Changing Keys

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 20, 2010

There are many ways to modulate, or change key. Some are imaginative, surprising and inventive.  Others have been used so often they have become cliches. 

• Some modulations are not really necessary to the song, but they enhance the arrangement, such as doing the last chorus or two a step or half step higher. These are called arranger modulations, as opposed to composer modulations, which are integral to the structure of the song. 

• Whatever purpose the modulations serve, they all boil down to two categories: 

• The more common of the two is the pivot chord modulation, in which the new key is approached by a chord common to both keys. 

• A direct modulation is a change into a new key without using a common chord. One way to modulate directly is simply to start the next chorus or verse in the new key with no modulating chord. This can be startlingly effective in a “presentation” song, (that is a song sung to but not by the audience) but is not recommended in a congregational song because most of the congregation doesn’t know the key change is coming until it has already happened. They suddenly realize the train has gone onto a new track without them, so they drop out and come back in when they’ve figured out where the melody has gone. Thus, we have a momentary train wreck. It isn’t as though we have come crashing irreparably down out of the heavenlies, but our worship has been at least momentarily side tracked. 

Having said that, we must admit that for every principle we point out here, you can probably find at least one example of where somebody has done it the other way successfully. That’s why we say these are not rules but principles. Darlene Zschech used a direct modulation with striking effect in her own recording of “Shout to the Lord.” Once they’ve learned to expect it, the congegation is laying for it with relish, and it gives a great lift going into the last chorus. 

• The most common modulation of all is going up a half-step or whole-step by using the unadorned V7 chord of the new key to introduce the next verse. This is okay, even expected, in certain traditions such as Country or Southern Gospel, but if you’re writing in a contemporary style and trying to be a bit imaginative, you might want to explore some other avenues instead. 

• The problem is that in a congregational song with a fairly broad range, anything beyond a step up may stretch beyond the comfort range of half the congregation. But there are solutions. One way to modulate is by use of an instrumental interlude. The modulation can begin anywhere in the interlude, at the beginning, even in the middle of a measure, and by any imaginative modulating device you choose. You can even get a refreshing lift by doing the interlude in any other key, even half an octave away, then modulating into the new vocal key before bringing the congregation back in. Even if you modulate back into the original key, it will feel like a new key when the singers come back in. 

• We mentioned earlier the versatility of the dominant 7th chord and its ability to resolve to almost any other chord. This makes it very useful in modulating. You can modulate in a surprising way by resolving a dominant 7th chord to an unexpected chord and establishing a new key. 

For example, try this progression: You’re coming up to the end of a chorus in A major and your last three chords are A  E7 A. That’s one of the most common and overused progressions in all of music. But you want to give the song a dramatic lift, so you go: A E7 F! The F chord becomes the downbeat of a new key (F), an instrumental solo takes off and rises from there, and you find yourself soaring along in a new key a minor 6th higher! It can feel like you’re being launched into orbit. 

• Another great example of an unexpected modulation is found in George Harrison’s “Something.”  There’s an electric guitar solo line at the close of a verse in the key of Cmajor. Again, the next to last chord is a V, leading to a I chord. Everything in the listener’s western upbringing has prepared her for that V chord to be followed by a I chord. But the second time around, instead of a I, it’s a surprise chord, and not only a surprise chord, but a surprise modulation. The whole dominant triad slides upward a whole step in parallel, to A, and we find ourselves riding along in a new key a major 6th higher. This is a direct modulation. There was no hint in the harmony that it was coming. As we mentioned above, don’t try a direct modulation that changes the melody while the congregation is singing. Let it be an instrumental modulation, or you’ll have a train wreck. 

• A diminished 7th chord is also a very versatile modulating chord, although not appropriate in every style. Its tones are all equidistant, a minor 3rd apart. In the key of C, for example, if it’s built on the leading tone (the 7th of the scale) the notes are B, D, F, Aa. The next step above that brings you back to B, the note you started on, and if you keep repeating the cycle, it feels like a ball rolling over and over, either uphill or downhill. The chord can resolve easily to any one of eight chords, the root of each a half step up from one of its tones, in either major or minor.  Be careful how you use it, though, because it may be uncharacteristic in some styles, even as a major 7th would be out of place in the blues. It’s used more in classical music than in pop but is often found in certain styles such as Black gospel and 1920’s happy pop music. 

• Sometimes we change key for just three or four bars and then resolve back into the original key. In this case we usually don’t bother to change the key signature, but use accidentals during the excursion. A change of key is not really considered a modulation unless it stays in the new key long enough to become established as a new tonal center. 

We hope we've stimulated you to further experimentation on your own.  Keep listening and be alert for harmonic ideas that are new to you.  When you hear something on a recording that strikes you, analyze it to find out how it was done, then use it to freshen up your own music.



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