June, 2019 Monthly Assignment

Key changes for dramatic effect

Last time we did this assignment I noticed that several members had inserted the key change without taking full advantage of its capability. Nothing wrong with that — a key change can help to hold the listener’s interest in the song, and in many famous songs that’s enough.

But what happens when the key changes when the story changes? Right at the moment in the song when the guy loses the girl, right when the woman realizes she’s in love, at the instant the listener finds out what the song is really about, the key changes.

A key change is a subtle songwriting device, most listeners won’t even notice it. But it can be a powerful communication tool for a songwriter. Lennon warns “You’re gonna lose that girl,” then out of nowhere at the bridge he becomes suddenly confrontational. “I’ll make a point to take her away from you,” he sings, while underneath the words the key changes abruptly from E to G. The emotional value of the unexpected storyline twist is expanded; the key change intensifies the power of the lyric. That wasn’t an accident — it’s brilliant songwriting.

“You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” by Lennon/McCartney. The Beatles. 

Referencing The Beatles works well in these assignments because of the caliber of the songwriting, the variety of genres performed and the fact that everyone knows the songs. For instance, as McCartney reminisces about Liverpool’s “Penny Lane,” two key changes complement use of the piccolo trumpet. The unusual, high-pitched instrument choice twice leads to an upward key change as the emotional value of Paul’s memories climb higher and higher. Again, brilliant.

“Penny Lane” by Lennon/McCartney. The Beatles.

Mechanically, the keys in an effective key change are related and complementary, but dramatically opposed. The juxtaposition of those sounds impacts the emotional value of whatever lyrics are being sung at that moment. Synchronize your storyline twist with a change in key and you’ve significantly improved the quality of your song.

This site explains the musical mechanics better than I can.

Key Change Mechanics: Using relative keys in songwriting