The Key Change: Useless Cliche or Lost Art?

A look into the merits of the key change and it's place in songwriting.

Ultimate Guitar
Key changes are almost a taboo subject in the music community. Some songwriters shun the use of them, while others like them so much they employ them constantly. So who's right? The way I see it, there are two schools of thought when it comes to a key change.

The first mentality is that of the pop songwriter: maintain the same key the entire song and then right when the listener starts to realize the song sucks hit them with a key change (often one step up) to get them through the song. This cliché is why key changes have such a bad reputation. They can be incredibly cheesy. On the other hand, however, they can occasionally work.

When using this technique, you walk a fine line between exciting and predicable. It is possible to use it outside of pop music, as many metal bands have proved. Megadeth, one of the most musically and harmonically unorthodox bands of the '80s and '90s, utilized this cliché with great success in the final chorus of "Foreclosure of a Dream" off of "Countdown to Extinction." While sometimes a key change is nice for a "big bang effect," they can sometimes be the highlight of the song. In Arch Enemy's "Nemesis," the one and a half step key change during the final chorus sounds incredible and completes the song.

It is also possible to achieve the feeling of raising the key of the section while maintaining the original piece. Arch Enemy also uses this maneuver, which I like to call a "false key change," on the song "No Gods, No Master": the main part of the song is in C minor, briefly changes to Bb minor during the bridge, and returns back to C minor, the original key, during the final chorus. All of the choruses are exactly the same, but the third one feels higher and more exciting because of the energy generated from lowering and raising the key during the bridge.

In my opinion, this style of key change is very dangerous. Sure, sometimes it sounds incredible, but a majority of the time is sounds like garbage. Use with caution.

The second school of thought concerning the key change is to use them freely and often. This type very often defies the cliché outlined above. The change could be by any number of tones, at any point in the song, and may happen between each section. This mentality is essentially the product of years of corrosion of the classical western system of music. All rules go out the window.

This mentality is very freeing, as it pretty much lets you do whatever you want. Death metal legend Chuck Schuldiner of Death fame was notorious for changing the key with every single riff. In his song "Bite the Pain," the keys of the riffs are as follows: C minor, D minor, D# minor, no key, F# harmonic minor, D# Phrygian (covers from intro to end of bridge).

Changing to random and unpredictable keys sounds mysterious and often unorthodox, but is often jarring. A great way to work around this is to easy the transition by connecting sections through the use of pivot chords. This gambit is done by linking two unrelated musical ideas through the use of chords and notes they have in common.

To see what I mean, take a look at the analysis to the bridge of one of my songs:

Chord Progression 1 (play 2x)(125 bpm)(F minor):
Fm Absus2 Dbsus2 Ebsus2

Chord Progression 2 (180 bpm)(F harmonic minor):
Abmaj Bbm Cm Cmaj

Riff 1 (180 bpm)(A minor)

When I was writing this song I had two completely unrelated pieces of music: one was in F minor and was slow and depressing while the other was in A minor and was fast and uplifting. On paper they should have been kept in completely separate songs, but for some reason I got a gut feeling that they had to be connected, so I forced them together using the interlude detailed above.

In this example, the song is broken into three sections: chord progression No. 1, chord progression No. 2, and riff No. 1. Finding a pivot for the first two was easy, since the keys are almost exactly the same, save for the seventh degree. The second transition was more difficult, since there was only one chord to link them: Cmaj. Normally in a minor key, the chord associated with the fifth degree is minor. In harmonic minor, however, the fifth is major. (An explanation for this would take a whole other article. Just take my word for it for now). By playing a Cm and then a Cmaj, the key is changed from F minor to F harmonic minor. Now that we pivoted to Cmaj, the key can be changed to A minor, since Cmaj is one of the tonic chords of the key, leaving us at our final objective.

While this was a rather complex example, it shows that pivots can be particularly useful for transitioning into a new and unexpected part of a song.

So what's the verdict? Is a key change a useful songwriting technique or a bad maneuver? Which type of key change is better?

Personally, I take a no rules approach to songwriting. To me, all theory is a suggestion that can be followed or ignored, depending on context. I believe that key changes follow a trend of diminishing returns. Each time one is used, the smaller the benefit gained next time it comes around. Use them whenever they sound good, but be cautious of overuse.

What are your thoughts on changing key? Do you have any originals or favorite songs that are a good example? Be sure to share your opinion below.

