12 Amazing Key Changes in Pop Music

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Hi and welcome to another episode of PianoTV!

Today we’re going to do something unusual for this channel, and turn our focus to pop music. We’re going to talk about key changes, also referred to as modulations in pop music, and why they’re so awesome (and sometimes so cheesy). We’ll look at 12 amazing key changes in pop music, and talk details about how the composer pulled it off.



As a note, I use “pop” as a general term to encompass all modern-ish and popular music, whereas I use “classical” as a general term to denote older music from the beginning of the 20th Century and earlier.

What is modulation?

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Before we start talking about famous key changes in pop music, let’s first get clear on what modulation (a related term) is.

Modulation: Changing keys. If the key of a piece was originally in C major, and then suddenly, after a few twists and turns, it’s in F major, that’s modulation.

A modulation and key change are basically two different words to describe the same thing. I’ve noticed that “key change” is what we usually say about modern music, whereas “modulation” is a word us music geeks use, especially when talking about older music. That isn’t a strict definition per se, but it works for our purposes today.

We’re not going to look at Classical music modulations today – that’s a subject for a different video. Today we’ll be focusing solely on pop music.

Why Do Musicians Change Keys?

Musicians do key changes because they’re exciting. In pop music, it can create a sweeping and dramatic shift in the song. Here you are, settling into a cozy key signature that gives you a sense of “knowing”, the feeling like you can anticipate what’s coming next. Then BAM, suddenly lightning strikes and everything you know is wrong. The music changes key.

Or sometimes it’s subtle, an effect that’s barely noticed. We might notice that something cool happened in the music, without ever knowing that the musician was being sneaky and changing keys.

The main purpose of modulation/changing key is to create more options. When you’re working within a certain key signature, you’re more or less limited to the 7 or so chords that exist in that key signature. When you modulate to a different key, however, it gives you access to 7 brand new chords.

This is a simplistic way to look at it, but the essence of it is that it gives the composer more room to play, more space for creativity.

Types of Key Changes

For the remainder of the video, I’ll hop on the keyboard to demonstrate all of the examples of modulations in pop music we talk about (see the PianoTV video for this).

For those of you reading this, I will provide videos below, so you can hear the key changes in all their original glory.

We’re going to look at different ways you can modulate, big and small, and how composers pull it all off. Let’s get to it!

Step Up Modulation

We’ll start by looking at one of the most big and obvious types of modulation – the step up.

This sweeping and dramatic key change is usually accomplished by the musician repeating the same part, like a chorus, but a half-step up. This is the easiest type of modulation to hear, even for the untrained ear. First you’re in one key, then suddenly you’re not.

This usually happens toward the end of a song when the musician is repeating the chorus. Instead of simply repeating it in the same key, they literally step it up.

Scene 05 (keyboard) ABBA – money money money

Everyone knows ABBA had a tendency for drama in their music. Most of us probably know the tune “Money Money Money” – they whole song is in the key of A minor, up until the last part of the song where they suddenly change keys to Bb minor.


Start the video around 2:20 to hear the key change

Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror

Michael Jackson also pulls off a big, powerful step up modulation – he goes from the key of G major in the chorus, to the key of G# major for the remaining choruses. What I love about this song is he literally changes keys while singing the word change.


Start the video around 2:40 to hear the key change

Backstreet boys – I Want It That Way

Our next example of stepping up is from The Backstreet Boys in their tune “I Want it That Way”. Sidenote, the first concert I ever went to was a Backstreet Boys concert. And I was 14.

The Backstreet boys don’t just climb a half-step for their grand finale – they climb a whole step. The song is more or less in the key of A major, and then when Nick Carter does his high vocal la-ti-da, the song moves into B major.


Start video around 2:12 to hear the key change

Step Down Modulation – Derek and the Dominos (Clapton) – Layla

Instead of stepping up for a big effect, some songwriters will choose to step down instead. This doesn’t result in the grandeur of a step-up modulation, but, if it’s done abruptly, still quite noticeable.

Looking at Layla by Derek and the Dominos, we can find a step-down modulation.

The intro is in the key of D minor, and as soon as the singing starts, it transforms into the key of C# minor, a half-step lower. This creates a sudden and noticeable change, but it doesn’t create the big epic nature of the step-up modulation.


Start the video from the beginning to hear the key change

In this instance, it also happens at the beginning of the song, another separating factor from the previous examples.

Pivot Chord Key Change

Instead of just abruptly changing keys at the drop of a hat, some musicians prefer to bridge that change with a chord or two, so that the transition is smoother. Adding these transition chords, which music nerds call “pivot chords”, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s less drama during the key change.

What it does usually mean is that the transition from one key to the next sounds much more seamless – less abrupt.

