Peter Frampton

Switching From Major to Minor in a Song Isn’t Common, But Has a Powerful Effect

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If you’re planning to write a song that contrasts major and minor keys and you want to use songs from pop music history as your guide, it’s most likely that you’ll find songs that use a minor verse and then move to a major chorus.

Most common key switch in pop songwriting

As with “You’ve Got a Friend” (Carole King), “These Dreams” (Heart), and “Stronger Than Me” (Amy Winehouse), the moving back and forth between minor verse and major chorus is a common technique for most songwriters.

The minor-to-major process for so many songs comes about because we like the brightening effect that it has on the music. We don’t mind a song that starts a bit dark and brooding as long as we think there’s going to be a lifting of the mood by the time the chorus comes around.

Switching from Major to Minor

But what about the other way… writing a song that goes from a major verse to a minor chorus? There aren’t as many examples of that in pop music history, but they’ve got their own reason for working.

With The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy“, it probably helps the actual song title/first word of the chorus. That word “tragedy” is a great one for a sudden switch to minor, since minor (albeit stereotypically) makes us think that the mood has suddenly gotten darker.

But other songs use the major-to-minor key switch where it’s not so obvious why it works. A good example is Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way“, which goes from a bright major key of D major for the verse, switching to an edgier B minor key for the chorus.

To be a bit particular, you could debate that the chorus simply starts on the vi-chord of the same D major key, but the effect is the same: a chorus progression that starts on a minor chord.

The switch to minor doesn’t darken the mood as much as happens in “Tragedy”. More than darkening, the switch to minor in this case simply adds a bit of edge and power to what was, up to that point, a warm, happy sound.

As I say, the switch from minor to major — or vice versa — is all about controlling the mood of the music. It’s one of the problems I have with songs that use the same progression for verse and chorus, which seems to be quite prevalent these days in Top-40-style of pop songwriting: keeping the same progression means you’ve limited your opportunities for shifting the mood of the song.

So if your song uses a chorus lyric that sounds like it needs a bit of power behind it (“I want you to show me the way…”), opting for a sudden switch to minor is a good one to consider.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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