Our Favourite Key Changes in Pop Music

Aug 12, 2020

Last week we took a look at how chords and key impact emotion in music. This week we’re going to continue exploring the concept with the idea of changing keys in the middle of the song!

The key change has become an essential element of modern pop music. Play a song, move the chords and melody up a half step or so, and continue in a new key. It’s super simple, and usually effective, which is why it’s almost become cliché to include a key change.

Let’s take a look at some of the best key changes in pop music!

Genesis – Invisible Touch

For many Genesis fans, Invisible Touch marks the spot where Genesis “jumped the shark,” so-to-speak. They point to this track as the moment Phil Collin began his pop takeover of the prog rock band. But that denies the clear musical ambition of the piece. That incredible synthesizer interlude between the chorus is amazing, and something about that slight key change that slides upwards on the repeated final hook is truly special.

Most prog rock bands went through something of an identity crisis in the 1980s, and while Invisible Touch might have been too “poppy” for diehard fans, it’s still less “mainstream” than some of their later hits.

Beyoncé – Love On Top

Having grown up during the golden age of key changes (the ‘80s and into the ‘90s in case you were wondering), it’s no surprise Beyoncé become something of a master when it comes to incorporating them into her own work.

And Love On Top is a prime example of how good she can be at it! She manages to squeeze in no fewer than FOUR key changes in a measly 90 second!

Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

The key change is used to add both drama and suspense. For that reason, they usually appear near the end of the song. But for this song, the Beach Boys did something a little different. In fact, the very first notable event in Wouldn’t It Be Nice is a key change – all of seven seconds into the song.

Changing the key this early in the song gives the listener they’re about to listen to something important. And given the message of the song, they’re not wrong!

The Temptations – My Girl

Featuring one of the absolute best key changes in pop music, My Girl beautifully sets up the change with the preceding instrumental section. But the true genius of this key change is how expertly choreographed it is. You can see the change coming – even feel it coming. And then, when it finally hits, it sounds even better than what you were anticipating!

Stevie Wonder – I Just Called To Say I Love You

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiRj5m63oig

There’s just no other way to say it – I Just Called To Say I Love You is a cheesy love song, even if it’s performed by a respectable artist.

Stevie manages to keep the “no, you hang up” sentiment of a new relationship understated and underplayed, just like he underplays the key changes that happen in almost every chorus. No big deal, he’s just calling to say he loves you, just moving the chords up a bit. Just repeating most of the song with a voice recorder. Ain’t no thang.

Lady Gaga – Perfect Illusion

It can be argued that Lady Gaga is partly responsible for a resurgence of interest in the humble key change. Case in point: when Perfect Illusion was first released, there were many things for fans and critics to latch onto; her new raw image and quality to her voice, the subtle tweaks to her sounds, etc.

But the thing everyone was talking about was that huge key change that comes about two thirds of the way through the track. Stunning.

Donnie Warwick – Do You Know The Way to San Jose?

If we were simply listing the greatest recordings of all time, Dionne Warwick’s cover of Burt Bacharach’s Do You Know the Way to San Jose? would easily make the cut. Her recording of what is widely considered Bacharach’s best song is nothing short of flawless. But the arrangement is even better.

When those horns take over, the song is propelled so far forward that the half-step slide up goes practically unnoticed. Dionne dive right in, owning the high notes on the line “L.A. was a great big freeway,” and the whole tune stays way up there until the final fade-out of “bah bah bah bahs.”

With the possible exception of Jim O’Rourke, who may have the lyrics to “Say a Little Prayer” tattooed on his lower back, Burt Bacharach has had a longstanding yet understated influence on modern artists. Just try to imagine a musical world without any Bacharachs, Costellos, or Sufjans!

All 4 One – I Swear

AND

Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

The 1990s were rife with R&B artists covering country ballads, and outselling the originals – just look to All 4 One’s cover of John Michael Montgomery’s I Swear and Whitney Houston’s smash hit version of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. What’s more, both these hits climax with highly dramatic key changes.

All 4 One’s cover leads into the key change with a stellar sax solo, but Whitney Houston trumped them all with her ending push in I Will Always Love You. We get that snare drop, a half second of dramatic silence, and then her “And IIIIIIIIIIIIII” breaks through like it’s the most important thing she has ever had the privilege to sing.

Unfortunately, after I Swear, All 4 One more or less dropped off the map, while Whitney Houston enjoyed continued success until her untimely death in 2012. But that key change will live forever.

Key changes are only a small part of the greater world of musical theory. If you’re interested in diving deeper in the ins-and-outs of music theory, harmony & history, look no further than our classes, now available online!

And if you’re a little newer to the music scene and are just looking to start lessons, we’ve got a wide variety of lessons and classes available, both in-person and online!