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Changing key is otherwise known as modulation in music circles. Modulating upward within a song is a relatively common musical device, particularly in ballads. The semitone-upward modulation, however, is often maligned. There’s something a bit corny about it.
Why is that? How can simply changing key be seen as evil by so many? It’s because it’s such a distinctive thing to do, the effects being very noticeable. Once you’ve done it, doing it again - particularly in the same song - makes it sound as though your music is all about the key change.
Even doing it twice on the same album is risky. It’s the lyrical equivalent of throwing in the line, “I’m down on my knees and begging you please…” every time you want to convey anxiety regarding your love life.
But done well, there’s a charm that comes from the semitone modulation. It has two main purposes:
- Most noticeably, it generates considerable musical energy. Everything is now playing higher in pitch, and since most songs will increase musical energy over time, it’s a very obvious way to achieve that energy-build.
- It allows you to repeat a melody and accompaniment without it sounding so much like a literal repeat. In other words, move it up a semitone, and you get at least one more play-through of a chorus melody without it sounding as much like a literal repeat.
The easiest way to achieve any modulation, semitone or otherwise, is to precede the first chord of the new key with the new key’s dominant chord. Caution: because this is the easiest way, this results in the kind of modulation that people love to hate.
And when I say love to hate, I do mean love. Some great songs have done the semitone modulation by moving to the dominant of the new key first, and we still love to hear those songs.
A classic example? “A Lover’s Concerto” (The Toys). We love this song not just because of the key changes that happen every 16 bars, but also because of the enticing circle-of-fifths progression. Each time the key changes, a dominant chord of the new key is inserted. Example: (Last 4 bars before modulation): Dm G C Am Dm G C __ Ab__ ||Db Fm...
So if that doesn’t seem to fit what you’re song is all about, here are some other ways to achieve the semitone-upward key change:
- The abrupt modulation. As the name implies, this is done by simply jumping to the new key, with no particular attempt to “prepare” the listener for the jolt. Examples: “Hello, I Love You” (The Doors). The key change happens at about the 1’20″ mark. Also, Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror” (written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett) jumps from G major to Ab major at 2’50″, with no preparation chord.
- Inserting a minor bVII. In other words, start the key change a bit earlier than simply inserting the dominant of the new key. Here’s an example of how this might work: C G Am F Bb Bbm Absus4 Ab ||Db…
- Re-interpreting an augmented-6 chord. An augmented-sixth chord is built on the flat-6th degree of the scale. That happens to be the dominant of the new key in a semitone modulation. So here’s how it would work: C G/B Am Ab7 ||Db... The theory behind why this isn’t a simple dominant-of-the-new-key modulation is a bit long, but if you want to read about augmented-sixth chords, try this.
- Changing flat-III to minor ii of the new key. The flat-III chord is a relatively common altered chord in pop music. By changing that chord to a minor flat-III, you’re now sitting on a ii-chord in the new key. Here’s an example: C Am G G7/F C/E Dm Eb Ebm7 ||Db Ab…
Keep in mind that any key change is a musical device that speaks loudly. Do it more than once in the same song at your discretion. Key changes can be interpreted by the listener as a cheap, “click-bait” kind of way to grab an audience.