Whitney Houston – I’ll Always Love You

Even if you’re not very familiar with the idea of key changes, you probably don’t even have to listen to Whitney Houston’s “I’ll Always Love You” to remember that powerful, dramatic step up on the last chorus.

Most of the song is in the key of A major, and for the last chorus she moves up to B major, so a full step like the Backstreet Boys did.

What the songwriters did, though, is put an E major chord between the A and the B, which acted as a bridge. E major is an important chord that both keys, A and B major, share.


Start video around the 3 minute mark

The Beatles – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

No video on key changes would be complete without a shout-out to the Beatles. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is in 3 different keys within the first minute of the song. That’s a lot of key changes!

They start in the key of A major for the verse, and migrate to the key of Bb major during the pre-chorus. But they use a transition chord, a pivot chord, to get there. Right before the pre-chorus starts, the harmony is a D minor chord. D minor is common to both keys, and serves as an ambassador between the two.

Later, they move into G major for the chorus. But sneakily, they actually move into the key of G before the chorus starts. Near the end of the pre-chorus, a C chord serves as a pivot chord to G. Then we hear the chords G and D7, before the chorus brings us back again to G.

(Please visit YouTube or iTunes to hear an example of this – all key changes occur in the first minute of the song.)

Parallel key modulation – Happy Together by the Turtles

Parallel key modulation is what happens when a composer chooses to stay in the same key, but reverse its major or minor orientation.

For example, the song “Happy Together” by The Turtles starts in F# minor, creating a sad-sounding verse, but then suddenly the chorus is in F# major. This, I think, is a very deliberate attempt on the chorus’s part to show both the longing for a person who is no longer there (the minor key), and the happiness they felt while together (the major key).


Key change occurs around the 0:45 mark

Ace of Base – The Sign

Ace of Base also pulls this off in their 90’s tune “The Sign”. The intro starts in the cool G minor, but just when you get into a groove, they flip it around to G major for the verse.


key change occurs at the 0:40 mark

Big Leaps – Bon Jovi – Living On a Prayer

Sometimes songwriters will make a large leap when they do a key change – they won’t just go up or down a half step, they’ll go big.

Our friend Bon Jovi went for a really wild key change in his song “Living on a Prayer”. It’s in the key of E minor for most of the song, and then modulates up a diminished 5th to the key of Bb major. If that’s not rock n’ roll, I don’t know what is.

If you remember during Halloween, we did a video on tritones, which are very evil-sounding tones. Bon Jovi transposes to a tritone here – very rock n’ roll indeed. Check out that video if you want to learn more about tritones.


Start from the 3:05 mark

Modulating to the Relative Major or Minor

One of the most subtle key changes a composer can do is flip from a minor key to its relative major, or vice versa.

We’ve talked about related major and minor keys before, so click the screen if you want to know more about that, but the gist is, every major key has a minor counterpart.

So when a composer goes from, say, A minor, and then modulates to C major, it’s not a very noticeable change because these two keys share a key signature.

U2 – One

In U2’s song “One”, the verses are in the key of A minor, while the chorus moves to C major. This creates the effect of a more happy-sounding part, but it doesn’t make our ears twinge the same way other key changes do, when suddenly all the notes are very different.


Listen from 0:00 – 0:50 to hear the verse to chorus key change

Modulating to the Subdominant

There are some keys that are easier and more seamless to modulate to than others. Step ups, for example, make a really big statement. But sometimes the composer wants to switch things around without being epic. For example, modulating to the relative minor is very subtle.

Modulating to the subdominant is also fairly subtle. The subdominant is the 4th note. So say you’re in the key of G, the 4th note would be a C. So changing keys from G major to C major would be modulating to the subdominant.

These keys are closely related, which is what makes modulating to them a little easier.

Yellow Rose of Texas

The example for this is not a pop song, but I did want to bring up the Yellow Rose of Texas again. In that tutorial from last week, the sheet music didn’t include a key change, but basically all recorded versions of the song do. And they change keys up to the subdominant.


Key change occurs at the 1:45 mark

Scene 16 – Modulating to the dominant

The last type of key change we’ll look at today is a key change to the dominant. The dominant is the 5th note. Using our key of G major as an example again, the 5th note from G would be D.

So modulating to the dominant would look like this: You start in G major, then end up in D major.

Queen – Save Me

In Queen’s song “Save Me”, this is exactly what happens. Up until the big chorus, the song is in the key of G – and then that verse hits, and we’re transported to the key of G major.

Modulating to the dominant, like the subdominant and relative minor, creates a relatively seamless change, so they’re much harder to hear unless you’re looking for it.


Key change around the 0:45 mark

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post on the 12 most amazing key changes in pop music! Are there any songs that I forgot to add, that should’ve made the list? Let me know in the comments!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.