A major list:
R.E.M. – Stand
Written as a mickey-take of bubblegum pop, this wilfully stupid and yet accidentally insightful song encourages you, like mindfulness does, to take a fresh look at your here and now. At the song’s close, the last two rounds of the chorus are a whole step higher than the proceeding one, a trick known to songwriters as a ‘truck driver’s gear change’, and those stepped changes reinforce the song’s theme that the familiar can be reinvigorated if you take a new approach.
Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
I’m informed that this song is largely in the key of F major but now and then uses a non-diatonic chord that’s taken from the Bb major key. This, technically and pedantically speaking, isn’t a full change of key but a tease that one might happen. Chances are that Elton, who is an instinctive piano player and songwriter, simply found his hands falling upon chord progressions that he liked the sound of without considering or even caring what key or keys the song would end up in. Crucially, however, even if you don’t have a handle on music theory, familiarity with usual harmonic structure lets the ears know that the non-diatonic chord key doesn’t quite belong. And this slight discord, of course, is apt for a song about a man who has realised that he isn’t where he wants to be.
Mina – Se Telefonando
Following a chance encounter that flared into grand passion, the singer now wants the other party to know the love is spent and that she is determined to say so on the telephone first chance she gets. Inspired by the distinctive sirens of French police cars, the song centres on just three notes, but these notes are then modulated in every chorus to mimic the Doppler shifts of those police car sirens as they race by. This leads to a vocal of increasing urgency and desperation that suggests the singer isn’t being entirely honest about her feelings or her real hopes for that phone call.
Beyoncé – Love On Top
I love you. No, listen up, I really do love you. Hey, hey, I really, really do love you! I love you in all the frickin’ keys, guy! Do you hear how much I’m loving you right now!
The Beatles – If I Fell
Most key changes in pop happen when a song is hitting the home straight and needs a boost to get it over the finishing line. The Beatles, however, liked to do things differently, even in their early days. So, here we have a delightfully early key change that comes after the song’s short intro. As well as grabbing a listener’s attention and giving the song a new and floating impetus, the change suggests that John was just being a little down on himself back there – having a moment of introspection and self-doubt. And the hint that there was sensitivity inside his leather-clad rock and roll exterior melted the knickers off the girls in The Cavern.
Paul Simon – Still Crazy After All These Years
After bumping into an old lover and sharing a few beers with her, this song’s singer looks back on his life and claims he’s been unaffected by the passing years and his fall into a comfortable solitude. But then, in a tell-tale change of key that’s histrionic, sour and almost ugly, the singer lets slip that he is troubled by insomnia and an unnamed longing. The song eventually returns, via the distraction of some great blues saxophone, to the safer ground of the original key. From there, the singer jokily assures us that he could shake things up if he really wanted. But the attentive listener, who will have taken note of that giveaway change of key, isn’t going to be convinced.
Ella Fitzgerald – Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye
As Cole Porter’s teasingly meta lyric tells you, songs like the lark’s and this one, which shift from the major to the minor key, are strangely affecting.
Linda Lewis – The Lark
Talking of larks, here’s Linda Lewis singing about songbirds. Midway through the song, a change of key marks the arrival of a little twittering and doomsaying Greek chorus. Most of what you hear is written, played and sung by Lewis. You can’t help but think she’d be much better known had she hailed from Detroit rather than the East End.
The Fifth Dimension – Up, Up and Away
Written by Jimmy Webb, this joyous psychedelic pop song changes key constantly, modulating after every line as the beautiful balloon rises into the sky. It makes you feel like your feet have left the ground too. The Fifth Dimension are backed here by the legendary Wrecking Crew – the playing of Joe Osborn on bass and Hal Blaine on drums is particularly fine.
Tommy Roe – Dizzy
We started with not very self-aware REM making fun of bubblegum pop, but here’s the king of bubblegum using repeated key changes with great aplomb to emphasise the dizzying effect love is having on him. Listen to the way the key changes move through the word ‘dizzy’ so that you can’t miss the lift. And those strings! An inspiration to Jeff Lynne no doubt.
B minor list:
The Ventures – Hawaii Five-O
Modulate ’em, Danno.
Talking Heads – And She Was
A real toe-tapper as long as you don’t consider the strangeness of the lyric.
Petula Clark – Don’t Sleep On The Subway Darling
For my money, Tony Hatch at his best is up there with Burt Bacharach, and this nearly made the A-list go to 11.
Berlin – Take My Breath Away
‘Strange how potent cheap music is’ – Noel Coward.
Coldplay – Politik
Super Furry Animals – Fire In My Heart
Fire in my heart and plastic lighter in my raised fist.
Portishead – All Mine
Creepy in any key.
Booker T and The MGs – Hang ’Em High
Spaghetti Western meets hot sauce.
Boston – More Than A Feeling
Easy to like but hard to love.
Peter and The Test Tube Babies – All About Love
Guru’s Wildcard Picks:
Belinda Carlisle – Heaven is a Place on Earth
On first hearing this song, which shamelessly deploys almost every cheap trick at a songwriter’s disposal, you just know that you’re going to get the cheesy, home straight gear change just to give Belinda a little extra oomph to get her to the chequered flag. So confident are you, in fact, that, from your passenger’s seat, you can guess exactly when it will happen – here we go, right here, after this drum break. Sneakily, however, the drum break is suddenly cut short and the change of key happens a couple of beats before you’re ready for it. You’re thrown back into your seat by the sudden acceleration, and, from behind the wheel, Belinda winks at you.
Bros – When Will I Be Famous?
This song is a catchy but entirely unsurprising pop song for three of its minutes. But then the song breaks down, messes around for a bit, and executes one of the weirdest key changes you’ll hear. Instead of a simple change up to bring the song home, it’s as if a bucket of toxic sludge has been poured over the thing, and suddenly that desire for fame sounds all-consuming – as if Bros will do literally anything to see their picture in the papers. I’m sure someone of a higher pay grade will be able to explain exactly what’s happened musically. Why does a semitone lift seem to drag the song down instead of raising it up? Why does the arpeggiator sound so threatening now? Why have those chord sequences become so dead? And how did those vocals become so queasily full of need? However, put all that aside for moment and just enjoy the sensation that it’s Matt, Luke and Ken, of all people, who are twisting your melon.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Can you hear it? Songs with notable key changes. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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