A song can take you on a journey, and including a key change — or modulation — can produce various emotional effects, from brightening the mood to creating a sense of unease.
Changing keys can be a fantastic way to inject new life into your song. Of course, thanks to the proliferation of what’s sometimes called the “Truck Driver’s Gear Change,” this gambit is often seen as a gimmick or cliché. (The Truck Driver’s Gear Change, or TDGC, usually happens towards the end of a song when the key suddenly moves up a half- or whole-step.) But I’m here to show you how changing keys can be done well, especially if you subvert expectations by throwing in a key change for the chorus.
What does it mean to change keys?
In most musical traditions, songs (and ragas, symphonic movements, etc.) are usually centered around one note, which is referred to as the tonic, and its corresponding major or minor scale, which is the key. So, if a song is in C minor, that means the song will predominantly feature the notes C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, and Bb. That tonal center grounds the listener and they hear every note and chord in that piece of music in terms of how it relates to that key. So, if we’re in the key of G major and the listener encounters a D major chord, they will hear that chord as wanting to pull us back to G. If we were in another key, that same D major chord might give the listener a different expectation.
For the most part, listeners experience music as a sort of journey, where the music wanders away from the home key for a while but eventually returns. Starting on your tonic and ending there helps the music feel complete.
If, during the piece, you move the tonal center to a new note, you are creating a key change, also known as a modulation. Depending on the kind of modulation you perform, this can produce various emotional effects on the listener, like raising or lowering the energy level, brightening or darkening the mood, or creating a sense of unease.
There are many ways to change keys, from the abrupt to the subtle, and there are many kinds of key changes, from the close to the distant. We’re going to focus on a few examples, with the hopes that we’ll spark some ideas for your own songwriting.
Nothing grabs a listener quite like a chorus in a pop song. Such choruses contrast with the verses by delivering an increase in intensity. While it’s possible to create a breakout chorus without ever changing the chords — by altering the melody, vocal inflection, and arrangement (e.g. “Free Falling” by Tom Petty, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2, or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana) — many of the most powerful choruses involve building up harmonic tension in the verse and releasing that tension in the chorus often times in the form of a key change (e.g. “Starman” by David Bowie, “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson, “Help!” by the Beatles). And though most songs stay in roughly the same key throughout, it’s possible to changes keys to make your breakout chorus break out even further.
Changing relative keys
One classic way to effect a powerful key change is also one of the easiest to pull off, and that is to move from one key to its relative minor or major. In brief, relative keys are keys that share all of the same notes, like C major and A minor. Starting a song in a minor key and then going to its relative major is a classic songwriting strategy that produces an uplifting move.
A classic example of this is “Girl” by the Beatles. The melancholy verses are in Em and the slightly happier choruses are in the relative major of G.
In “Girl” the key change from minor to major is so seamless it almost goes unnoticed. Weezer does the same minor-to-relative-major trick in “Buddy Holly” (F#m to A major in this case), but River Cuomo wanted to make listeners more aware that we have arrived in a new key. To do this, he heightens the tension in the pre-chorus by having the chords move from D major to D minor (over the words “Woo-hoo, and that’s for all time”). This progression adds extra pull to A major, which makes that chorus pop even more.
Going from minor to relative major is very common, because the minor-to-major transition lends itself perfectly to an upbeat chorus. Relative minor modulations are often used for bridges, giving the listener a sad diversion before climbing back up to the relative major key for an upbeat chorus. But sometimes you want your chorus to be dark. One nice example of this is “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters. The sunny G major verses suddenly shift to something literally and figuratively shadier in the E minor choruses. It’s a subtle change but it definitely suggests that some R-rated shenanigans are going on.
“Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac proves that going from major to relative minor (F to Dm) can be just as explosive as going the other way.
Another easy and fantastic modulation to use is to move to a parallel major or minor key. Parallel keys have the same tonic, so the parallel minor of A major is A minor. This is even easier to pull off than the relative major/minor modulation because you can use the same dominant seventh chord to move between the two keys. A classic example of this is “Runaway” by Del Shannon. The chord progression in the verse goes Bbm-Ab-Gb-F7. He does this twice, only the second time, he hangs out on that F7 chord a little longer and then BAM! he simply goes up to Bb major. It’s an easy way to pull off an explosive refrain.
There are very few examples of going from a major key in the verse to its parallel minor key in the chorus, but once again the Beatles, who adored modulations of all sorts, show us the way. “The Fool on the Hill” takes us from D major in the verse to D minor.
(“The Fool on the Hill” also provides us with a nice example of how to use melancholy sixth chords.)
Step up, step down key changes
“Come on Eileen,” by Dexys Midnight Runners offers a unique twist on the Truck Driver’s Gear Change. Instead of simply employing it at the end of the song, Dexys use it for the chorus to pump up the energy.
