Music

The 19 greatest key changes in music history

Posted by
Dave Fawbert
Published
Michael Jackson

Since Pop Idol, The X Factor and Westlife came into our lives, the key change has got itself a bad rep. Used incorrectly, it’s an easy, lazy way to rouse interest in a song about two minutes in, when you need to spin it out a bit longer but can’t be bothered to do anything inventive. ‘Whack it up a tone, stand up from your barstools and wait for the audience to whoop and applaud because that’s what they’ve been taught to do when they hear it’ has become such a cliche that now the key change is viewed with suspicion by many songwriters and music fans.

But to disregard the key change is a mistake, for when used correctly, it is a device that can utterly transform a track - to take something which is already brilliant and lift it into the stratosphere.

Prepare yourselves for an emotionally-charged journey (sorry, The X Factor ruined that word too) into pure musical joy.

PLEASE NOTE: To count as a key change the song has to move for a ‘substantial’ amount of time into the new key (’substantial’ to be judged by me). For example, Chaka Khan’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ while an eternal banger of epic proportions, does not have a key change during the end section - this is merely an (admittedly totally amazing) bouncing between two chords rather than a substantive harmonic change. Likewise the oft-cited ‘key changes’ of Randy Crawford’s ‘Street Life’ are in fact part of the general movement of the track. Look, I know my onions on this stuff, alright?

19. Beyoncé - ‘Love on Top’

Trust Beyoncé to not only recognise the brilliance of the key change but to casually throw out four of them in the same song in a really clever manner that completely suits the jazzy style of the track, bringing something new and fresh to the whole experience. It was this track that led me to pose the following question, which maddeningly, remains unanswered.

Key change at: 1:44 / 2:04 / 2:25 / 2:45

18. S Club 7 - ‘Bring it All Back’

While the cynics amongst you, and those of you who actually bothered to read the intro, will point and exclaim, ‘But Dave, this key change happens at 2:42 - at precisely the point at which the song has run out of ideas and they need to spin it out a bit longer’ - well, you’d be correct, but honestly, with a chorus that good, this is where a key change is totally justified, especially when it’s accompanied by Jo singing the classic, time-honoured bridging line: “Heeeee-eeeey, yeah yeah yeah-ee, alright, ooooo-ooooooo”.

Key change at: 2:42

17. Berlin - ‘Take my Breath Away’

This is just absolutely bloody great, using a wholly unexpected semitone drop to then launch into an eventual tone and a half rise. ‘Take my Breath Away’? Berlin, you just did.

Key change at: 2:48

16. Michael Jackson - ‘Earth Song’

’Earth Song’ is a track that, like an archaeological dig, only gives up more and more of its majesty and secrets as time progresses. It is, simultaneously, one of the most utterly ludicrous and utterly brilliant pieces of music ever recorded. This could only have come from the mind of a true genius. And only a true genius could have reached 3:45 and thought, “No, this song needs to get BIGGER”, and whack in a giant key change. And then think that not even this was enough, and make a video with elephants coming back to life and the use of wind machines so massive that, ironically, they probably had to cut down a rainforest to power them.

Key change at: 3:45

15. Queen - ‘The Show Must Go On’

Queen, not a band normally famed for subtlety, but any students of their back catalogue will know that, actually, this was just as much part of their armoury as all the bombastic stuff. Nowhere is this more perfectly demonstrated than on ‘The Show Must Go On’, which when you least expect it - out of the very chorus and into the second verse - they put in a tone lift, which, instead of providing euphoria, instead creates this weird, uneasy feeling that the stakes have been subtly raised. It then shifts back to the original key for chorus two, which also invokes an unsettling feeling. It’s brilliant and it’s seriously clever. 

Key change at: 1:31 / 2:11

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14. Britney Spears - ‘Sometimes’

1999 was quite a year for epoch-defining key changes, as you’ll discover later. But for now, enjoy the delights of this little stop-n-semitone-shift up which lifts what is already a truly brilliant pop song into total dreamland at 2:45. Spears’ adlibs help the whole thing bed in in a way that’s quite unexpectedly moving. Tell you what, while we’re here, what an underrated banger ‘Born to Make You Happy’ was (with a key change of its own of course).

Key change at: 2:45

13. Belinda Carlisle - ‘Heaven is Place on Earth’

The geniuses who wrote this song really knew what they were doing. Banging drums throughout? Yep. Tension-building pre-chorus? Got it. Epic singalong chorus? Done. Dreamy middle eight? Sorted. Breakdown bit where everyone in the stadium can clap along? Rinsed.

But then? The coup de gras: a fairly standard tone rise, but delivered two beats earlier than you expect, accompanied by a massive drum toms roll. A special mention to Michael Bolton’s ‘How can we be Lovers’, which employs a similar device, arriving a beat earlier than expected, while rising up a massive major sixth. Frankly, it’s outrageous, much like Mikey’s hair at the time.

