How To Change Key Successfully In Your Music

This article discusses a couple of methods for changing key in your music and various aspects you should consider.

How To Change Key Successfully In Your Music
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Creating more energy or excitement in your music is important for making your songs more interesting to listen to. You can add more complex drum patterns, add more instruments or introduce more counter melodies.

Another method is to change key (modulate) and there are a couple of ways to achieve this.

Shift upwards by a half-step/whole-step

This is by far the most common method and can be effective if used correctly. The problem with this approach is that has become a bit of a clich, especially in pop ballads so use it wisely. At times the listener almost expects it to occur, especially if there is a long pause in the music!

Here is an example

Chord sequence = C Am F G

Up a half-step = Db Bbm Gb Ab

Up a whole-step = D Bm G A

There are really 2 ways of using this type of modulation. You can either...

- Suddenly go into the new key this can surprise the listener.

- Use a dominant 7th chord of the new key just before the modulation e.g. Ab7 for Db, or A7 for D this can also surprise the listener but it sets up the new key a little smoother.

Use a pivot chord

This method comes from classical music but it is also used in popular music.

A pivot chord is a chord common to both keys. It helps to smooth out the modulation between 2 keys.

Example

Chord Sequence = C G - Am D7 G

Am = Pivot chord (common to C major and G major)

D7 = Dominant of G

Other points to consider...

1) Modulate towards the end of the song save it for the climax.

2) Try changing from minor to major(or vice versa) from a verse to a chorus, especially if this is reflected in the lyrics I.e. Darker lyrics = minor key, brighter lyrics = major key. You could also try using a different key for the middle 8.

3) Avoid using too many modulations Usually one is enough and it can be irritating if there are loads back to back!

4) Don't feel you have to modulate in every song Plenty of good songs don't use it, so only use it occasionally.

5) You should always go upwards in a modulation as this increases energy. You can also increase the volume, add some more layers or intensify the lyrics to help with this. You generally want to avoid going downwards, as this can sap the energy from your song!

