How to Make a Downward Key Change Work

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3 Doors Down - Here Without YouRegarding the changing of key within the same song (called modulation), the songs that start in minor for the verses and switch to major for the chorus are the most common kind.

Here’s how that usually works: a song might start by using the following chord progression for the verse: Cm Bb  Cm  Ab, repeated over and over. When it gets to the chorus, you might then get something like this: Eb  Ab  Eb  Bb. Depending on how those chords are used, it’s likely (or at least possible) that the verses are in the key of C minor, switching to the key of Eb major for the chorus. That’s called switching from a minor key to its relative major.

The American rock band 3 Doors Down demonstrate this with their song “Here Without You.” The verse is in Bb minor, switching to the relative major key of Db major for the chorus.

But I want now to talk about changing key so that there isn’t that kind of very close relationship. In other words, modulations where the two keys aren’t so closely related, at least from a music theory point of view. A classic example is The Who’s “My Generation”, which starts in G major, moves up to A major, then again to Bb major.

Those keys (G major, A major, and Bb major) don’t have a lot to do with each other, at least on paper. The Who used those key changes for two main reasons:

  1. to mask the fact that the song consists of a very short musical idea, repeated incessantly; and
  2. to generate musical energy by moving the melody higher.

Speaking of that second point, most modulations you encounter in music will be upward ones, for that very reason: it tends to boost musical momentum. But that’s not to say that a downward modulation can’t work, but it comes with an inherent problem: if an upward modulation boosts energy, how can you get a downward one to work (assuming you want to keep building energy throughout your song)?

A great example is The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” the verse for which is in B major, while the chorus descends to A major. Why does it work so well? And even despite the descending key, you definitely get the feeling that the musical energy gets a bump upward in the chorus.

The reason it works so well is because of the design of the melody. The verse melody consists of short melodic ideas that are mainly downward, strung together. At the chorus, the first two short cells are upward moving ideas, giving us the highest notes of the song:


Verse-chorus melodic direction: Penny Lane

The chorus melody makes the new lower key work for the following reasons:

  1. The listener perceives a higher energy level that comes from the melody that starts in an upward direction.
  2. Higher vocal energy is created by placing the highest notes of the song at the start of the chorus.
  3. The chords that accompany the melody in the chorus provide a bass line that moves in the opposite direction (upward) to that of the verse (downward).
  4. The new key offers a “clean slate” — a new musical landscape.

Of all those, you’ll make a downward modulation work best if you have it happen at the same time as 1) the melody is moving upward, and 2) giving the audience the highest notes of the song.

Another example to look at is The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice“, which gives an intro in A major, and then immediately descends to F major for the first verse. That downward key change is startling, but works because the verse starts on such a high note.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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Adding a Semitone-Upward Key Change to Your Song

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The Doors - Hello, I Love YouChanging 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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…
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Creating Musical Excitement By Changing Key

Moving your song from one key to another between the verse and chorus is a great energy builder.


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Huey Lewis & The NewsHow do you entice a listener to keep listening? What do you do as a songwriter to ensure that someone who starts listening to your song sticks with it to the end? And more importantly, how to you keep bringing them back? It all happens by creating musical excitement. The kind of excitement we’re talking about here goes by other names as well: energy, momentum, forward motion, and so on. If your songs don’t have it, they’re doomed to be lacklustre and boring, and your potential audience will go looking elsewhere for their musical entertainment.

If you were to create a line drawing that describes the basic energy level of standard pop songs, you’ll find that the verse often starts at a low energy level, and gradually builds as it proceeds. There’s an immediate bump-up of energy at the start of the chorus, maintaining that new energy level until the start of the next verse, and so on.

Here’s a map of the energy levels of a typical top-40 song:

Energy map - line drawing

Not every song follows this pattern, of course — that kind of predictability would be a touch boring. But it’s typical of many songs. You’ll notice that intros are often more energetic than the verse, the chorus displays even more energy, and the highest levels are saved for the bridge and final choruses.

Musical energy is usually increased by any or all of the following:

  1. Accompaniments moving from implied chords to full chords. An implied chord simply means that the background instrumentation is sparse, sometimes only a melody line with a bass line.
  2. Overall dynamic level becoming louder. This one is obvious: choruses should be louder than verses.
  3. Use vocal harmonies sparingly in the verse, and more in the chorus. Vocal harmonies build vocal energy.
  4. Move instruments higher in the chorus. Most instruments, when played higher in pitch, generate higher levels of energy.

There’s one other way to generate momentum and forward motion that’s not done as often, but can be very effective: change key for the chorus.

Many songwriters already do something similar to this, which is to use mainly minor chords for the verse, and switch to mainly major ones for the chorus:

Verse: Am  Em  F  C  Dm  Em  Am  G ||Chorus: C  F  Dm  G  F  C  Dm  G…

But what I want to describe here is the actual changing of key centre, so that the verse and chorus are in entirely different and unrelated keys. This works particularly well if the verse and chorus use the same (or similar) melody and chord progression.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Compose a melody and chord progression.
  2. Move it to a new key. Keep in mind that your melody needs to be singable in the new key – not too high or too low.
  3. Find a “connector chord” to use at the end of your melody – a chord that helps the listener make sense of the key change.

