We’re back with another round of amazing key changes in pop music!
Previously on the blog, PianoTV talked about key changes, or otherwise referred to as modulations, in pop music. We also featured 12 pop songs that served as great examples of what modulation can do for songs. In order to keep a listener engaged, composers and musical artists sometimes change the key of a song. This then adds depth, freshness, and dynamics — and you’ll be surprised to know that it’s actually present in a lot of songs that we hear today.
But which of these pop songs are the absolute best examples? Here’s a list of songs for you to listen to.
To give you a refresher, step-up modulation is a dramatic key change, usually towards the end of a song. It’s meant to add more emotion and serve as a climax to the piece, and it’s one of the most common forms of modulation done in pop songs.
Lady Gaga – Perfect Illusion
Upbeat sad song Perfect Illusion definitely made a lot of listeners happy with the timing of the key change. Gaga’s song was lauded for its perfect execution of the step-up modulation, which occurs precisely at the two-thirds mark of the song. From an F# minor, the award-winning artist modulates a full step up to G# minor at the end of the song’s bridge, creating a dramatic effect that is likened by fans to an adrenaline rush.
Beyoncé – Love on Top
After a brief hiatus from music to give birth to twins Sir and Rumi, Beyoncé dropped an album with Jay-Z and released a new music video set at the Louvre, no less, earlier this month. But who could ever forget the feel-good song Beyoncé wrote about her pregnancy with Blue Ivy back in 2011? Love on Top doesn’t stop at just one key change. This banger actually features an astounding four key changes, which collectively brings about a totally unique effect.
Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On
The official anthem of the movie Titanic plays with more than our emotions. That dramatic key change towards the end of the song — a little late, for Celine Dion’s standards — heightens the experience for listeners. The orchestra swells underneath Dion’s powerful vocals shifting to a D minor from a B minor, and it’s a powerful moment that works perfectly on its own, as well as in the emotional context of the film.
Britney Spears – Sometimes
The ’80s and ’90s were quite the year for uplifting key changes. The Britney Spears gem Sometimes features a little pause before taking a half step up from C to C#, which just builds on what a great pop song it really is. It’s not the happiest love song around, but this small and simple change makes the song unexpectedly moving.
More pop songs are created with the step-up in mind, but the step-down can also sound beautiful when done right. These tend to not be as overt as step-ups, but they are a good music composition technique all the same.
Mariah Carey – I Want To Know What Love Is
Mariah Carey’s cover of the song drops a semitone during the second chorus. It’s worthy to note that the Foreigner original doesn’t change key. However, Carey’s version allowed a more anthemic singing of the chorus compared to her higher solo in the beginning.
Look out for 1:16 and 2:32 to hear the key change
Conway Twitty – Lay You Down
Similar to Beyoncé’s uplifting Love On Top, Twitty’s Lay You Down serves multiple key changes towards the later end of the song. There’s three to be exact. Each chorus modulates down until the song finishes, as if the song is fading out or lulling you into something calmer — but it’s not quite finished yet. Though it’s a country song, we couldn’t help but include it in the list for step downs are a bit more unusual in music.
Parallel key modulation
Songs that play parallel key modulations usually stay in the same key but revert to their major or minor counterparts. Most of the songs below start with minor and transition to major.
Freddie Mercury – My Love is Dangerous
This pop-rock song features a transition that happens near the intro, much like Ace of Bace’s I Saw The Sign from our previous list. The 1985 hit consistently delivers punchy sound and a warning from singer Freddie Mercury about how getting in a relationship with him is dangerous.
Village People – In The Navy
The 1978 fun maritime song also has a key change in the beginning. The upbeat song has never failed to keep listeners in a dancing mood and often belting out the lyrics as well.
[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InBXu-iY7cw [/embedyt]
Michael Jackson – Black or White
When Black or White came out, people praised and criticized the deeper meanings of Michael Jackson’s famous hit. But one thing’s for sure: it didn’t quite get out of the head of many people after its release. The video was simultaneously attention-grabbing too. The song had a pretty consistent sound save for the bridge nearing the end, where the lyrics were rapped.
[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2AitTPI5U0 [/embedyt]
Neighbor key modulation
A common destination of modulations are the neighboring keys in the context of the circle of fifths. Queen Songs explains that only one major or minor sharp/flat is the difference between the pitch-set of the target and destination.
Abba – Honey Honey
Abba’s Honey Honey is another feel good song that has you bobbing your head from side to side. It uses neighboring major keys for its modulation throughout the song.
[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qmg5VUMcTn8 [/embedyt]
Madonna – La Isla Bonita
Madonna’s tropical Spanish-infused song shifts from major to minor keys, and transports the listener to a different dimension. If you haven’t noticed so far, most of the songs in this category are from pop songs of decades past. This modulation was more evident in earlier songs and gave a unique feel to their sound.
[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqIIW7nxBgc [/embedyt]
Beatles – For No One
As previously mentioned in our first list, no article on key changes would be complete without a Beatles song in it. For No One is just one of the many songs they have that play with modulation. This one switches from major to minor, too.
[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuphFPEqJqw [/embedyt]
Hopefully you’ve learned something new today! Don’t forget to check out the first part of our list, which also discusses other types of modulation and has other noteworthy examples. If there are any songs you feel fit the list, don’t hesitate to drop a comment below!