the case of “One More Mountain to Climb,” the change was up a minor third. It seems evident that that choice came about because the starting chord for the new key was Eb — not a difficult chord to get to from G. And from the end of the new progression (Bb), getting back to the original key’s first chord (C) is also pretty easy on the ears.

So if you’re writing a song and facing the same predicament — a chord progression that you think may be just a little too repetitive — you can consider putting one of the middle phrases in a new key, with the only caveat being that you should make sure it’s a reasonably easy transition to the new key, and back to the old key.

The Australian singer Sia did something similar in her song “Soon We’ll Be Found” (2007, Sia Furler, Rick Nowels). The verse consists of two long phrases, where the first phrase is in C minor. For the second half of the verse, there’s a modulation to the relative major key of Eb major, using very similar (but transposed) melodic shapes.

The benefit to transposing the way Neil Sedaka did is that you’re able to keep your progression the same throughout the verse, but with that extra shot of creativity that a new key brings to the music.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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