Hi! My name is Malcolm, and in this lesson I want to show you some nice tricks that may help you understand the concept of using key changes within a song. The subject was touched in some articles on the site before, but the explanations in them may be found confusing, or the examples may have been hard to understand, or I just didn’t like the way they were written or whatsoever.
So, ultimately, I decided to make a clear lesson about most commonly used ways of changing keys. It may help you to write your own songs, but I think that it will be more helpful in understanding the songs that you learn or ones that you have already written (we’ll get to this in a minute, I promise. If I get some positive feedback, maybe I will write some other lessons, including “the general theory of songwriting” or something like that).
For your convenience, the article was divided, and each part contains one method of making chord changes. The order is intentional – the first technique may be considered not much universal, but it lets you understand the general concept quite easily. This one is supported with a lot of theory, and should be considered the most sophisticated one, then the sophistication descends - the last one is crude, but also efficient.
Oh. Don’t expect to see a lot of tabs (I’m really lazy, you know...). I think that most of examples will only be chords, some of them may contain a recording with a quick explanation of what’s going on (your ears shall do the rest), and some of them will be songs that I find appropriate, maybe with a few ideas that should make them more sophisticated and shaped.
That was the last thing about the technical side of the article. So, before we get to the point, let’s answer a question:
The first part of the actual article will be somewhat special – it’s a part of “the general theory...” from the paragraph above – it applies to all of the improvising and songwriting articles and tips that you will ever hear or have already heard. In this part I will ask you “why do you want to learn the theory that lies beneath the subject (in this particular article – changing keys)?”
When you ask yourself this question for the first time, it may seem simple, but soon you’ll understand why is it so important.
I bet that the first answer that came to your mind was – “because I want to include it in my playing/writing”, but when you think about it, the question runs deeper.
Why would you want to use it? There is a lot of awesome songwriters, who never change their keys, and, in fact, there’s a plenty of great songs that never change a chord! (Check out George Thorogood’s “Bad To The Bone”)
Next “quick ‘n’easy” answer – “because that will make my songs more interesting”.
OK. And that gets us to two points that should make you think about your approach to that kind of lessons for a while.
First – you say, that you read this lesson because you want to include key changes in your songs - you assume that it’s impossible without theorethical knowlege. Wrong! One of examples used in this article was written when I had absolutely no idea about any of the things included in the “main” part. If after reading the lesson you’re gonna go and say “Ok, so I’ll write a song in E minor with a chorus in A minor, and solo divided into parts in E major, F major and F# minor, then going back into A minor chorus. Oh, and the last one should be in B minor, because...” – that is a particularly bad way of writing songs. I can’t claim that noone has ever written a good song that way, but I tried - it’s hard and not very effective, trust me.
Then some of you may start wondering why I wrote that. “Did he just imply that nobody should read this article?”. No, no, that’s not the point. The point is that I feel that I should write about it, so all of you can benefit fully from the lesson. The best way of learning to change keys within a song is listening to a lot of music containing multiple key changes. Then your ‘subconscious’ learns to use it and the song ‘writes itself’, the changes are already there – there was no conscious learning in the process.
Second – why understanding this theory should make your songs more interesting? It even may be the opposite – the things that you will learn here may be assumed by either your conscious or subconscious mind as the only way of making the key changes – and that will keep your own creativity at bay for a long, long time, that should be used for exploring new ways of doing this. And remember – the theory that I show you here was created by someone before. It means that we have heard it already. It means that we will hear it many more times. It means, that there’s nothing particularly interesting in it, because you’re playing by the rules made by someone else. You should aim for playing by no rules other than those that you set for yourself. And occasionally break these too ;).
So what should you do? Just remember the three major levels of learning music theory:
1. Understand it,
2. Learn to use it,
And the last one:
3. Learn to screw it.
It will save you a lot of trouble while getting used to more advanced genres – progressive, jazzy, fusion, avant-garde ones, or the likes of them.
So – why should you read this lesson? To understand what you’re writing and playing. To occasionally use it, when you really need to do something with a song and you had absolutely no idea for a long, long time. Also, you should remember that the best way to attract the listener is to use things that he knows. And because of this – get to know your listener and try to find out things that he understands. The methods below are fairly common and should work with nearly everyone on the second side of the audio system.
OK. Now I feel fair with myself. Let’s get to the point!
DISCLAIMER: Nearly each of this methods on the ‘theoretical’ side will have something to do with modality, but in fact you don’t have to understand it before reading. I will try to keep my wording simple and understandable for people without deep knowlege of modes.
