7 Tips for Changing Key Within a Song

Changing key is a great way to inject a bit of song energy. But it’s got to be done well, or it can just sound confusing.

Essential Chord Progressions - Gary Ewer

Rock BandThe key that you choose for your song has more to do with your (or your performer’s) vocal range than anything else. That original key choice is a whole topic that requires considerable thought. There’s a notion that you should choose a key that allows your voice to reach all melody notes easily. But good performers know that you sometimes want to sing in the highest range possible, even if it means straining to get those notes out. But that’s an entirely different topic. What we want to look at right now is how to change key in the middle of a song, and why you’d do it.

Putting a key change within your song will usually dramatically alter song energy. Listeners get used to a key, and even though most of your audience doesn’t really know much about music, they know enough to know when chords belong, and when they don’t.

In other words, most people can say that “something just happened” when a key changes, even though they can’t usually say what it was.

So you can use that awareness to your advantage. Changing key can bring a song to life. But it can be done well or badly, so check out the following 7 tips for doing key changes:

  1. Changing from minor to major. This is a common musical device, involving writing a verse in a minor key, and then switching to relative major for the chorus. The minor to major shift has the advantage of brightening the overall mood of a song. ADVICE: Use the bVII of the minor to make the change to major. Example: From the key of A minor to C major: Am  G  Am  Dm  Em  Am  G___||C  G  C  F…
  2. Changing from major to minor. This is less common, because switching to minor can tend to feel like a bit of a downer. But in songs that have considerable instrumental energy it can put a desirable edge on the feel of a song. ADVICE: It can work to do a switch to the relative minor (i.e., switching from C major to A minor), but it can also add the energy you’re likely looking for by doing a switch to the parallel minor (i.e., from C major to C minor). Example: Relative Minor: C  F  G  Em  Am  G  Em___ || Am  G  Am… or Parallel Minor: C  F  G  Am  D7  F  G||Cm  Gm  Cm… 
  3. Moving key up by a semitone or whole tone. Be careful with this one, because it can sound tired and trite very quickly. Many listeners interpret this kind of modulation as a cheap way to get an energy boost. ADVICE: It’s relatively easy to make this modulation work: simply end a progression with the dominant chord (the V-chord) of whatever key you want to move to. Example: Semitone modulation: C  F  G  C  Ab  ||Db  Gb  Ab… Whole tone modulation: C  F  G  C  A7  ||D  G  A…
  4. Avoid downward modulations. It’s not that they can’t work, but they’re definitely trickier. ADVICE: Try sliding into the new lower key at an unexpected moment, like in the mid-point of a progression. Example: C  Am  Dm  F  Gb7  F  C/E  F7  ||Bb  Eb  Bb…
  5. Modulations that build energy should be accompanied by an intensifying lyric. We know that all aspects of a song need to work together. The energy that comes with upward key changes can sound odd and out-of-place if the lyric doesn’t intensify. ADVICE: Lyrics need to ride the energy wave created by a key change.
  6. Most modulations feel more natural at structurally important places. In other words, it’s hard to make sense of a modulation that happens near the beginning of a verse. ADVICE: The most common places for key changes are at the change between verse and chorus, or in final repeats of a chorus.
  7. Most songs don’t need a key change. And in fact, since key changes result in rather distinctive moments, they can sound predictable and hackneyed if used too often. ADVICE: Look for other ways to boost song energy, like intensifying instrumentation, moving the melody line higher, and increasing volume.

____________

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” ebook bundleWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
Follow Gary on Twitter 
Leave a comment

22 Comments

  1. Khurram

     /  April 13, 2013

    I’m not too sure about the last tip.

    Reply
  2. IntervalHarmony

     /  October 23, 2013

    Hello Gary!
    I am a young musical artist and I have composed a couple of songs. One that I am currently working on now is in the key of D-flat Ma. The melody/chords I have tend to get repetitive, so I am looking to add a key change to the song. I know your last tip says that not all songs need a key change to add to the song, but I still think a key change will add more. However, even after reading this over and over again, I cannot find a sufficient key change that will go well with the song. I have looked on the Internet for help but I am unsuccessful. If you could help me out with advice or anything else I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks.

    Reply
    • First thing I would do is read this article that I wrote a few months ago. It shows various key changes, with sample progressions to show how they’d work: “Creating Good Transitions from One Key to Another“.

      Then it really is just a matter of experimenting to decide which key change would work for you. I’d be happy to give your song a listen and see if I can help with your issue, so if you’d like some help, please send me an email to: gary [at] pantomimemusic [dot] com.

      Cheers!
      -Gary

      Reply
  3. Peter Wood Jenkins re P.J.Xanadu Music Publishing

     /  January 8, 2014

    Key changes in a song, I would just add that any key change is
    possible providing that the modulating chord has at least one note
    of the last chord of the Home Key re. (The key that the song starts with.)
    if you are lucky enough to have two notes in the first chord ,that would
    be better, and if the first or second chord of the new key happens to
    be The Tonic Chord it will sound a very smooth modulation.
    These modulations are known as Composer Modulations as opposed
    to half tone o r full tone modulations , that are generally
    Arranger Modulations. I.E. put in by someone other than the Composer
    during a recording session or a live performance

    Reply
  4. Reblogged this on I Write The Music.