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53 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    mattrusso
    Always modulate up? That's the stupidest shit I've ever heard.
    Ain_Elohim
    Always, in the sense that the average songwriter is reading this. It's the most convenient method. Modulating up is typically recommended by music theory professors as well.
    Jacques-Henri
    Protest the Hero do some CRAZY modulations, really fun to listen to!
    Sakke
    Except when the music goes too crazy. It would be fun to listen to, if I wasn't entitled to the fact that I think that their singer is horrible. Besides, sometimes their solos sound quite messy. I prefer something a lot simpler, but then again Pain of Salvation is good hearing at times.
    Masta' Exploda'
    I think you haven't heard the latest Protest ablums, since their singer has improved a lot and that there is no more guitar solos...
    Sakke
    I think I've heard enough of all their albums to have an opinion out of them. Just listened some of their latest and I find him as horrible as what I thought he is. Sorry to all fanboys, you can't have everyone appreciating your favorite shred band.
    hamsteroceros
    Well, everyone has a right to his opinion. We all need to respect that right. We don't have to respect the opinions themselves, though. So there's that. Beyond that, though, PTH DO have some crazy modulations. If your ear can't keep up, fine. "The music goes too crazy" is the whole point, I think.
    Sakke
    It's not if my ear can or can't keep up, it just makes the song sound like 4 different songs and then suddenly it returns back to the one similar shape earlier. It just sounds messy.
    yousef213
    A good example is Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb". Verse - Minor Chorus - Major Solo 1- Major Verse 2 -Minor Chorus 2 - Major Solo 2- Minor
    Casperov
    The song starts in Bminor if I remember right, and then the chorus is D Major, which is the exact same key. The only thing they add in is the C Major chord that makes the chorus sound like its in D Major and G Major at the same time. I wouldn't call this an example of modulation because really its the same Key the entire song (minus the C Major)
    Woffelz
    B minor and D major have the same notes, but they are not the "exact same key".
    Casperov
    In the score there would be no indication of a key change there. How could you know if they "changed" key to D Major and didn't just use the Major chords that are in the key of B minor? Modulation, as I think of it, would require different notes. That's all I'm saying. And that song is only in one key.
    2jpe2
    From a theory standpoint a change from Bm to D is absolutely a key change. A key change does not mean that the key signature is different, for example, many modulations in classical music are implied and use accidentals in sheet music to accommodate the shift. is "4 scottish dances second movement" (I forget the composer) which shifts keys up a half step every phrase using accidentals. Also, "sky dance" by Richard Saucedo has no key signature even for transposing Eb and Bb instruments because of the contestant key changes.
    yousef213
    Not true. The tone of the song is dramatically different in the chorus, and the tonal center is D as opposed to B, which it is in the verse.
    jambolino23
    You would know by chord analysis. A i iib5 and a V#5 would make a lot more sense when viewed in a minor key. that same progression in a related major key would be vi viib5 and III#5, which is almost never seen, plus the major V added due to the harmonic minor is a dead give away.
    RoxxHunter
    The verses and outro solo are in the key of B minor. The Chorus and first solo are in D Major. The C chord although not in the key of D major comes from the parallel minor of D. It's a common technique used in many songs. Take a song like Can't You See by the Marshall Tucker Band: D-C-G. It's in D major but it has a C chord. You could also view at G major if you want. It's just like Sweet Child Of Mine. Only that song the main progression is in G major and so you're playing D Mixolydian.
    Ardolino_Cool
    Other than relating Minor keys to 'darker' imagery and Major keys for 'lighter' imagery, as well as going upwards in a modulation creating energy. It is generally alright. But essentially just learn your cadences and some basic ideas like this and should be on your way to some nice key changes.
    dollyDagger
    Oasis' All Around the World song has about 7 key changes within the one epic song. I dunno how they managed that
    grungelive72
    When switching to minor keys, use either the relative minor of your original key for great continuity, or the parallel minor for something a bit more jarring. Of course there aren't any limits since music is music, but I find these work the best rather than suddenly going into a random minor tangent.
    gypsyblues7373
    What about modulating to, say, the 5th? Or another interval? Seems I've heard that's fairly common, and this is something I've always wanted to explore in my own playing/songwriting, but just haven't gotten around to it much.
    shreddymcshred
    He gives an example of C-G. I-V-vi-V7/V-V
    gypsyblues7373
    Unless I'm misunderstanding it, he's just using C and G as chords in a progression, not actually changing the key from C to G. he's just using that progression to make his point about using the Am to pivot, to segue to the D7.
    truepiece
    Nice article, although I doubt two things: the only-upwards modulation and the one-modulation limit. Check this song for an example:
    At around 2.05 starts a riff, and is modulated around 4 times, downwards. Particurarly a three-semitones downward is a very nice one!
    djc707
    This is great! Very well written. Everything here works well, especially your example for shifting upwards a half/whole step.
    jambolino23
    Jazz modulates constantly and is actually a major listening factor. I wouldn't say that changing keys constantly is annoying or bad at all as long as the musicians can keep up.
    Harleyrider73
    Play from your heart and soul. I'll play a riff and from there I'll dabble with extra riffs somewhere.
    Mud Martian
    A song developed from long years of practice and study has far more passion, heart, and soul than a song developed from randomly playing notes until it sounds good. Even the greats that never learned theory applied a vast amount of knowledge and experience to get to that great status. This article is well done, and makes a good point for anyone trying to spice up their songwriting. Sometimes modulating downwards can add an unexpected twist to a song, though. I've done it on a song I wrote, I'll have to upload it at some point. It all depends on the song and if it'll fit. It's a situational thing.
    chewy1297
    Another good example of fluid key changing is ninety nine point ten percent of Muse songs
    Virtuosofreak
    Very good lesson. Short and simple. However,i think that you forgot about "modes". Anyway,a 10 from me.
    rokr258
    I despise when songs simply repeat their chorus at the end with the key modulated up a half step. Cheesiest key change method ever
    cmo626
    If you truly learn your keys, you should know that if you're in, lets say E, that there's at least 10 notes that you can play depending on the chord and the situation. Chords are the same. In E most people think Emaj, F#m, G#m, Amaj, Bmaj, C#min, D#dim, E. But if you add in the chords found in the key of Emin (or G if you prefer) you've just added 6 new chords to the existing 7 (I exclude the actual Emin). That's 13 chords you can use. So if you're progression goes E
    cmo626
    If you truly learn your keys, you should know that if you're in, lets say E, that there's at least 10 notes that you can play depending on the chord and the situation. Chords are the same. In E most people think Emaj, F#m, G#m, Amaj, Bmaj, C#min, D#dim, E. But if you add in the chords found in the key of Emin (or G if you prefer) you've just added 6 new chords to the existing 7 (I exclude the actual Emin). That's 13 chords you can use. Example is a progression like E-C#m-F#m-G-A-B-E. Its not Emaj or Emin, its just E. Learning to think of keys as a whole instead of in major or minor, is key to growing as a songwriter, guitar player, and musician, and an easier way to learn how to segue into a new key
    shredibanez7
    Use the Secondary Dominant of the 5th (a major II chord instead of a minor ii chord) such as G major to A7 and then into the new key of the dominant now in D major
    theshadow180
    Would an example of this also be how in Steel Panther's Party All Day the final chorus shifts up by a key? Not the best example of it I think but it does lends a bit of extra power into it.
    Boz0r
    Yeah, they're changing the key up a half-step. Bon Jovi does that a lot, who the song is obviously a parody of.
    Eclectic Lizard
    Aces High by Iron Maiden has tonnes of sudden yet smooth key changes The Em to Gm change sounds so sick