For most of the songs you’ll write, you’ll likely use the same key throughout. If you do happen to change key, the mostly common scenario is to put the verse in a minor key and then switch to the relative major for the chorus, like Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” That’s pretty standard, and it happens in a lot of pop songs.
This means that if your verse is in the key of D minor, the chorus would be in F major. (If you’re not sure what is meant by the term relative major or minor, read this: “Creating Chord Progressions that Move from Minor to Major“.)
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A key change (also called a modulation) can add a layer of musical excitement to a song, but you want to be careful how and when you change keys. That common change from a minor verse to a major chorus feels natural because a minor key and its relative major both use the same key signature, so for the most part, both keys are using the same notes — it’s just the “tonal centre” that changes.
But if you’re looking for other key changes that can add excitement and perhaps a little bit of a surprise, think about these possibilities:
- Major verse to a minor chorus. Even though there’s something natural about a minor and major key that share the same key signature, moving from major to minor is a rare move. That’s because we’re used to songs that start dark (minor) and then brighten (major). For songs that do the major-to-minor change, check out the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy“. You’ll also hear this major-to-minor effect at the end of the verse of “Too Hot” (Kool and the Gang) as it moves into a minor chorus.
- Drop a major 3rd. The Beach Boys’ hit “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” starts with an intro in A major, and then switches immediately into F major — a drop of a major 3rd — for the verse. It’s a strange one, but it works. If you’re looking to try something like this, you’ll need to put that kind of key change at a structural change point within the song, as one section ends and a new one begins.
- Drop a perfect 4th (or rise a perfect 5th). Billy Joel’s 1983 hit “Tell Her About It” demonstrates this kind of modulation. The first verse is in Bb major, but the verse progression ends with a Bb-C setup for a new key: F major. The key change itself adds a level of musical excitement, but sometimes there’s a more logistical purpose behind a key change like this: it potentially puts the chorus melody higher, and that makes for a more natural build between verse and chorus.
- Rise a semitone. This one is almost a cliché, so you need to be careful when you use it. Use it once and it can be uplifting and powerful. Use it twice and you might get your fan base rolling its eyes. You’ll hear this semitone rise in Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” just as the final chorus repeats start, from G major to A-flat major.
- Descend a semitone. This kind of key change is very rare, and it’s almost impossible to hear it any other way than a musical shock to the system. You hear this in Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla” (Eric Clapton, Jim Gordon), when the intro, in the key of D minor, abruptly drops one semitone to C# minor.
Key changes are usually either the “happens so smoothly you almost don’t notice it’s happened” variety, or the “jumps up and surprises you” kind. For whatever key change you choose to experiment with, keep this in mind:
- A smooth key change can happen almost anywhere in a song, even within a single section, like Sia’s “Soon We’ll Be Found.”
- An abrupt key change fits in better when you’re leaving one section of your song and moving on to the next one. The listeners’ ear is already primed to expect new things as you move to the new section, so an abrupt key change can be the shot of musical energy you’re looking for.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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