Key changes seem to be the cause of a lot of confusion and misunderstanding – at least among the musicians I encounter.
Two of the most common questions I get are:
“When should I change key?”
“What key should I change to?”
In my opinion, both of these questions sidestep the two real issues:
Firstly: are you even writing in a key?
Unless you are writing something based mostly on the notes of a major or minor key, changing key is going to be a bit tricky.
Simply put: to move from one key to another you need to be writing in a key – and these days that’s less and less likely to be strictly true.
However there are alternatives and options that are very simple to work with – and I’ll get into that shortly.
Secondly: what are you changing key FOR?
The answer is usually to refresh the music in some way.
A key change is almost always a way to use the same material but make it sound rejuvinated.
The classic boyband ballad move “up a tone for the final big choruses” keychange is the industry standard cliche.
You know the bit where the song is about two thirds of the way through (you know, right around the 2mins 30 seconds mark), then suddenly instead of the big climax,
…the music drops out…
…the singer hits a higher note…
…and pulls a face like this:
…and the music crashes back in sounding all “uplifted”.
Here are the Backstreet Boys doing an incredible job of preparing a key change.
You know it’s coming….here it comes…BANG! Right on the 2:30 mark.
Check in from about 2:15 to really get the full build up to the key change in it’s full glory:
In contrast I can give you an example of a sequence of key changes, that is a technical success as well as an artistic one.
The song is “In The Year 2525” by Zager and Evans:
The key changes are at 1:35 where it moves up a tone (2 semitones)
and at 2:15 where it moves up a semitone.
The technical success is that it raises the intensity of the song – as I’ve mentioned in the Barometer tutorial – but more important is the artistic aspect
The song is a dramatic list of dates moving far into the future. The key changes reflect this and become a metaphor for the meaning of the song.
THAT is a good reason for a key change or two – plus it also gives you a hint as to what keys to change to – ie in this case moving upwards to echo the increasing years in the lyrics.
What if I’m not using a traditional major or minor key?
I’ve still got you covered.
In fact, these days it’s lot more likely that you’ll be writing in some personal hybrid “almost a major or minor key” type zone.
That’s fine – I’ve got a different way of looking at these that makes them as straightforward to work with as traditional keys.
I call them “Harmonic Environments” or HEs for short.
Sounds fancy but it’s really simple. (I have a more in depth tutorial on working with Harmonic Environments here)
A harmonic environment (HE) is just the combination of notes you are using in this particular section of music.
If you take all the notes being used in your track and group them together – this is the HE of your track (or section of your track).
The HE doesn’t really need a names – it’s just your group of notes.
That group of notes is part of what gives your track it’s identity.
People get all knotted up about using keys – “Am I allowed to use this note if I’m writing in D major??” etc etc.
That’s silly – you can use any notes you want ANYWHERE.
It’s looking at things the wrong way:
Major and minor keys are just names for groups of notes that have become popular and been used a lot.
They are no better or worse than any other groups of notes – they’ve just been given a name as the pattern was being used enough that a name was a useful shortcut to reaching that sound.
Harmonic Environments are just a more flexible way of approaching this system – you can move the notes in a major key around and you now know that it’s now your personal HE and not some abomination of nature that the music theory police will arrest you for.
For the rest of this tutorial you can take it that anywhere I mention keys, you can substitute HE and the effect will be comparable.
So – how do we do key changes properly?
To address we need to answer the first question from above first:
When should you change key?
The simplest answer is “whenever you want to” – but that’s not very practical advice.
The best thing I can advise is to change key with a purpose – what is the benefit to the listener of doing it?
- Is purpose is to refresh a verse or chorus (or any other chunk of music) that is being repeated?
- Is it to create a smoother segue into another section of the track?
- Is it so a different singer with a different range can perform it?
Once you know what the purpose of your key change is, it becomes easier to choose a destination key:
Two factors that affect a key change:
1 – Judging Key Relationships:
Again this sounds really fancy, but there is a logical and simple way to think about it.
The golden rule is:
The more notes your destination key has in common with the current key, the less dramatic the transition will sound (unless you do something crazy).
This gives us a really easy way to think about key changes:
C major can switch to E natural minor and it’s a pretty mellow handover:
C,D,E,F,G,A,B vs E,F#,G,A,B, C – that’s five out of 6/7 notes in common. A close relationship.
C major to B major is a different deal:
C,D,E,F,G,A,B vs B,C#,D#,E,F#,G#, A# – only two notes: B and E in common.
These keys are more distantly related.
This method applies across the board – including any customised HE that you come up with.
2 – Smooth or Crunchy?
Here we are going to look at actually making the key change, and how we can manage that shift -will it be smooth or crunchy?
There are a couple of ways to achieve smooth key changes:
1 – Use a “pivot chord“ – if you compare the chord sequence of your original section with the chords in your new “transposed” section. If they share a chord then you can use it as a pivot point – a harmonic spot which is common to both keys. This can soften a key change dramatically:
2 – Hold a note across the key change: Similar to the pivot chord, except just using single note held over the chord change that marks where the key changes. It will need to be a note common (or at least acceptable) to both keys. It just smooths over the crack slightly.
3 – Melodic movement: if your melody runs up or down a scale, you can adjust that pattern to give you a new landing note – one that’s in your new key.
Or you can run to the same note but recontextualize it in a new key:
There are a couple of things to remember here.
It’s newbie error to try to do a key change “correctly”.
This is where you get taught something like “you need to modulate to the dominant” – and you try to fit your music into that.
As I mentioned before, this is getting things backwards – you can move to any key you want, the changes that have specific names are just the most commonly used ones.
Of course there is always the crunchy option too.
Don’t smooth over the key change. The Backstreet Boys example above is a reasonably crunchie change – the song just stops and then comes back in in the new key.
There is not much technique to learn for the crunchy method – you just change the key and let the audiences ears catch up.
It’s worth mentioning here that a lot depends on the context and style of the music. It is also worth practicing these techniques to get a feel for them, as you’ll start to get a sixth sense for what will work on each new track – and experience will also allow you to change key more confidently.
PS I just stumbled across another interesting example – Beyonce’s Love on Top:
Not a song that is to my own personal taste – but it does a similar thing to the 2525 example at the top of the page – starting at around the 1:55 mark the chorus moves up a semitone with each repetition.
The similarity to the previous song is not just that the keys rise in both examples – but that the key changes have a purpose: they are both metaphors for something mentioned in the song.
This is SO important I want to put it all in caps:
THE KEY CHANGES ARE METAPHORS FOR SOME IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THE MEANING OF THE SONG.
The metaphors are actually simple – in the first case the years are whizzing by and the numbers rise with each verse.
In the Beyonce tune the rising key changes actually happen across the words “on top”.
If you are wanting to change key in your track – try to think of the purpose behind it.
Yes it can refresh the music – but if you can tie it into the meaning of the song by making the key change a metaphor for something important in the song – then you have a meaningful and emotionally justified key change.
And that should be much more likely to sound like a natural and vital part of the narrative of your tune.