By Jamie Peck
The key change is one of the most surefire tools in a musician’s arsenal. Just when you think the feels your favorite singer is putting out can’t get any more intense, everything shifts up half a step and BOOM, it’s a whole new ballgame. Who knew such an itty bitty musical change could make something sound so totally different?
Sometimes referred to as “modulations” (not exactly the same thing, but close enough for our purposes), key changes have been prized for centuries for their ability to add spice to a piece of music. Said French composer and music theorist Charles-Henri de Blainville in 1767: “Modulation is the essential part of the art.” Translation? key changes are everything.
So not to get all technical, but you’ve got to be wondering how they work. Well, most songs are written in a particular key. Each key has its own character; for instance, the key of C major sounds happier than A minor. Depending how a song shifts from one key to another, it could be barely detectable to the untrained ear, or a totally cheesy 10-gun salute straight into your brain. Guess which is more popular with chart-topping songwriters?
Certain curmudgeons have accused artists of using abrupt key changes as a cheap ploy to simulate drama when they’ve run out of ideas for a song. But I say, All’s fair in love and pop. In that spirit, I give you 11 contemporary key changes that will make your heart skip a beat. Now crank your hairbrush up like you’re Beyonce singing the hook for “Love on Top.”
1. Taylor Swift, “Love Story”
You can say what you like about Taylor Swift ’s gender politics (and I have), but girlfriend knows how to craft a perfect moment. Sure, the random key change at the end of “Love Story” (3:19) may hew pretty close to George Michael’s concept of “desperate grand gesture ’cause you’ve got nothing else.” But there’s no denying this key change is the burst of Technicolor when Dorothy gets to Oz crossed with a million virgins getting their wings.
2. Beyonce, “Love On Top”
One of the more recent entries to this list is this tour-de-force from Beyonce’s regrettably overlooked album 4, which escapes charges of facileness by stacking six key changes atop one another until Beyonce is singing quite high indeed. Ta-da!
This breezy, retro slice of uptempo R&B could have chugged along flawlessly for the better part of two minutes. But do you think Queen Bey is content to rest on her laurels? In the showiest finish pop has seen in some time, she sings the chorus four times in a row, changing keys (and outfits in the video) each time until she’s literally on top (of her range) and you fear for her physical safety. If you are one of those people who thinks Bey screams everything in a grating, tryhard way, you will hate this. But you should know you’re in the minority.
3. Michael Jackson, “Man In The Mirror”
What key change round-up would be complete without Michael Jackson’s 1988 hit “Man in the Mirror,” written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett (who also provided female vocals)? It’s a fairly standard half-step up at 2:55 but in the hands of MJ and co-producer Quincy Jones, it feels like a gospel-y revelation straight from the heavens. It’s also neat that the key change happens on the actual word “change.” Obvious? Sure. Effective? Totes!
4. Sisqo, “Thong Song”
I know what you’re thinking: How could a tribute to uncomfortable underwear be a cultural achievement in any way, shape or form? To which I say: Have you listened to “Thong Song” lately? From the first swell of strings, Sisqo hits the ground running with a series of minor-key verses that build up the tension in a big way for lyrics like “see you shakin’ that thing like, who’s da ish?”
Things continue to ramp up as Sisqo and friends perform an increasingly improbable series of acrobatic feats in the accompanying music video and those “dumps like a truck” are accentuated by sound effects like Godzilla approaching. Then, just when you think Sisqo is going to walk on water, the key changes, transporting him to a blacklite-bathed stage backed by showers of sparks and a full orchestra. Plus thongs. Thousands of them!
5. The Lonely Island feat. Akon, “I Just Had Sex”
I’m mainly including this to demonstrate that “Thong Song” is funnier than a song written by comedians for the explicit purpose of making fun of other songs. But listen to that key change! It is making fun of other key changes, and it is right.
6. Britney Spears, “Stronger”
Written by Swedish robot geniuses Max Martin and Rami (who also penned hits for N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys), “Stronger” gave Britney a harder, more Scandinavian edge to her sound that she wore better than all the boy bands combined. The epic (yet seamless!) key change on the chorus was taken straight from ABBA and did a great job expressing the triumphant feeling of not being killed by your loneliness anymore.
7. Radiohead, “Karma Police”
For a key change with a bit more finesse than the preceding examples, look no further than Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” which does us the courtesy of ramping up a bit to let us know it’s coming. “For a minute there, I lost myself,” Thom Yorke keens as you slide ever deeper into the dehumanizing insanity of modern life and the eternally listenable mysteries of late-’90s Radiohead. Let’s also note this key change leads to a whole new section of the song, not simply more iterations of a “repeat to fade” chorus.
8. Radiohead, “Paranoid Android”
For an even better finessed collection of key changes and structural weirdness, see unlikely single “Paranoid Android” — written in three sections by three different band members, then masterfully fused together — and reminisce about that brief and beautiful period when Radiohead was the biggest band in the world.
9. The Ramones, “I Wanna Be Sedated”
As much as I want to remind the good people of rock radio that the Ramones had other songs, people like “I Wanna Be Sedated” for a reason: It combines pop and punk and humor and anxiety into one tasty, two-and-a-half-minute sour candy. Written about the cabin fever that set in when the band was forced to spend time while on tour in sleepy London around Christmas time, the key change at 1:11 serves to heighten the song’s frenetic sense of anxiety for its entire second half.
10. Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You”
If this list were ranked, “I Will Always Love You” would surely be first. Originally written by Dolly Parton in 1974, the song became a huge hit in 1992 when Whitney Houston recorded her own version for the soundtrack of “The Bodyguard,” in which she also starred. While “The Bodyguard,” hardly made it into the canon of great films, the song is widely regarded as one of the best pop vocal performances of all time.
After starting out with a sweet and simple a capella bit, Whitney smoothly negotiates the song’s heightening dynamics. The second verse gives way to a heartfelt (but sexy) sax solo, to the very punchy third verse, which tapers off into a moment of quiet followed by THE BEST KEY CHANGE OF ALL TIME. If this feat of technical and affective prowess doesn’t move you, you are made of stone.
11. Weezer, “Undone (Sweater Song)”
Rivers Cuomo has gone on the record saying that this was “supposed to be a sad song but everyone thinks it’s hilarious,” to which I say … can’t it be both? From the adorably tame metaphor for heartbreak to the surprisingly badass guitar solo that starts in a new key after the second chorus, it shows off all the best attributes of these metal-loving dork-rockers.