Key change at: 3:23

12. Taylor Swift - ‘Love Story’

My love for Swifty is deep and true and, to be quite honest, even if you respect nothing else about her, you should respect the absolute balls it takes to whip out such a massive, blatant key change in the middle of a track that would have managed quite well without it. And that’s the measure of the woman.

Key change at: 3:18

11. Genesis - ‘Invisible Touch’

Similarly, I have gone on record, extensively, about my love of Big Phil and, as befits such a musical colossus, he is fully aware of the power of the key change - and unafraid to use it in the correct context. And that context is in the latter stages of the already-euphoric ‘Invisible Touch’ where the whole song just lifts up a gear to take it on home.

Key change at: 3:07

10. Mr Big - ‘To be with You’

Everyone knows this song, but probably hardly anyone realises what the rest of Mr Big’s back catalogue sounds like. I do because, as a young bass player, the virtuoso Billy Sheehan, who played with the band, was one of my idols. They also boasted the similarly-legendary shredmonster Paul Gilbert yet, as is always the way, their biggest hit was where they stripped it down, whipped out the acoustics and had a laugh - including the truly amazing slow down and shove it up a major third key change out of the middle eight. And then - when you think it can’t get any better - they drop it back down to the original key. A ‘Big’ key change, ‘Mr’, and no mistakin’.

Key change at: 2:28 / 2:52

9. Tears For Fears - ‘Woman in Chains’

This is a phenomenal song. It is, I would go so far to suggest, a perfect song. It has everything. The attention to sonic detail is staggering, the dynamic range of the track is vast, the vocals by both Roland Orzabal and the guesting Oleta Adams are outstanding, the guest bass playing from Pino Palladino is, naturally, brilliant and - who’s that lifting the track by coming in with a massive drum fill recorded in a grand canyon at 3:30? Oh, it’s only bloody Philip David Charles Collins. And then, when you think, “No, this song, surely, has nothing left to give” - it drops down, and then LIFTS LIKE AN EAGLE with a giant key change while Roland and Oleta let rip, hymnally repeating ‘so free her’. Utterly transcendent.

Key change at: 4:43

8. Cheryl Lynn - ‘Got to be Real’

If you were paying attention at the start, you’ll have seen that both Chaka Khan and Randy Crawford missed out on entering this hallowed list - but not so for fellow disco queen Cheryl Lynn who is so excited about doing a belting key change that she doesn’t even bother to wait for the final third of the amazing ‘Got to be Real’ to unleash it. She crucially commits to it for the remainder of the song. “Zoo-hoo zoo-hoo zoo-hoo I’ve got to have it baby” - she’s clearly singing about a key change there people.

Key change at: 1:38

7. Whitney Houston - ‘I Have Nothing’

Honestly, it breaks my heart not to have Whitney’s most famous key change, ‘I Will Always Love You’ in this list, but no one said that this was going to be easy. This one, this utter tour de force, edges it out - against plenty of other competition in her back catalogue - for the coveted title of Whitters’ greatest key change. Why? Well, without it, it still would have been one of the greatest ballads ever written, but the point of the song at which it comes is where you think, “No Whitney, you have nothing left in you. You cannot be any more emotional than you are right now. And you do get So Emotional sometimes, you told us during that other total banger of that name. You cannot sound more like a woman on the edge, who cannot close one more door, or hurt any more.” And then she goes and does it. When she hits that note, you can hear the gates of heaven open up and the angels proclaiming: “Nope, we can’t do any better than that, God. Whitney has got us beat. Fair play, girl.” That’s how good a key change it is.

Key change at: 3:44

6. Cliff Richard - ‘Saviour’s Day’

Forget ‘Mistletoe and Wine’, this is one of the most underrated Christmas songs - nay, songs - ever written. Not only is the chorus absolutely brilliant, not only is there some top notch pan pipe playing, not only is it in a lovely lilting 12/8 time, not only is the video gloriously terrible - it’s actually an insanely musically clever song. I remember learning this to play for a Christmas gig in an old hip-hop funk collective I was in (if you saw us play, you’d understand why this made perfect sense) and it took bloody ages to work out what the hell was going on (especially with the one bar of 9/8 in the chorus which gives it that lovely skip during the “Life can be yours if you only staaaaayyyyyy” line). The best bit? The beautiful major 4th key change lift into the middle eight pan pipe solo (just before one of the best tom fills in musical history) before it key changes back down for verse three having given us a minor slice of musical manna from heaven. Honestly, Jesus must think it’s his birthday every time he hears that key change.

