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It’s a Right I Defend: Songs With a Powerful Key Change

October 18, 2010

Whether the weekend was excellent or terrible, it can be hard to get the routine of the week going again.  The daily rhythms which keep us sane can suddenly seem so mundane, so I like to inspire myself with some dramatic musical moments, specifically songs with a powerful key change.  When those chords start stepping up the scale, I feel the buzz of anticipation for belting it out, higher and longer.   These songs can be secret enemies of the karaoke singer, but if you’re prepared, it’s a classic way to shut it down.  Here are some of my favorite songs with key changes.

Let’s warm up a little with a classic to help clarify my parameters:

I love this song not only for use of the word “instinctively”, but also “thee”.  As in, “I say to thee”.  Oh yeah, Diana kicks it like the King James version.  However, this song doesn’t quite have the key change I love best — singing bridges in a different key is nice, but what I really consider the classic key change is the one that comes near the end of the song, after a big build.  It’s like, we want to do the chorus ONE more time, but this time we REALLY mean it.  The rest of my examples follow this model of key-changing.

This is a favorite of mine to sing at karaoke, and watching this video I realize I’ve stolen some of those moves too.  They must have infiltrated my conscious at an early age.  Olivia’s hair is pretty amazing, and I appreciate her combination of pink and orange, too.

I actually prefer Wanda Jackson’s cover of this song, but there’s something compelling about this video of Shania flirting with all these men in the diner who are so far out of her league.  Those mom jeans are almost as powerful as the key change at the end, which gives me chills every time I hear it.

It couldn’t be a song post about key changes (or a song post on Fry Butter, in general) without a little Babs.  Someone beat me to this song at karaoke last week, and I was a little jealous.   This fan video is pretty stellar too — I see you, bathtub scene from A Star Is Born!

However, Barry might have Barbra beat with this number: it has TWO key changes.  Oh man, this song about having moved on to a new and better lover, while still feeling longing and loss for the one who got away — you need multiple key changes to manage all that angst.

Soft rock radio has key changes out the wazoo!  I’m pretty sure Laura got dumped the day before singing this live performance, because it is raw.

Ok, damn, sorry to bring it down a notch.  Let’s brighten the mood a bit with the next song.

I still don’t know what the hell she’s singing about in the lyrics, I sing along variations of “yabba-dabba-dabba-doo-be-doo”, but the video is like The Fifth Element all poppy and giddy on E.  The key change at 3:40 is sweet and simple.

Next we have her brother Michael, whose song not only has a key change, but it happens when the chorus sings out the word “CHANGE!”

Not all key changes have to be bombastic; the set closes with a little ditty by Jenny Lewis and company to ease us back into the daily rhythms of Monday.  Now get back to work.


What are your favorite key change songs?

41 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2010 1:11 pm

    The key change in “Man in the Mirror” still gives me chills. This is an excellent post and I can’t wait to see what other people post!

    I never really liked any of the late 90s/early 00s boy bands, but I found this song irresistible.

    This is the obnoxiously delicious obligatory example. Oh Kevin, what were you thinking. Let me stop playing. I saw this movie in the theater like 200 times.

    I’ve always assumed this song qualified, but who can tell with that bombastically awesome drum breakdown. What do you think?

  2. October 18, 2010 1:19 pm

    re: Phil: he’s definitely modulating at the end — is it a descant? i think it can be considered a key change.

    how did I forget that BSB song?? i love that one at karaoke too. i would love to sing that with you, too. I had Whitney on my original list, but decided to leave that for the comments, so thanks for picking up that spare!

  3. October 18, 2010 1:36 pm

    seriously people, watch the Laura Branigan video — she SHEDS TEARS.

  4. October 18, 2010 2:06 pm

    Ooh. I could have thought of a zillion things to post, until I read the post. Now I’m blank. I’ll hit you up later with some when I remember them.

  5. October 18, 2010 2:26 pm

    I like Branigan’s version much, much better than Michael Bolton’s! And RIP Laura Branigan. She shut it down. I always loved her voice.

    She seems to have an invisible touch-a!

    You never give me your money!

  6. October 18, 2010 3:07 pm

    This is the song that comes to mind, though I don’t think it’s using a key change so much as never really settling into a single key:

    When it comes to sheer bombast, it’s hard to top Jim Steinman.

  7. October 18, 2010 3:17 pm

    I think this song deserves a special mention:

    as it manages to incorporate a key change while using only three chords.

  8. evmaroon permalink
    October 18, 2010 3:20 pm

    So many of these are really wonderful ballads…I don’t hear a lot of them on the radio anymore. I love big key changes! I get them a lot from retro singers like Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble, but of course, I can’t come up with a specific one now that I’m asking my memory for it. But thanks for this post–I love when everything jumps up a third.

  9. October 18, 2010 4:22 pm

    I love this post but have had a really difficult time coming up with an example of a song with a big ol’ key change. Then I remembered this song. While it’s definitely never been a favorite of mine, it definitely fills the bill!

  10. meg permalink
    October 18, 2010 4:30 pm

    i think the better Barry Manilow choice is Mandy…

  11. October 18, 2010 4:37 pm

    @redlami: I almost put Bonnie Tyler’s “Hero”, which has the bridge-key change, but I think yours counts too! also, good call on the Ramones — just goes to show, a key change doesn’t have to be musically fancy.

    @popscribblings: good call, I forgot that one!! the key change is the best part of that song! i think there are other REM ones too, but now I’m blanking.

  12. October 18, 2010 4:39 pm

    @Meg: it was definitely hard to make a choice at all. isn’t there one in Copacabana too?

    Miss Kelly likes a key change.

  13. IrishUp permalink
    October 18, 2010 4:59 pm

    @redlami – LOLOL!

    Would it be shorter to list Barry songs without chord chages? The internal DJ is mashing “Even Now” “Can’t Smile Without You” “Could it be Magic” “Trying to Get the Feeling” “I Write the Songs” “Looks Like We Made It” “Ready to Take a Chance Again”, “This One’s for You” and “Weekend in New England”, currently. Every one has a key change. I DETECT A PATTERN, MR. MANILOW!

    If I can get IDJ off hir Barry Kick – and we do love ourselves some Barry, I will come back with something else.

  14. October 18, 2010 5:01 pm

    @IrishUp; seriously, Barry is the MASTER of key changing. damn, i knew it seemed like a lot, and that’s because it IS a lot! haha.

  15. angie permalink
    October 18, 2010 5:21 pm

    omg the comments for this post rule as hard as the post! i want it that way INDEED! xoxo!

  16. IrishUp permalink
    October 18, 2010 5:24 pm

    hah! And of course I meant key, not chord.
    Dude, even the deep cuts like “Sarah” and “Cloudburst” have them. Heck, even his old McDonald’s jingle had a key-change!

  17. Amber permalink
    October 18, 2010 5:40 pm

    that laura branigan video…dayam…you can’t lipsync that isht (to use your word).

  18. October 18, 2010 9:16 pm

    @raymondj There are other REM ones, right? I think Murmur and Reckoning might have a few. How about Shaking Through?

  19. October 18, 2010 9:42 pm

    the REM ones are sorta subtle, like the bridges modulate, then they go back. but i think these count:

  20. October 19, 2010 12:08 am

    Manilow: the Master of Modulation. Didn’t nearly every one of his hits have that key change in it? Ironically, I think his most famous, “Copacabana,” was the exception… sort of, since the background singers do carry the song through several upward keys (“copa… copacabana… copacabana! ahhhhhhh! ahhhhhhhh! AHHHHHH! AHHHHHHH! uh, uh, uh, uh, etc. like in Havana! Have a Banana! ), but bring it back down before Manilow returns to finish the song (music and passion, always in fashion) .

  21. Q.V. permalink
    October 19, 2010 12:37 am

    I feel the only true and just thing I can do with this music degree now is go through these songs and report back the key areas, which key changes are prepared and have a cadence in the new key, which are modal modulations, and which are sequential. My musicianship teachers would be so proud–and that theory teacher who used “Turn Me Loose” to demonstrate a common romantic bass progression.

  22. Q.V. permalink
    October 19, 2010 12:47 am

    And what I love about a key change is that no respectable kick line leaves the house without a fresh tempo and a new key.

  23. hsofia permalink
    October 19, 2010 2:35 am

    As a musically illiterate person (I’m still trying to ascertain whether I’m tone-deaf), I had to listen to a lot of these videos to try to glean what exactly a key change is.

    That being said:
    I love that Babs song. I used to borrow her albums from the library and lip sync to this song in front of the bathroom mirror with my Walkman. “And I’m talking to you!” I was so cool.

    Anyway, after pouring through my iTunes collection, I couldn’t come up with much – maybe folk music doesn’t have a lot of key changes? – but how about this:

    Is this Lauper tune an example of a song with a key change? I love this song; the video I’m not so sure about … seriously, the doubling/tripling thing was way overused in music videos for about 20 years.

    Or this? “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not ….”

    And unfortunately, some douche bag somewhere won’t allow me to embed this, but I think now that the reason I LOVED (imagine hearts with arrows squiggled all over this) LOVED this Roxette songs was because it has a key change! Am I right (about the key change)? If not, then check out the buxom swedish brunette grooving at 3:48 and 4:15 as she sings back up in that incredible jacket I could never wear.

    Here’s an embed-able version minus most of the grooving back up singer and her singer. =(

  24. hsofia permalink
    October 19, 2010 2:40 am

    “… back up singer and her singer” should read “… back up singer and her jacket.”

    Q.V. – Please! Help a sister out.

  25. October 19, 2010 8:16 am

    And what I love about a key change is that no respectable kick line leaves the house without a fresh tempo and a new key.

    Brilliant. QV, please school us properly, I would love it!

    @hsofia: that Roxette song totally has a key change! as does Bon Jovi. good call, despite your self-proclaimed music illiteracy! I need to listen to that Cyndi song again and see.

  26. October 19, 2010 10:20 am

    And what I love about a key change is that no respectable kick line leaves the house without a fresh tempo and a new key.

    That made me LOL.

  27. October 19, 2010 1:09 pm

    I am undecided between this ditty or “Orange Crush”

  28. October 19, 2010 3:41 pm

    I love songs that start minor, then move to major, which REM does well.

  29. October 19, 2010 3:49 pm

    As a formerly obsessed REM fan (I was in the fan club! yeah, I know…) who still appreciates their music and should listen to it more often, perhaps a REM-related post on IFMiB could be in order?

    (I’m sure they’re celebrating some kind of anniversary, to make it somewhat relevant to the here and now.)

  30. October 19, 2010 6:01 pm

    please do!!!

  31. angie permalink
    October 19, 2010 6:48 pm

    I can’t get over how well Laura Branigan held it together – I truly believe that all that she was living for is GONE. A day later she is still breaking my heart!

    Key changes, baby you brought us all together round them.

  32. October 19, 2010 7:22 pm

    it’s like, the test to live in my village is Lars and the Real Girl and songs with key changes.

  33. Jean permalink
    October 20, 2010 6:32 pm

    I ❤ you, Raymond. Let's have a karaoke do-over. I was totally not feeling it last time.

    I was going to propose that Taylor Dane had some good key changes in her songs (Love Will Lead You Back?), but it turns out that she doesn't.

    Did I just watch a bunch of Taylor Dane videos to confirm this? Yes. Yes I did.

  34. October 20, 2010 9:08 pm

    Jean, at least you didn’t waste your time — that Taylor Dayne knowledge refresher will come in handy very soon, I’m sure. And yes, we will karaoke do-over for sure!

  35. mamakitt permalink
    October 21, 2010 8:56 am

    Yikes. Methinks Laura B. should have cancelled that show and taken a long nap.

    I’m so excited to discover a world of fellow key-change appreciators! My nominee is Stevie Wonder, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” He means that key change from the bottom of his heart.

  36. October 21, 2010 1:21 pm

    I’m so excited to discover a world of fellow key-change appreciators! My nominee is Stevie Wonder, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” He means that key change from the bottom of his heart.

    HAHAHAH! Amen!

    I was revising Olivia’s “Little More Love” because for some reason I could remember the song at all. I remember the blazing chorus, but didn’t realize it was also the song with that kick ass, “It gets me nowhere” bridge. ONJ can rock a key change, I tell you what.

  37. October 24, 2010 7:12 am

    Babby noticed Dionne was involved in a key change.

  38. October 24, 2010 8:56 am

    yes it does! damn, that’s another one i love to do at karaoke. barry gibb forever!

  39. October 24, 2010 2:26 pm

    How can I love you when you ain’t around!

  40. October 27, 2010 9:42 pm

    I’ve had this in my head all day. “we’ll just go on burning bright.”

  41. November 17, 2013 12:39 pm

    I had a dream where I was singing Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” and I managed to wake myself up just before I got too far into the key change. It was more of a nightmare. I knew you would all understand.

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