Because theory needs to be explained in a detailed way, and practic speaks for itself, for each technique I gave only a few words of introduction, and details are commentary for the examples.
And, finally – sorry, I’m really into minor music, so 90% of the examples will be minor. The concepts, although, are quite universal, and transfering them to major pieces should be problemless.
Ist - General Method, used on chords
Let’s see, how to utilize the common progressions that your listener knows, and can feel where they should end – and the fact that these progressions are in 99% major or minor, while you can go outside these simple labels.
Let the examples speak:
Let’s take a great song done by a heavy metal band named Gamma Ray:
Gamma Ray - Send me a sign (unplugged)
When we look at the progression in the verse, it looks like this (grab a guitar and play along):
4/4 |Am |C |G |Am |
|Am |C |G |
!Bm |D |A |Bm...
In a place ticked with an exclam the key changes, and the tension of the song goes up a level. It’s a nice way to do this, but check out what happens when in the bar just before change (on the last quarter, I suggest) you put a major A (or maybe a D). There’s no recording, so try this yourself:
4/4 |Am |C |G |Am |
|Am |C |G A |
!Bm |D |A |Bm...
The tension is still rising, but is it just me, or did the Bm sound more in place? That’s because two ascending major chords are IV and V of a major progression or VI and VII of a minor one, and especially the second is commonly known and recognized in country, hard-rock and metal music. The performer cheated, and got you ready for the change. Then, when you were confused, he played a D and an A to stabilize the new key. Now it is clearly and totally Bm.
Using a D before the change is also a working option (because it’s characteristic to Bm, not Am). A funny way is to take it up to 11 – and instead of only a D or an A, play them both - |G DA|. Effect is a bit stronger this time.
In the same place you can play D and E, and then go to the F#m key (again, two ascending major chords and then new key - don’t forget to stabilize it), or C and D, going to Em. Both these changes work, because a D or C after a G is nothing particularly special (you can even get back to Am after playing D, it just becomes a bit dorian for a while), and then things go too fast for anyone to protest. The D or C chord somewhat “links” the two appearing keys – before and after the change.
So - to say it clearly – if we want to change the key in the song utilising this method, our goal is to find a few chords that sound not alien in the first one, but actually lead the listener to the second, new key.
And don’t forget: “VI VII i” is your best friend in heavy metal.
OK, this time we’ll spend a while over a well-known southern progression, basically characteristic to “Sweet Home Alabama”. It gives us a great opportunity for key changes. Why? It’s not tonal, neither major or minor – it’s mixolydian - modal. What does it mean for us? We don’t need to use the chords alien to the progression to link it with another one.
Let’s take a look – it’s the way I usually play it:
If you look closely at the chords, it’s fairly easy to see, that they are a part of a G major or E minor key. It means, that if we do this right way, we can turn it into E minor without any problem (and without changing any of the chords or tones)
4/4 |D |C G |D |C G |
!Em |C D |Em |C D |
|Em |G |CAm |B7 |
And here’s a recording of me playing this one.
The change of mood is nice, isn’t it? Bars 9-12 are used to stabilize the tonal centre as E minor (there’s still a possiblity of returning to D mixolydian after the second line. It will sound a bit out-of-place, but it’s not a shock).
And that isn’t the end of fun. You can use the fact that the D C G progression is fairly recognized, and – in spite of it not being tonal, but modal – get back there from E minor. So, suppose another progression that looks just like this:
4/4 |Em |CAm |Em |CAm |
|Em |D |C G |D |C G |
!D C |G |D C |G |
In the second line we started to get people ready for this, but there is still a possibility of return. In the third one the change occured, and – thanks to the build-up - it wasn’t any suprise. It’s just a nice way to change the mood of the song.
Now, we’ll spend a while with a classic band, mostly remembered by Deep Purple and Ritchie Blackmore fans – a band that he formed with Ronnie James Dio when he left Purple MkIII (not so long after recording Stormbringer) – Rainbow. The example comes from the best known song off their third studio album - “Long Live Rock’n’Roll”.
Rainbow - Kill the King
Through most of the song we are in the key of Gm, but around m:ss, in the beginning of the solo, we can see something like that:
4/4 |Gm |% |F |% |C |% |
!Am |% |F |F G |Am...
It’s way similiar to the first example. The moment of build-up just before the change relies on the C-chord, that in the first while gives a dorian flavor to the Gm key, but in fact it leads the poor audience to the Am (that feels just better in this context). And again – stabilization is mandatory. F and G chords do it right.
Simple, isn’t it? And the interesting thing is that in this song exactly the same I VII IV is used after the solo, to take song another whole-step up – to Bm, in which it ends.