    Reply
  5. Momanyi

     /  August 22, 2014

    Nice learning. I love this

    Reply
  6. I can’t figure out how to get back to the original key for the second verse when writing a particular song I’m working on. I started it in 2003 and still haven’t worked it out.

    Reply
    • There are a number of ways to do that, and they depend on what’s going on in the song. So in that regard I can’t be specific about how to solve your particular problem. I can say, however, that changing key smoothly is usually best done by having a “pivot” chord, which means that at the end of your chorus, and before you move back to your original key, find a chord that can work in both your chorus’s key and your original key. Sometimes that also means adding a few bars to the end of your chorus — an interlude that serves to change key back.

      Without knowing the specifics of your problem, that’s all I can suggest.

      -Gary

      Reply
  7. in a metal context soufly loves the two semitone (wholetone) key change thing.

    Reply
  8. Diana Lokey

     /  June 25, 2015

    The song verse is in dm and goes to g and the chorus goes from F, Eb, Bb, F then all goes back to dm. If I changed keys to Fm, it would go from Fm to Bb, but what would the chorus go to? Ab?

    Reply
    • Hi Diana:

      Given the chords you’ve indicated, it sounds like your verse is in D minor (or more accurately D dorian), with the chorus moving to F, with an altered chord Eb (flat-VII). So yes, moving your verse to F minor would mean your chorus chords would be Ab-Gb-Db-Ab.

      -Gary

      Reply
  9. Mike

     /  August 5, 2015

    what about on the bridge ? Isnt that is a VERY common one?

    Reply
    • Hi Mike:

      The idea with this blog post was to talk about the various key changes that can take place in a song, regardless of where they happen. Many of the suggested changes take place between verse and chorus, but could also apply to the bridge as well.

      Keep in mind that the “key change” that happens in a bridge is often a change of focus toward the minor chords of a major key, not specifically a key change. For example, if your song (verse and especially chorus) is in C major, you might find that your bridge starts on an A minor chord, but doesn’t necessarily modulate to that key. Rather, it simply focuses on minor for the first half of the bridge. So you might get chords like: Am Em F G Am Dm F G. As you can see all those chords come from C major, and it’s not necessarily a modulation to A minor. (I’m making a distinction between focusing on A minor as opposed to modulating to A minor.) Using E or E7 in your bridge would definitely constitute a key change.

      Hope that helps,
      -Gary

      Reply
  10. Perfect_Harmony24

     /  August 9, 2015

    Hi! I’m working on writing a song right now in what I believe is C Major (C Am F D is the progression) and I changed keys (G Major, G D C) for the bridge and now for the life of me I can’t figure out how to get it back for the final chorus! Whenever I go back to the chorus (Am C F) the F chord sounds funky. I’m still sort of a beginner on guitar and can’t play some of the stranger chords, but if you could help me that would be great! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Mike

       /  August 10, 2015

      The F chord will sound funky because its not in the key of G major. So how you get back to the key of C major is up to you as the artist. One way to solidify that you’re in C major (and a pretty smooth way in your case) is to play the V chord ( G7) before going back to C. There are other ways though. Gary would probably have a better explanation.

      Reply
      • Mike

         /  August 10, 2015

        D is not in C major though, so I are you sure you’re playing a D chord in your original progression ?

      • Yes, I agree with your idea, Mike. That G7 is going to make C major sound more secure, and the F along with it.
        -G

    • The first question I have is with regard to your C major progression… you mention a D chord. Is that D, or Dm? Dm would make more sense in a C major progression, but D is an interesting altered chord.

      Once you’re in the bridge, F chords are going to sound a bit odd only because it doesn’t belong to G major. So if that F chord still sounds odd when you get back to your chorus in C major, it means that you haven’t really switched keys back, at least not effectively. I’d recommend that the last 4 chords or so of your bridge do something convincing that gets you back to C major. Without seeing your exact progression, you’ll want to be fairly sure that the F chord gets used toward the end of your bridge. That will ensure that it’s OK for the chorus.

      So let’s say your bridge progression is something like you mentioned: G D C. For the final 4 chords, you want to move the tonal focus back to C major by doing something like: G Am Dm G7. (As I say, I don’t know your exact chords). Do you think something like that will work in your song?

      -Gary

      Reply
      • emilymcree

         /  August 12, 2015

        Sorry about that. The D chord is not in my original progression.

        Thanks for your feedback though, and everyone else’s too! I tried the G7 chord and it works great! Thanks! :)

  1. Chris Orr Ministries | Tips for Worship Bands – Song Keys
  2. songs in a minor - Search Yours
  3. Guitarists and Music Theory | Music is the word

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,505 other followers

%d bloggers like this: