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I am considering a bridge in a song I am writing in the key of C. Is it customary to change keys by going up a whole step or half step?

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4 Answers 4

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I don't have any degree or deep knowledge about Music History, but I would say there is no rule, rule of thumb or custom to change key on a Bridge in music in general. Maybe this happens more often in some particular musical genre or era (like the examples mentioned in Aaron's answer), but I am not aware of anything like that.

If you are writing this song for your own personal enjoyment or projects and not for a job or school homework/project where such a key change is a requirement/recommendation, I would recommend -- as a (non-professional) composer myself (of mostly some form of progressive or symphonic rock) -- not to enforce such restrictions on yourself (the composer), because it seems to me a rather unnecessary constraint for what sonorities and/or emotions you can convey in the Bridge of your song. I have written Bridges with and without key changes, and most of the time I was not worried about whether or not to change key, but on what sound/mood/sensation I was trying to achieve.

By all means, do try it out if you want to find out how it sounds like! But don't feel that you must stick to it just because some custom or rule. When composing for your own personal projects or enjoyment, do what sounds good to you and don't be afraid to do something out of the norm. In fact, I encourage you to embrace it!

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  • Thanks very much, good advice. As it happens I went to the relative minor.
    – Timothy
    Dec 7, 2023 at 3:43
  • @Timothy You're welcome! You may also want to consider chromaticism, which broadly speaking consists of using tones outside of the key you are in to create more exotic melodies/harmonies. This was used a lot in the Romantic and Modern eras and in Jazz. Some examples are the Tristan chord, modal mixture and whole-tone scales. There are even some examples in popular music too. Dec 7, 2023 at 19:04
  • Good advice Gandalf, thank you. I'll definitely look into these suggestions as I am tired of the same chords and want to add another dimension to my song writing.
    – Timothy
    Dec 11, 2023 at 19:18
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If it's a song you're writing, have a listen to the tens of thousands that already exist. I guess you'll find less than 1% change key in the way you suggest for the bridge. Some will appear to move (modulate) up to IV of the verse key, but will return to I for the next verse.

In fact, I can't think of one song which modulates up by half or whole step for the bridge. So, no, it's way far from common. Don't trust my word - listen to lots! Most won't modulate (change key) at all, but those which do will generally make that change of a semitone/tone towards the end, rather than in the middle, where the bridge usually lives.

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  • Another way to look at it, that I share with my students who begin songwriting, is this. Look at your major and minor chords within your key - C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am. Are there any chords that never come up in your song? For instance, if your song uses C, F, G, and Am in the verses and refrain, a bridge that features the Dm and/or Em chord will be a nice fresh change of palette.
    – nuggethead
    Dec 7, 2023 at 20:17
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Historically — and I'm thinking back to the Baroque and Classical eras of Western music — a contrasting section for a piece (using the C major example) would most likely be in the parallel minor (C minor) or the dominant (G major).

A the music developed, "mediant" relationships became increasingly common, moving from, say, C major to E major.

By the time of modern popular music, shifts by half or whole step became more common.

In short, there's really no "customary" key shift, just ones that are historically more or less common.

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  • Billy Joel is master of the unexpected key change. Dec 5, 2023 at 12:41
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No. A 'Truck driver's key change' into the bridge would be quite unusual. A closely related key (dominant, subdominant, relative minor/major) is common. Or a leap to somewhere more remote followed bu a 'cycle of 5ths' path back home. 'Up one' is usually reserved for a repeated final chorus.

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  • "Truck driver's key change?" What's that?
    – nuggethead
    Dec 7, 2023 at 20:14
  • It's the 'going up a whole step or half step' mentioned in the question. Not a functional modulation, just 'up one'. Like changing gear.
    – Laurence
    Dec 7, 2023 at 22:56
  • Huh. Just never heard it called that
    – nuggethead
    Dec 8, 2023 at 1:09

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