The chorus is actually the second key change (the first happens in the intro, just 21 seconds in, where the key jumps from F major to C major), so we’re already somewhat off balance. This key change works in part because the last chord in the verse is a G, which is found in both keys (it’s the dominant V chord in our key of C and the subdominant IV chord in D). This kind of chord is called a common or pivot chord, and it leads to a smooth transition between two keys.
What I find interesting about this key change, however, is how it gets back down to C without being depressing. (After all, just as shifting up a whole step can feel invigorating, shifting down a step can dampen the mood.) To effect this change, the band simply hangs out on the last chord of the chorus, which is an A major, and then moves to C major (at 1:40). That move from A to C feels like an upward move, rather than what it actually is, which is downwards. After the second chorus, the song remains permanently in D.
If you were to Google songs with key changes, one song you run into over and over again is “Penny Lane,” by the Beatles. There’s a good reason for that, for it features a sweet key change for the chorus. However, where “Come on Eileen” moved up for the chorus, “Penny Lane” actually moves down a whole step, from B major to A major. Although this downward modulation should be depressing, Paul uses a couple of tricks to create the illusion that we’ve in fact moved up to a brighter key.
First he darkens the mood in the verse by modulating from B major to its parallel key of B minor (on the word “back” in “The little children laugh at him behind his back”). Then he chromatically works his way down to E major, which is the dominant V chord for our new key of A major, pulling us towards our sunny chorus.
David Bowie’s “Hang on to Yourself” offers an interesting example of a song that modulates up a half-step (from F#m to G) for the chorus. What’s fun is he broadcasts that he’s going to be playing in these two keys right off the bat by toggling between the two chords in the intro. In fact, until he slides down to F# for the verse, it’s unclear what key we’re going to be in. When he does get to the chorus, rather than go straight to our new tonic (G) he takes his time, going first to C and then D (the IV and V of G) before going back to our initial intro guitar riff.
So far we’ve covered relatively small modulations, moving to keys that are close to each other, either harmonically (relative keys) or spatially (parallel keys, or keys that are a half-step or whole-step away), but you can modulate to any key you want — though some key changes may be easier than others.
Modulating up or down a fourth or fifth, for example, may be a large spatial move, but because it’s not a huge harmonic shift, it won’t necessarily be perceived as being that enormous of a change. For example, the keys of C and G major are a fifth apart, but they share four chords (C, G, Em, Am), so not only is modulating between these two keys easy to affect, it won’t startle the listener. Similarly, C and F major, which are a fourth apart, share four chords (C, F, Dm, Am). A nice example of a downward fifth modulation is Green Day’s “Longview,” which moves from Eb in the verse to Bb in the chorus. The modulation is so smooth it doesn’t even sound like a modulation, but it is powerful.
Although modulating up a major third isn’t as spatially distant as moving up a fourth or fifth, it’s quite distant harmonically. For example, C major and E major are a major third apart: not only do they share no common chords, four of their seven notes are different. Modulating from one to the other can be hard to pull off elegantly, and if you decide to do it directly, can provide a rather jolting listener experience.
Case in Point: Liz Phair’s “What Makes You Happy,” which moves from Db in the verse up a major third to F in the chorus. While Paul McCartney went through a whole host of harmonic and emotive changes to effect his modulation, Phair is more of the “Fuck it, we’re going to F” school of songwriting. She simply moves from Gb, which is the IV chord of her home key, down a half step to F to start the chorus. As we saw in “Penny Lane” and in the return from the chorus to the verse in “Come on Eileen,” Phair creates the illusion that we’re moving in a different direction, though because the two keys are so harmonically different, it’s hard for our ear to register exactly what’s going on. The effect is so jarring you’d be forgiven if you didn’t think we accidentally skipped to another song, and it nicely mirrors the narrator’s perception of her mother’s constant, nagging, refrain. To get back home to Db, she once again just jumps right to it, producing an almost cut-and-paste effect.
If you want a tip on how to make these more distant modulations a little smoother than Liz Phair, I’ll leave you with this nice video from Duane Shinn, who does a nice job of explaining a concept that would be too complicated if I wrote it out here (going to the v of V of the new key). Skip to about 2:30 for the tip in question.
Final thoughts on key changes and modulation
At the end of the day, the songs that have the biggest impact tend to be the ones that cause the listener to have a strong emotional connection. One thing all of these chorus modulations have in common is they enhance the emotional impact the songwriter is going for. So if you have a song that is pleasant, but perhaps not emotionally compelling, consider one of the key changes outlined here for your chorus. You know, to drive home the feels.
Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, a hilarious history book for middle-grade kids, is now available on Audible. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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