And, finally - I promised an example of a change that I wrote without knowledge of the rules that I specified in this part of lesson. Here it comes!
Although it’s a riff, it’s fairly simple, so I’ll not provide you a tab (laziness...) – a quick glance at the chords should clarify a bit:
4/4 |Em |EmA |Em |DAG |
|Em |EmA |Em |DAG |
!Bm |A D |Bm...
While looking at the chords, you should be able to analyze this one on your own – checking what part of the topic you understood. A few questions from me – to help you a bit:
Is the key tonal (major or minor) or modal?
Which chord gives a modal character to the key?
Did the chords and tones change with the key?
What would you do to stabilize the new key?
What would you do to get back to E minor?
Can you use some other chords to make the riff land in a place other than Bm?
Now we passed the most complicated thing in the lesson. That was the part you needed to realize to fully understand next concepts in a proper way – they make listeners find themselves in the new key because they are used to sequences of chords resolving in a particular way. And next ideas will be some simplified applications of this first, general one.
II – Relative Keys
Ok, it’s a commonly used technique, and is just a simple way of utilising the first, general, method. It’s a lot like the second, “southern” example. It uses the fact, that each major key has a related minor key (C-Am; D-Bm; G-Em, etc.) with the same notes used in it. I think that nearly everybody knows and understands it, so I don’t need to elaborate.
Then, we can find out, that these minor and minor keys “weigh” roughly the same. It depends on the particular listener, but both were heard by everyone a zilion times before, and therefore we can change the focus of the audience between these two.
Examples – each of them is simple and typical just like the concept, and examples given in the 1st method should have exercised your mind – then, if you think that you need to hear and understand the examples of this happening, then listen and analyze ‘em by yourself:
1. Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train
2. Dzem – Naiwne Pytania
3. Night Ranger – Color Of Your Smile
III – Power Chords
Now you’re gonna see some great possibilities that emerge from the knowlege that we gained in the first and second block and the fact, that powerchords (you know, those consisting only of prime and fifth. Metalheads play them all the time. Oh, and I use them a lot too) are genderless, neither major or minor, and the character of the progression is given by other chords and notes of the melody. So, let’s take a look at some examples:
Again, an example from the depths of my audio collection. And again it’s metal. I’m awfully sorry!
I’m aware that a lot of people hate Iron Maiden, perhaps the most known Heavy Metal band in the world. I also admit, that I’m not their fanatic, and the band in it’s really long history had it’s ups and downs. But, we’re a bunch of open-minded guitarist that love to learn, and the song is a great example of the thing I would like to demonstrate you:
Iron Maiden – Purgatory
Let’s take a look at the end of the verse (let’s say, begining with the last line sung by Paul – “through the darkness I’l be led...”) and the change that happens before the pre-chorus (all chords are power chords. The 5’s were messin’ my bars):
4/4 |:B |F#ED :|x4
!D |% |A# |C |D...
As we can see, we had the estabilished Bm key, and then it changed to Dm(?!) – the A#5 chord and vocal melody hint it’s minor character.
First question – why did the change occur? Answer is simple – it was a cause of relative keys – Bm and D. Nothing special. We should expect some cute ii’s, V’s and vi’s to happen next. But the main goal of the composer was to make us relate everything with the D pitch. Because D5 is neither major or minor, he wasn’t obligated to follow it with chords that would grant it major character – and he used this opportunity.
So – there was a Bm, then our attention was switched to D due to their relativity, and then D was made minor through the melody and chords happening after it. The effect is unique and – in my opinion – terrific.
Similar change can be experienced in another, this time more famous IM’s piece – Aces High. Take a quick look at it by yourself. You won’t regret it.
Next great thing that you may find out about using power chords while changing your keys – not only you can estabilish a centre as if it was major, and then turn it into a minor one, but you can do it the other way around – have a centre that is certainly minor, and a second before the change use it just like a major one.
Let’s look at the another piece i wrote (also before understanding things I now try to explain), and the way it’s verse changes into pre-chorus:
4/4 |A |C |G |D |
|A |C |G |A |A B |
!C# |B |E |B |C#...
Now few words of commentary – we have an estabilished A minor key, and we play eight powerchord bars of typical rock progression. The ninth bar is the place where all the magic happens. Now we play the A and B chord, then jumping into C#, which is estabilished as the root of our new key. Why? Remember the very first example, where i’ve shown you the VI VII I magic? It was used in this one.
