In my own songwriting, I might change keys to reinforce a change in the direction of the lyrics.

For example if the first two verses are first person but the last verse is 3rd person, I might change keys to reinforce the change in perspective. Or I might use it to reverse the thought process. If the first two verses are about why I should be happy but the third verse explains why I'm not, I might use a key change to musically reinforce a change in mood.

But what are other reasons a songwriter of a pop, or country, or folk, or blues, or rock, or similar song - might use a key change in a song (other than to showcase their vocal range)?

  • 1
    There are thousands of musical tools, and changing keys is just one. Like any other tool, you can use it an attempt to accomplish something, or not. There's no external force making you use it or not use it, and there are many different ways to approach the same thing. You seem to know this, so I don't really understand the purpose of the question.
    – user28
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 16:25
  • @MatthewRead I appreciate your thoughts. In answer to your question - I have found some situations in my own songwriting where a key change seems appropriate. I see popular songs that change keys for no apparent reason. I am looking for ideas for ways to write more effective songs by understanding other situations where a key change might make the song better or more effective. Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 6:49
  • I would like the question re-opened. I edited it to narrow the answer set by making the question shorter and more specific. Thanks. Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 6:52

6 Answers 6


There really isn't a set of rules a composer/songwriter is bound by. Modulation has a certain effect like anything else at times may be desired and at others may be undesired. It is up to the composer/songwriter to decide if it will improve the song itself or not.

The are many reasons why or why not to use and effect or technique and modulation is no different. A few reasons why you may want to use it is:

  • To introduce old material as new material
  • To change the mood of a piece
  • To make a distinction between sections

A few reasons why you not may want to use it is:

  • Repetition is desired
  • To keep a piece "simple"

There are other reasons out there, but at the end of the day why or why not a technique or effect is used or not used is up to the composer/songwriter.


I'm a barbershop singer and have a folder full of arrangements ranging from songs with no key change at all to those with several.

One song in particular, South Rampart Street Parade, has roughly half a dozen key changes in the space of four and a half minutes and yet this isn't excessive because those key lifts are used to deliberately ramp up the excitement of the listener right to the end - a sense of the marching band coming ever closer until it suddenly comes into view and reaches the finale. It really works!

That doesn't mean that songs with zero key changes are inferior of course. You can just as effectively convey particular types of moods in arrangements without key changes, especially shorter songs.


You mention "...showcase a vocal range" -- sometimes it's out of necessity rather than showcasing.

Two examples I can think of offhand include:

  • Islands in the Stream as recorded by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Kenny has the vocal lead for the first verse and chorus (in C major), but then the song modulates two whole tones lower (A♭ major) so that Dolly can sing the second verse and chorus. Based on the melody of the sung lyrics, and also by listening to other songs by each artist, I'm convinced they both wouldn't be able to sing (comfortably) the verses in the same key. Note that this song was written by the Bee Gees.

  • Guilty (by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb). Also written by the Bee Gees, this song (as recorded for her album of the same name) has Barbra sing the first verse and chorus in C major. Then the song modulates to F major to facilitate Barry singing the lead on the second verse--but not on the chorus--it's back in C major! Also intriguing is how the bridge between the second verse and chorus has the same chords as the first untransposed. I personally find this key change to be unusually subtle and unnoticeable; a truly clever "hack"--a compliment to the Bee Gees' skills as songwriters.


One line of thinking says the notes within whatever melody being played "gives rise" to the key.. not (necessarily) the other way around.

When composing counterpoint-type arrangements it will happen organically as you weave the lines together. Stepping back, after the arrangement sounds good you can determine what key(s) it implied and add from there (if desired).


You would use what is called a pivot chord.

So some of the more common modulations include

  • To the relative key.

If you are in a minor and after a Imperfect Cadence which ended on the chord (E-G#-B) you would at the very least need a chord that has the A so the leading tone resolves.

A good chord to choose next would be the Sub Mediant chord of the C Major (VI). This not only has the new key in mind but is also just a generally good chord progression as well (VI after V)

It would also be good to use the G natural in the new major key in the next bar to show that it is natural now and to illustrate clearly that you are moving away from the minor and into the Major. Clear illustrations of modulations is a hallmark of a good composer. Going down in the natural minor shape is a good way to show this musically.

There is off course modulations as far and wide as the lords mercy. As long as you modulate well with this pivot chord in mind you are free to compose as you like. You are really only governed by what sounds good.


There are three main types of modulation:

Pivot chord: a chord from the original key belongs to a related key and takes on a new function in the new key. For example, a C Major triad would be a I chord in C Major, but a V chord in F Major. So, if used as a pivot chord, it would be treated like a V chord and lead to F. Or, it could be IV in G Major, and be followed by a D Major chord, which would be the new V. The trick in pivot modulations is that more chords are needed to establish the new key and make sure the ear hears that a new note is the tonic. One chord alone is not enough to establish a new key, so the chosen progression in the new key must be long enough and have enough V-I pull to show the key has changed.

A pivot chord could also be a secondary dominance, and the chord following the secondary dominance becomes the new I chord. In the same way, a longer progression needs to be used to show that the new I chord was not just a brief passing tonicization.

The pivot chord modulation is the smoothest since the keys would need to be related somewhat and will have more than one overlapping chord which will weave the two keys together.

Common Tone Modulation: A major chord is followed by a major chord (or a minor chord by a minor chord) that contains one of the tones of the first chord. For example, a C Major chord (C,E,G) could be followed by an E Major chord (E,G#,B), an Eb Major chord (Eb,G,Bb), an Ab Major chord (Ab,C,Eb), or an A Major chord (A,C#,E). (The F and G major chords don't really count since they already belong to the key of C Major.) The new chord will be part of the chord progression for the new key. It does not have to be the I chord, though it often is.

The common tone modulation is pretty chromatic since the new chord itself can bring in more than one note that does not belong to the original key (say C to Ab.) It is often used at the beginning of large sections of songs, but it doesn't have to be. It can be tucked into the middle of another section, but needs some more careful treatment to do it well.

Phrase Modulation: this is basically when, at the end of a phrase, the key is changed abruptly to something new. This is often a modulation up by a half-step or whole-step, and if you go to church you have heard the pianist or organist do this at some point for the last verse of a hymn.

The phrase modulation is rather abrupt. Modulating up a half-step or whole-step brings in a whole set of new notes. It can also be cliche.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.