At the end of step 3, you’ll have a melody that is in one key for the verse, connects smoothly to a new key, and then repeats itself for the chorus.

There’s no rule, of course, that your verse and chorus need to be the same melody. The advantage to changing key, particularly when the key moves higher, is that it is one more way to generate energy.

A great example of this under-used energy-builder is “Stuck With You“, written by Chris Hayes and Huey Lewis. The verse progression is an old standard rock & roll progression: C  Am  F  Dm  G. The pre-chorus moves toward the minor: Am  C  F  G  A7. That A7 chord is the connector, the modulating chord that moves the music to a new key for the chorus: D  Bm  G  Em  A.

Both the verse and chorus use a very similar melody, so changing key not only adds energy, it adds a sense of freshness and newness to a tune that the listener has heard several times up to this point.

Changing key, if done the right way, and with a great connector chord, is something that most listeners won’t be aware of. They’ll simply notice the result: a boost of musical excitement. Give it a try.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Creating a Powerful Chorus With a Key Change

Sometimes the best key changes are the startling ones, the ones that make you blink and shake your head.

The Morning Benders - POP ETCSomeone wrote me a while back to ask what was going on harmonically in the song “Your Dark Side” by The Morning Benders (now known as POP ETC), specifically between the verse and the chorus. It’s a startling harmonic effect, and he wanted to know if it was due to a key change, or perhaps an altered chord or melodic effect. In a sense it was all three, but it’s worth some study. It’s a simple key change to a closely-related key, but done in a way that intentionally drives a musical wedge between the verse and chorus.

The verse is in F major, and the chorus is in Bb major. Normally, it’s quite easy to move seamlessly between those keys. For example, you can do something like:

F  Bb  Gm  C  F  |Bb  Eb  Bb  Cm  F7  Bb  C7  | F… etc.


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The F7 makes the move to the key of Bb major easy. Moving from one tonic (F) to a new tonic (Bb)  is smooth because both those chords exist in each other’s key. But what The Morning Benders do in “Your Dark Side” is pause on the ii-chord (Gm), and then leap to an Eb chord, which doesn’t exist naturally in the key of F major.

So what could otherwise be a smooth transition from one closely-related key to another becomes a more startling leap, and it’s a great effect. It works so well with the lyric. If you were looking to accentuate the difference between the mood that comes from, “so I fade into your arms/ into the place where I have what I want,” to the starkly different and immediate switch to, “I shoulda known/ I shoulda been on the defense all along/ now I see your dark side…”, a key change that sounds like an altered chord (i.e., an abrupt modulation) is going to work really well.

If you want to give abrupt modulations a try, here are some examples to play around with. Each one is in two parts, where the first part acts as a verse progression, and the second one works as a chorus. The end of each chorus progression gives you a way back to the verse.

These can of course be played with any performance style and/or tempo, and you can optionally repeat verse and/or chorus progressions and they’ll still work:

  1. From F major to G major: F  Dm  Am  C  F  Dm  Am  C  |D  Em  C  D7  Em  C  G  D  Bb  C [LISTEN] (Opens in a new browser window)
  2. From F major to Bb major: F  Gm  Bb  C  F  Gm  Bb  C  |Cm7  F  Bb  Cm  Eb  F  Bb  C [LISTEN]
  3. From F major to C major: F  C  Dm  Gm  Bb  C  Dm  Bb  |G  C  F  G  C  F  Dm  C [LISTEN]

The progressions don’t really deal with the issue of melody, which usually needs to be higher in the chorus, especially if you want to create that startling effect between verse and chorus. The modulations are all to closely-related keys, but the surprise to the listener is that the first chord of the new key (i.e., the first chord of the chorus) is considered an altered chord in the original verse key.

The startling effect can be further enhanced by changing performance style in the chorus and also by simply playing louder. There’s lots to experiment with here.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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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.

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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.
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Downward Key Changes Might “Brighten” a Song – Here’s How

If you’re looking for ways to brighten the feel of a song, moving the key downward might (paradoxically) work. Read on..


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Electric Bass GuitarI’ve written about the matter of changing key within a song before, and most of the time I talk about ways to raise the key. That’s because lowering a key in the midst of a song can be tricky, for the reason that downward-moving keys can sap song energy. But there are times when changing key downward can act like a breath of fresh air. It really depends on the chord progression you use.

I’ve mentioned the song “Soon We’ll Be Found“, by Sia, and posted a YouTube video describing melodic design, where the key moves (modulates) upward from C minor to Eb major. The brightening that results comes from not just the upward movement of the key, but also from the change of modes – from minor to major.