You may ask: ‘Why does it work? You told me that the chords need to be major!’ But in this heavy metal compositions that utilize a lot of powerchords, 90% sets of two ascending chords are VI and VII resolving into the minor root. Therefore, by using the change, we made people treat this A just like a major one. As I said at the beginning – strive to know and understand your listener, it will pay back.
Ok, that was simple, now let’s try to do with this exactly build-up one more fun thing: It is said that the estabilished root is minor. But in the previous example I’ve shown that it’s quite easy to screw this requirement:
4/4 |A |C |G |D |
|A |C |G |A |A B |
!C# |A# |G# |F# A# G# |C#...
Suprising? I bet. But it fits the piece enough.
It was the last example about powerchords. It’s quite simple, and if you need to analyze and practice more – let the Iron Savior guide you. Their songs contain a lot of key changes that – I hope – will interest you and teach a bit.
IV – Things That Should Always Work In Spite Of The The Piece That They Have To Fit (for the convenience of your memory abbreviated TTSAWISOTPTTHTF)
We spent a lot of time trying to understand the beautiful, finese and theorethical aspect of changing our keys. I hope that it was easy and simple to understand, due to my wording and way of explanation. We studied a bunch of ways that you can use to change your key in a clever and finese manner. We are leaving this region right now. I’m going to teach you a few tricks, that – despite their crudity – are simple, versatile, easy to remember, and you can use them with your eyes closed and one hand off the fretboard. They are so simple, that my commentary will be two sentences long in the extreme, and examples sometimes will be limited to some particular pieces where you can find it.
1st – up a whole-step!
Ok, we’ve seen it a zillion times. It works with 99% of the pieces you’re going to play. You resolve the riff, and then start another one, a tone higher – the tension of the song goes up a level. Piece of cake. Very common piece of cake.
Gamma Ray – Send Me A Sign (end of the verse -before i modified it)
Judas Priest – Breakin’ The Law (when the solo begins)
Judas Priest – Devil’s Child (solo, 2 times)
Helloween – I Want Out (at the ending)
There is also a nice way to pull it off utilising the fact that dominant chords are usually builded on the V degree of the scale. You need only to substitute the last chord in the progression with the next key dominant. It works best with major keys, but you can also use it on minor ones. Let’s take two well-known examples, maybe “Have You Ever Seen the Rain“ and “House of the Rising Sun”
Have You Ever Seen the Rain (end of the chorus, then a bit of verse in the new key)
4/4 |F |G |C |A7 |
!D |% |% |% |
|A |% |D |%...
House of the Rising Sun (only the last two lines, then a bit of new key)
2nd – up a half-step
6/8 |Am |C |D |F |
|Am |E |Am |F#7 |
!Bm |D |E |G...
This one has a nice, bluesy feel. I have no idea how it works, but it does. If you never heard this one before, I’ll redirect you to some songs, where it’s used:
Blues Brothers – Rawhide
Aretha Franklin – Think
Blues Traveler – Maybe I’m Wrong
Alice Cooper – Under My Wheels
3rd –one-and-a-half-step down
My personal favourite. It works especially in minor keys (because the previous key falls as a minor third of the new one – therefore the audience just feel that it should be minor), and I can’t recall any piece that it was used in – check out how it works by yourself ^^
4th – one and a half step up
Sometimes used in power metal. Kinda rare, but exists and you can use it if you want. Somehow close to relative powerchord keys.
Stratovarius – Will My Soul Ever Rest In Peace
Amorphis – Day of Your Beliefs
Gamma Ray – Beyond the Black Hole
V – “The Random”
Sometimes it feels nice to change the key of the piece in a drastic and totally random way. It’s the best way to ‘let your creativity flow’ and find something unique, maybe a bit shocking, but definitely ‘yours’. It also is the thing that you should aim to learn to do. A few years ago, when I played with my brother in the band, we wrote //a lot of awesome songs. It’s great to have a good fellow in songwriting ^^ // an enormous, ten-minute-long power ballad, which ended with a neoclassical, harmonic lick played over powerchord background, which, I believe, was something like this:
Then the song went a fourth up, then a next fourth up, then a half step down, then a whole step up, and then, suddenly it ended. Although it sounds just like it’s called – random – it’s awesome.
And I wish you all to possess an ability of composing that way.
I would like to thank Tom Colohue for writing articles that shown me how modality affects the key of the piece, and how to use it for your advantage. Also – thanks to my uncle for showing me the simple way of using dominant chords to change the key. And to my brother for correcting mistakes in my language and thinking – and for being a first and general guinea pig. And thanks to you all for reading. Hope this lesson will be found useful.