While many songs stay in the same key there are also examples of tunes that change, and sometimes more than once.
This is done to give the song a new vibe or feeling, often to provide an uplifting movement.
If you are writing a song of your own these techniques may be useful in creating a better listening experience, here are the most common key changes in modern songs.
Key Change Pointers
Keep in mind that when you modulate a key within a song it is important to look at the whole picture.
If you are moving from a major-to-major key, it will change things, but not that much.
However if we switch from a major to minor or the opposite it will really make a difference.
Sometimes key changes can be obvious, other times a little more subtle where the listener may not even realize!
As always with music theory a Circle of Fifths chart along with a piano keyboard will help you visualize these changes better.
Of course you will still need to learn the guitar chords, but it can be harder to see interval changes on the fretboard.
If we are discussing a key change that moves down a minor third, it is a lot easier to see that on a piano and will aid our understanding of the process.
Another point to remember is that not all the examples you find will be exact key changes.
Music theory has various paths to take and sometimes you find what appears to be a key change may be a cadence or some other movement that doesn't fully involve new notes.
Don't worry about technicalities though at first, just get used to hearing changes!
If you look at your Circle of Fifths you will see the relative minor for each major chord, for C major the relative minor is Am.
These simple changes fit well and make a slight change but nothing too drastic.
- Mr. Jones - The Counting Crows start on the relative minor (Am) and then they switch to the C during the chorus.
- Crazy Train - Black Sabbath also starts on the relative minor here and then moves to the major.
- Into the Great Wide Open - Tom Petty does the similar hard/pop rock trick of starting on the minor and moves to a major.
- Stop in the Name of Love - The Supremes start with the major and move to the relative minor in the chorus.
- On e - This U2 song starts in Am and moves back to C for the chorus, this is a super common change.
This is where we just change the major or minor part such as C major to C minor, this is using different notes than the original key so the change will be more noticeable.
- A Day in the Life - It is common for songs to use a relative and then change it to major, in this Beatles song it starts as G and then at Paul's part he uses E. Of course this is an example of a song that is really pieces of other tunes put together. So while there is a change, it is also a totally different part.
- Wet Sand - Red Hot Chili Peppers mostly use a relative minor here, but at the end they use the parallel major so it goes from G-Em and finally E major.
- Funkytown - Classic funk often uses the major to minor parallel key change.
- You Don't Have to Say You Love Me - Dusty Springfield starts on the minor and then moves to the major for this song.
Three semitones make a minor third interval and it is another common key change, sometimes writers use a major third which will be four semitones (it can get confusing when counting intervals and chord degrees, so keep that in mind!).
- Yellow Brick Road - The song starts in F but the ending chorus moves up to an Ab as they sing the “ah ah” part.
- Needles and Pins - This 60's pop hit uses a major third lift from the bridge onward.
- Livin' on a Prayer - Bon Jovi uses a minor third key change from the verse to the chorus.
- Summer of 69 - Bryan Adams moves up a third at the bridge of this song.
A subdominant key change will move from the root to the fourth (6 semitone steps).
- We Are the Champions - Queen starts in Cm and moves to F for the chorus, not only a fourth movement but also a change from a sad minor to a powerful major.
- Bold As Love - Hendrix moves up a fourth at the end solo to give it a more rocking vibe.
- Grateful Dead - Like Jimi they also use a fourth movement near the end.
- Pretty Woman - Roy Orbison moves up a fourth and then changes it to a minor for the bridge on this song.
The dominant chord is the 5th and can easily be found by looking at the Circle of Fifths.
For C major the dominant would be G major. Sometimes we use the Secondary dominant which would be the 5th of G.
- Feel Like Making Love - Bad Company uses a root to its fifth, it doesn't change anything too much in the song but it still provides some more tension in the chorus.
- Iron Man - Black Sabbath also uses both the root and fifth back and forth in this song, once again giving it a little more tension.
- And She Was - The Talking Heads move to the dominant at the bridge; however they change it to minor for a slightly dreadful feeling (as the song subject has taken LSD and has no clue what is to come!).
- Save Me - Queen likes to use this dominant change and here they switch to it when the chorus hits.
Sometimes songs only move 1 semitone, which is only one fret or key.
Usually they move upward in this manner, but not always.
- Man in the Mirror - About halfway through there is an epic moment where the chorus builds and they move from G to Ab and it gives the tune a lift. It literally changes at the lyric “change.”
- My Heart Will Go On - Celine Dion is in E until the climax where she moves up one step, but we change from major to minor with E to Fm.
- Julia - John Lennon moves down a semitone when he gets to the bridge, which makes sense as he isn't going for a lifting vibe, just a slightly different feeling.
One Whole Step
This may take the record as having the most key changes, it is normal for a pop song to move up two semitones or one whole step at the last verse.
It provides the regular lift we are all so used to before a song ends.
- My Girl - The Temptations are in the key of C until after the instrumental where they move up to D major.
- Perfect Illusion - Lady Gaga moves from the Em to an F#, so our root is a step change, but also a switch from minor to major giving it a unique feeling.
- The Show Must Go On - Queen uses a simple whole tone movement in the second verse.
- I Will Always Love You - Another example of using a whole step at the end to provide an uplifting feeling.
- Scenes from an Italian Restaurant - Billy Joel sings multiple parts in this long song and he uses a whole step movement to prime the listener for each part.
- Master of Puppets - Metallica moves up a whole step every time they say “Master,” a great example of key changes that don't last long
Multiple Key Changes
These are songs that use more than one of the examples above.
- Most Jazz - There are so many jazz songs that make multiple key changes, sometimes they move around the Circle of Fifths, however it may be easier for beginners to
stick to easier pop
As you can see there are many common ways to make key changes that are repeated over and over.
There are also other forms of modulation to change to similar keys or even chromatic notes that are different.
The best way to learn these methods is to listen and copy other songs, noting where they make changes.
If you follow some basic rules and use your ears, eventually the concept of key changes will be a much more familiar process.
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