Key change at: 2:34 / 2:53

5. Backstreet Boys - ‘I Want it that Way’

If the presence of Cliff above wasn’t enough to alert you to it - things are getting serious now. And I can’t imagine anyone will argue with the Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson-penned all-time boyband classic ‘I Want it that Way’ kicking off our top five. It’s just a perfect pop song isn’t it? You can sing along with every single section, there’s an impeccable middle-eight-into-breakdown-chorus-into-choral-bit and then - WHAM - an utterly glorious key change. You know it’s coming (Nick practically puts his hand out to guide you up a tone with his “Don’t wanna hear you saaaaaaayyyyyeaahyeahhh”), you know it’s obvious and yet - what can you do? You’ve got your hands up with your homemade ‘I heart the Backstreet boys’ sign and you’re waiting for them at an airport and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Key change at: 2:32

4. Bon Jovi - ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’

It’s a well-known fact that this was the song Bon Jovi wrote - with the help of songwriter Desmond Child - when they were purposely striving to write a massive stadium-ready pop song. And they did not leave one stone unturned in that quest - with one of the biggest choruses you’re ever likely to hear and a face-melting guitar solo from Richie Sambora. But the pièce de résistance? A key change up a minor third which forced Jon Bon Jovi to sing in one of the highest keys that a man has ever, and will ever sing in. I honestly don’t know how he physically does it, absolutely astonishing stuff Jon.

Key change at: 3:24

3. Michael Jackson - ‘Man in the Mirror’

If anyone ever writes a better song than this then feel free to let me know because I honestly can’t see it happening. I can probably stop listening to anything other than this song for the foreseeable future to be honest. Incredible production, performance, arrangement, lyrics, melody - it’s got the lot. And, just like Whitney - and just like ‘Earth Song’ - just when you think it can’t possibly get any bigger; any more outrageous, comes that famous MAKE THAT……… CHANGE and lo, although they’re a bit tired from having already come out for Cliff and Whitney earlier in the list, the Cherubim and Seraphim doth emerge once more from heaven above and remark: “Firstly, what an eternal banger and secondly, that lyric works on two levels because you’re literally ‘making a key change’ while you’re singing it and ruddy hell that’s clever.”

Key change at: 2:53

2. Sisqo - ‘Thong Song’

99% of the time, I forget this song exists. And then, every so often, it’ll pop up on a playlist and it just blows me away. This song is so incredible. I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking it was a joke, and then realising, very quickly that the joke was on me because it literally was a joke - a joke how good it was. It’s brilliant all the way through but after the second chorus, it suddenly enters another dimension. Unlike most key changes, you just don’t see it coming. There’s a menacing sounding synth cello bit and then, out of literally nowhere, comes this outrageous key lift. It’s actually only a semitone but the way Sisqo sells it to you - with an otherworldly ‘yeeeeeeaaaaahhh’ - means that, suddenly, you become aware of just how passionate this man is about thongs. And then you become utterly convinced, as if under a spell, that thongs are indeed the most important thing in the world. And you think, “That, for my money, was the second-best key change of all time”. And then the song finishes and then you forget about it until it pops up again on a playlist.

Key change at: 3:16

1. Bros - ‘When will I be Famous?’

It could never be anything else. Indeed, such is the brilliance of this song that I have already written 1,000 words explaining just why it is one of the best pop songs ever made. The key - literally - to its success is the incredible key change that resides at the end of its middle eight. If I can be so bold as to quote from my previous work:

“2:47 - It’s middle eight time guys, time to mix things up. Let’s take it down a bit, get rid of the snare, chuck a few go-go bells in instead. Lovely stuff.

3:18 - Let’s bring the drums back in, drop out the synths - this is the ‘hands in the air’ moment at the live show. Gang vocal of ‘When will I be Famous’ at 3:26. Perfect.

But then. 3:34. A musical moment that blew my tiny little mind. Quite simply, one of the greatest key changes of all time.

Half-time triplets into a truly mesmerising single semitone lift, with the second backing chord removing its added ‘happy’ seventh.

All that mattered (and matters now) was that this instantly catchy slice of pop brilliance had been taken to a a seriously eerie, epic conclusion. Suddenly, the imploring of ‘When will I be Famous?’ had gone from a mere jokey enquiry to a desperate, desperate plea. In one stroke it lifted the pursuit of fame from something that would be quite nice to achieve, to something that was absolutely essential to the continued wellbeing of the interlocutor. They needed fame to survive; to continue to function. It was the oxygen that they require to exist. It was everything to them.”

I now realise that it is not merely “one of the greatest key changes of all time”, it is the greatest key change of all time. Like Sisqo, it actually does the opposite of what most key changes do by completely changing the mood of the song - but to a more eerie, strange and mesmerising place rather than a happier one. ‘Man in the Mirror’ is probably the pinnacle of the ‘euphoric’ key change, but to do what Bros and Sisqo do is altogether more impressive. I can technically describe how they’ve done it, but I don’t know how it has the effect it has. All I can do, and all you should do, is bow down before them and proclaim them the kings of the key change.

Key change at: 3:34

(Main image: Rex)

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Dave Fawbert

ShortList.com staff writer Dave’s primary passions are pop, prose, punning and power ballads (and alliteration). A lower division football enthusiast and long-suffering cricket fan, he is one of only 110 people followed on Twitter by Chas Hodges from Chas ‘n’ Dave. Follow Dave on Twitter like Chas: @davefawbert

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