By The Landlord
"I thrive on change. That's probably why my chord changes are weird, because chords depict emotions. They'll be going along on one key and I'll drop off a cliff, and suddenly they will go into a whole other key signature. That will drive some people crazy, but that's how my life is." – Joni Mitchell
"I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn't play it. I'd been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used. I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing." – Charlie Parker
"I can't play my songs on the smaller harp. I have a Celtic harp. I can't do the key changes." – Joanna Newsom
As when clouds part and sun breaks through, or a lost face appears in a crowd, or a message arrives, it is the moment when the mood alters, a burst of energy is infused, when we are suddenly pulled and manipulated in a new direction, where the undercurrents of the music have invisibly moved towards something new and are now revealed – a moment of release, revelation, a new state of mind and emotion, or sometimes a new territory where there is ambiguity. It can be the defining moment of any song, because above all it comes at you with surprise, elevating, enhancing lyrics, or re-defining everything that has come before it. This week then, we are all about notable key changes in songs, but this, above all, is not a topic that requires technical know-how, but something that any listener simply hears and feels.
But first, just a note of definition. Chord changes occur in almost every song. Key changes, however, are something else. Millions of songs stay in the same key, and keep to two, three, four or sometimes more chords within that same key. So for example, if the song is in the key of C, it is very common that it will utilise the fourth and fifth chords on that scale, F major and G major, and possibly the sixth in the form of A minor. These corresponding chords can occur whatever key you’re in. But when a song changes key, then that's more unusual, but almost always noticeable when you listen closely.
There are all kinds of key changes in song, from simple steps up or down by a semi-tone or a tone, or sometimes bigger intervals, to modulations, where a shared chord between two keys is used as a gentle stepping stone into the next key, to complete transpositions where all the chords change, or when the switch is from major to minor or in reverse. They can all reflect, or affect mood. But let's not get bogged down in the technicalities. Here are a few examples of songs already chosen, and A-listed for other previous topics, that have have prominent key changes easily heard and illustrated.
Al Wilson's northern soul classic, The Snake (previous chosen for storytelling) has a classic key change going up two-thirds of the way through the song to enhance the intensity and shock value of the bite in the song. Listen just before and around the 2:20 mark:
The Beatles used countless key changes to catch the ears of the listener. Key to this topic though, they did this without really have in-depth knowledge of music theory, but Paul McCartney, for example, simply did this when messing around on the piano, because he discovered that it sounded great. There are more complex examples, but Penny Lane, previously chosen as a song with brass, that perky paean to Macca's childhood street, uses a step up change straight after the cheeky phrase "very strange" just to give us a little notification of it at around 2:10:
Brian Wilson, that tortured master of recording complexity, loved to mess around with key changes in many Beach Boys songs. In God Only Knows (zedded for alternative outcomes) he does this in an usual way, appearing to move from A major in the intro to D major in the verse, but then eight bars later moving into E major, by modulating the notes G into a G# and then back again. The overall effect is that we aren't sure what key this is in, hovering mainly between A and D, and enhancing the feeling of uncertainty. God only knows what key indeed, but it is highly effective, and the more you listen the stranger it sounds. No wonder it was always tense in the studio.
Marriage can certainly be expressed as something of shifting keys and future unknown, and The Carpenters reflected this in their hit song written by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, We've Only Just Begun. For the most part the song is in A major but at the end of the second verse, it changes more radically, and rather beautifully to F# major, marking new territory and unknown experience, to reflect those prominent lyrics "sharing those horizons that are new to us" just after 1:00:
Some artists used play with key changes and then return to the original key just for adventurous fun. The Flaming Lips song, Do You Realise??, previously chosen for the topic of advice, they play with the cliched one semi-tone key change as they approach the third chorus to elevate a sense of joy, but then take it down again just to mess with your minds before saying, drily, "do you realise everyone you know someday will day will die", as if to play with our expectations. Those key changes are around 2:20 (up) and down again at about 2:40:
And finally, there's the legendary John Coltrane changes, shown in Giant Steps, previously chosen on the A-list for super solos. If you really want key changes, Coltrane is the man. What is going on? While the chord changes and the melody are distinctive unusual, the result is that the key changes they create become giant steps of difficulty, as reflected in the stop-start playing of piano playing Tommy Flanagan, who in his suddenly has to cope with rapid key changes moving through the circle of fifths.
Confused? Don't be. Here is a handy explanation about what's happening:
So while unusual, there are many wonderful songs out there that use key changes from the simple, sometimes cliched pop semi-tone or tone shift up, to ramp up the pace and feeling, to bigger, more surprising shifts, whether to minor keys, moving major thirds, fourths, fifths or more. There are many songwriters who play with these tools, but again, it's all about simply hearing them. As well as the artists mentioned above who likely do so in other songs, other writers worth exploring are Holland-Dozier-Holland and anyone who performed their songs, to a whole variety of others, from Paul Weller to Garbage, Jimmy Ruffin to Ray Davies, The Who to The Police, Randy Crawford to Lady Gaga to Beyoncé. They, or those who write songs for them, are all at it, subtly or otherwise.
So they only thing required of you, learned and sharp-eared readers, is not a clinical dissection of such key changes (though feel free to do so if you wish) but a nomination of a song, a YouTube link and a handy indication of where in the song this key change occurs, either by description or even better, by a time indicator.
So then, holding the keys to this week's changes, and no doubt feeling as well as hearing it, I'm delighted to reveal this week's master of modulation is the prudent and perceptive philipphilip99. Place your song links (with helpful notes) in comments below before last orders deadline on Monday 11pm UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. Can you feel it?
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