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12 hit songs with the best and worst key changes

Nov 03, 2015

Sometimes a key change can make or break your song. Here are some classic examples of both.

Depending on who’s doing it, a key change can either send your song soaring to a transcendent emotional climax (see: Whitney), or leave your listeners cringing with a transcendently embarrassing nadir (see: Westlife). In the wrong hands, a boring old step-up key change can lay bare the lack of any musical ideas in a song’s final third.

The practice is so ubiquitous the internet coined the term “trucker’s gear change” to describe a song going up a semitone or two for the last chorus of a pop song: a rote, mechanical action performed unthinkingly, just to complete a song. While it’s overdone at this point, it’s still possible to get some emotional mileage out of a trucker’s gear change, but the very best compositions use it sparingly, and often in more novel ways than the step-up to outro cliché. We compiled the best of the best, and the worst of the worst.

Michael Jackson – “Man In The Mirror” (1987)

Gratuitous? Yes. Amazing? Hell yes. This is the big one, the ur-change, the one modulation that rules them all—and it’s the definition of a trucker’s gear change. If you’re a songwriter contemplating punching up the last third of your song with a bombastic switch up, first think: “Does my key change come anywhere close to majesty of the King of Pop’s on ‘Man In The Mirror,’ where MJ actually makes the change while singing ‘change,’ and it’s completely awesome”? If not, you should probably refrain from bumping up your refrain. (Occurs at: 2:52)

The Flaming Lips – “Do You Realize??” (2002)

It’s relatively easy to go up a semitone or two and ride out your song to completion, but it takes a lot more skill to modulate in the middle of the song and then return to the original key to wrap things up. Wayne Coyne and co. make it look easy here. (Occurs at: 2:28)

The Backstreet Boys – “I Want It That Way”(1999)

The Boys were some of the undisputed masters of modulation, with pretty much every single one of their hit singles changing tonics more often than AJ did (boom). “I Want It That Way” might be the best of the bunch, though, with a Nick Carter preface that makes for a magic moment. (Occurs at: 2:31)

Billy Ocean – “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” (1988)

Oof. The polar opposite of “I Want It That Way,” this one is jarring, which is exactly what a good key change shouldn’t be. Get out of my ears and into my recycle bin. (Occurs at: 3:46)

Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone”(2004)

Another trucker that REALLY knows how to drive. Kelly could’ve easily swung it up as the final chorus starts at 2:22, but switching it halfway through has a far greater impact. (Occurs at: 2:37)

Sisqó – “The Thong Song” (1999)

Mark Althavean Andrews, aka Sisqó, really, really wants you to know how much he likes the way you move that thing. So much so, in fact, he lets loose one of the most scandalous, overblown key changes ever towards the end of his masterpiece, as he seems to be under the impression we didn’t hear him. This one’s awful/awesomeness depends on how drunk your karaoke room crew is, actually. (Occurs at: 3:15)

R.E.M. – “Stand” (1989)

Michael Stipe and co. won’t “stand” for staying in the same key for a whole song. *Leans back* “Nailed it.” This one’s only saved from the hall of shame by doing it twice in quick succession though. (Occurs at: 2:30, 2:48)

Johnny Cash – “I Walk The Line” (1956)

A masterclass in pitch-shifting. “People ask me why I always hum whenever I sing this song. It’s to get my pitch,” Cash said of the song, which moves up each verse three times in succession before going back down. (Occurs at: 0:41, 1:08, 1:37, 2:05)

Whitney Houston – “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (1987)

Shameless, by the numbers, and incredible. (Occurs at: 3:37)

Whitney Houston – “I Will Always Love You” (1992)

Shameless, by the numbers, and gaudier than a millionaire fight promoter’s living room. (Occurs at: 3:09)

Madness – “Our House” (1982)

A one-two punch of modulation adds both confusion and interest to the outro of Madness’ 1982 hit. “I remember putting in two key changes instead of one at the end of the song, so as the outro went on you never knew where the beginning was; you’d probably lost sense of the key that the song was in. It was really exciting working on that,” producer Clive Langer told Sound On Sound. (Occurs at: 3:30, 3:38)

Stevie Wonder – “Golden Lady” (1973)

An auditory stairway to heaven for key change fetishists. (Occurs at: 3:29, 3:48, 4:06, 4:24, 4:44)

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