29 comments sorted by best / new / date

    It would have been nice if you had posted a sound sample of your song, rather than just tell us what chords the song uses. You can play a bunch of chords one after another, and they may not make any sense that way, but when you add a melody and a rhythm, the progression may start making a lot of sense. It also has to do with the chord voicings you use. I do like key changes. Well, not the generic one step up in the end of the song. That's usually not needed and just makes the song sound really cheesy. "Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi is a good example of a last chorus modulation that works. It is kind of unexpected, and the bar before it has a short time signature change to 3/4. Also, the modulation is not one step up, but one and a half steps up. I think it sounds cool. Def Leppard is a good example of a band that uses modulation pretty often, especially on the Hysteria album. In "Gods of War" some of the keys are pretty far away from each other, but it still works well.
    The livin' on a prayer modulation is also a great one for completely destroying everybody's vocal chords at a party, heh. It goes pretty damn high.
    You say you don't like things that sound cheesy and then you use Bon Jovi and Def Leppard as examples...Zuh?
    They can use modulation creatively. Whether their songs sound cheesy or not is irrelevant (I don't think they sound cheesy, but it's about opinions). We are talking about modulations here and the way Def Leppard use modulations is not cheesy (at least not in the same sense as just modulating the last chorus a whole step up). Yes, the Hysteria album sounds overproduced, but I think it has really good songwriting on it. They don't sound generic. And one thing that makes it that way is the use of modulations.
    You are definitely write about a clip helping to understand the chord progression. I wanted to post a sample, but was unable to for two reasons: 1. The song has yet to be recording and released. 2. I have no idea how to upload any type of media to a UG article. Thanks for the heads up!
    What you could have done is record a short sample of the part you were talking about (doesn't need to be a whole song) and upload it to Youtube. You could have added a Youtube link to the article.
    My favourite use of key changes is in Zombie Inc by In Flames. Song starts with a melody in C minor, after two repetitions the melody is repeated two more times in D minor, then the verse 1/(instrumental) prechorus 1 /verse 2 /prechorus 2 (with vocals) are in F minor. The next part is the chorus (which is the intro melody played in G minor). Afterwards, the song transitions into the solo section in C minor. This is followed by the last verse and vocal prechorus in F minor, and finally fades out on the chorus (which is in G minor, as mentioned earlier). It's not a hard song to play on guitar, but from a songwriting perspective, it's a masterpiece and a master-class in utilizing simple ideas and key changes to create an amazing song. All of this is my humble opinion, of course.
    You're right that's pretty cool. It's funny, I've heard this song many times before since I'm an In Flames fan, an I never noticed that. Nice find.
    Forget one or two key changes in a song, this Breaking Benjamin track sounds like it modulates upward a half step almost every time it switches from between verses or from chorus back to verse. Check out it's ascending melody, it gives it a very light and airy sound
    "Under The Bridge" of the Red Hot Chili Peppers starts in F#m, then goes to E, and then ends in Am, and in both minor scales (F# and A) uses the 3rd maj, wich are blues notes, I think (A# in the scale of F#m, and C# in the scale of Am)
    Ants of the Sky by Between the Buried and Me has the best key change ever. It's at 12:18 into the song
    Layla has a cool Key change of D minor in the Chorus and then to E major in the Verse.
    Also, one thing The Beatles (and many others, I would assume) did was play about with moving from say G major to G minor within a song, on such a way that you would barely notice it unless you actually analysed it. And, of course in classical music key changes were used in incredible, subtle ways, going from G major to E major without so much as a bat of an eyelid.
    While My Guitar Gently Weeps also has a cool key change of parallel major and minor where the Verse is A minor, then the chorus is A major.
    The Beatles did have many subtle key changes, but note also in 'And I love her' a semi-tone key change just before the guitar solo (F#m to Gm).
    Cheap Trick's "Surrender" starts in Bb, shifts to B for the first two verses, and overdrives to C for the third verse and finale
    Ok, granted this is not a metal/rock song, but if you want to hear at least something with key changes every chorus. Faith Hill-
    The song "Welcome to New York" by Scott Klopfenstein uses the cheesier method of just raising the chorus by a tone (twice!) to great effect imo, bringing in a huge crescendo and showcasing his vocal talent. But then there's that Beyonce song that changes key like 5 times and it's the most arrgravating thing I've ever heard So they can be good and bad, really, and you shouldn't shy away from using any technique just because of its reputation
    Maiden did quite good job in their ''Prodigal Son'' changing the key from E major to E minor. It's even simplier than their usual half step up change.
    Octane Twisted
    "Just" by Radiohead has a whole bunch of key change if I'm not mistaking. And the main theme of "Pyramid Song" has a tonal change too.
    Music theory isn't some rule book that has to be followed religiously. It's just a way of describing and explaining music. Everything you do in music has theory behind it, whether the theories use was deliberate or not. As such; it's ridiculous to call all key changes bad manoeuvres. If it sounds good, then isn't that all that matters?
    Yeah. And theory has an explanation for it - it's called modulation. It's not against any rules to use modulation. If it sounds good, it is good. If it sounds bad, it's not against any rules either. Sound first, then theory. Theory is really not set in stone. First people made music, then people came up with explanations for it. And that's what theory is.
    And to add to what you have explained so well, we can use theory, if we know it, as a shortcut to create the sound we want in a song, rather than trial and error. Although often I'm sure trial and error, or just plain messing around with chord progressions has come up with the most original sounds, theory be damned. But then those of us that want to emulate a sound or feel evoked by that original, can find a formula to do it, like change key by 1 step, or throw in chords from the parallel minor, or whatever it was that explains the sound we are looking for.