Paradoxically, you can achieve this same brightening affect by moving the key downward, particularly if the last chord of the old key is lower than the first chord of the new one.

Let’s say that you’ve created a verse that uses the following chord progression: C F Dm G C…

It’s fine – it works well. But two play-throughs of that progression leaves you wondering what to do next. It doesn’t feel like it’s time for the chorus yet, so you need something more. One consideration is to switch to a new key and try the progression again.

In the case of the upward-moving progression, you might consider jumping immediately to the key of Eb major – a minor 3rd higher than the original key of C major. That certainly gives us a brightening:

C  F  Dm  G  (repeat, then..)  Eb  Ab  Fm  Bb…

But now consider something else: moving down a minor 3rd, to the key of A major:

C  F  Dm  G  (repeat, then)  A  D  Bm  E…

What happens here is that the last chord of the old key is G. The first chord of the new key is A. So the audience hears a G followed by an A. And even though the new key is lower, the actual change happens right at the spot where we hear two adjacent chords where the second chord is higher.

That results in a brightening, an increase in song energy. And it works quite well.

So if you’re looking for ways to change key within your song, you’re probably going to opt for rising keys. But there’s a whole world of possibilities that exist, as long as you closely examine the actual moment of modulation, the spot where the key change actually occurs. If where the two keys are joined result in two chords, the second of which has a root that’s higher, you’ve got a great possibility of pleasantly rising energy.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Changing Key, and Then Changing Back

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Piano Keyboard - Chord SubstitutionsChanging key in the middle of a song is one way you can boost musical energy. More often than not, you’ll move the key higher, since downward-moving key changes are tricky to do as they tend to sap momentum. There are lots of options available when deciding where in a song to change key. But most of the time, it’s during the second half of the song that you’ll find works the best. A key change during the bridge or instrumental solo (Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”), or as a setup of the final chorus repeats (Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”) works really well.

Another great idea is to consider doing the verse in one key and the chorus in another. Doing so, however, presents you with a problem to solve: how do you move up to a new key for the chorus, and then move back to the original key for the verse?

I’ve created a chord progression (see below) that does just that. (Click the image for a larger view)

Click here to listen to the progression. (Opens in a new window)

There are several methods of changing key: common chord, common tone, etc. In this case, I’ve used what’s best described as an abrupt modulation, by using the Eb chord as a bVII of the original key of F major. That Eb gets reinterpreted as a bVI in the new chorus key of G major. Using the suspension (Dsus4) helps to smooth the transition to the new key.

To return to F major I used a Gm chord with a Bb in the bass. The Bb gets the bass back into F major, and following it with a C chord gives me the dominant chord of F major.

As you can probably tell, there’s a bit of an energy drop when you return to F major, which comes from the key moving downward. But that’s usually fine if you’re preparing for a verse, since verses tend to be less energetic than choruses.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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Changing Key Using A Common-Tone Modulation

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ModulationsChanging key (called modulation) in the middle of a song actually doesn’t happen very often in pop music genres, but there are several reasons why you might choose to do it. Usually keys change in an upward direction; modulating downward is tricky because it tends to sap song energy. Some types of modulation risk sounding trite because of their overuse in past eras: the half-step-upward modulation, for example. Nonetheless, key change is a great tool for generating a sense freshness and energy.

A common-tone modulation occurs when a note in the last chord of the “old key” also exists in the first chord of the “new key.” That common tone acts as a kind of glue that helps the ear make sense of the change.

Here are some examples of common-tone modulations. The modulation occurs between the two chords in bold:

  1. From A major to F major: A  D E  C ||F  Bb  C  F (The note ‘E’ from the E chord is the common tone between E and C)
  2. From A major to C# major: A  D  E  G#7 ||C#  F#  G#  C# (The note G# from the E chord is the common tone between E and G#7)
  3. From A major to G major: A  Bm  C#m  D7  ||G C  D  G (The note D from the D7 chord is the common tone between D7 and G)

Those are just three examples to show you how it works. As mentioned, the benefit of the common tone is that it helps to glue the old key to the new one.

Here are some bits of advice for common-tone modulations:

  1. Keeping the common tone in the melody line improves the smoothness of the modulation.
  2. Try one key for your verse, and a new key for your chorus if you need to give your song a shot of energy. Moving back to the verse key should be a simple matter of doing the modulation in reverse. (Example: Verse: C  Am  F  Dm  G  || Chorus: Eb  Ab  Fm  Bb  Cm  Ab  Bb  G  || [back to verse]
  3. Consider modulation as a solution for singing a duet, where the two voices can’t sing the song in the same key.
  4. As mentioned, be careful with downward-moving modulations. They can sap energy. At the same time, if your song is more complex than a standard garden-variety pop song, you may enjoy the uniqueness of non-standard modulations.
  5. Modulations can come across as trite and corny if they’re done too often, in too many songs. If you use a modulation as a way of injecting something interesting in a song, be careful that you don’t do it again for a while.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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