February 1, 2004 3:44 PM   Subscribe

Truck Driver's Gear Change Hall Of Shame - a site devoted to gratuitous key changes in pop songs
posted by Orange Goblin (34 comments total)
I'm disappointed they don't include Zager & Evans' "In The Year 2525", a song constructed around a crankin' key change every damn verse.
posted by John Shaft at 4:03 PM on February 1, 2004

Ha! That's great -- I can't believe they skipped Spinal Tap, but the listing for Mel Brooks's "High Anxiety" is a good touch.
posted by Zonker at 4:12 PM on February 1, 2004

The song Déchiré from the broadway show Notre Dame de Paris has something like 3 or 4 "gear changes" but is nonetheless very good. Does a change in key really make a bad song?
posted by yevge at 4:22 PM on February 1, 2004

I'm sure the person running the gear change site wouldn't complain about all key changes. This essay on the site draws a useful distinction between skillful modulations and "gear changes".
posted by Zonker at 4:27 PM on February 1, 2004

What? How could they leave out Wichita Lineman?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:43 PM on February 1, 2004

When it occurs 85% of the way through the song, it's definitely a gear change. Whip-LASH.
posted by scarabic at 4:57 PM on February 1, 2004

But why is that a problem? In a lot of songs the key change is enjoyable and fun. If it's not, sure, it's a mistake, but it's not the key change that is the mistake, but the way it was handled.

Complaining about the upwards key change seems kind of ridiculous to me. Sure, you often hear it in hack songwriting, but you often hear it in sublime pop songs as well (as in some of the Beatles examples given on the site, or "My Generation," or "Surrender"). Some songs just seem to call for it. The upwards key change is really wonderful when used well and not just as a cynical trick. Hack songs are hack songs in any key.

Disclaimer: I'm a musician and songwriter but primarily a singer. And singers love the upward key change because it's a great place to show off. My favorite upward key change to sing: "Heart" by Nick Lowe -- the fast version, not the slow one. I don't think I've written the key change into any of my songs, but I've certainly performed and recorded a bunch of them -- including at least one of the songs mentioned on the site.
posted by litlnemo at 5:20 PM on February 1, 2004

Doesn't that come to describe almost every single Phil Colllins "song" ?
posted by Fupped Duck at 5:25 PM on February 1, 2004

Yeah, it just sounds a bit like dogma to me, litlnemo. If they're going to complain about upwards keychanges, what else can they pick on? Middle-8's? Surely, they're over used. And hell, everyone uses that damned verse-chorus-verse trick, they should find more creative ways to write songs. And really, that 12-bar-blues is getting old as well, basing your song around that is just plain laziness...
posted by Jimbob at 5:44 PM on February 1, 2004

I think the key word here is "gratuitous". I also have nothing against key changes in general -- it's when they're done for no apparent reason other than to generate excitement in otherwise bland pop songs that they become deserving of mockery. It's gimmicky.

The Beatles songs mentioned are sublime examples of thoughtful modulations. They're also insidiously brilliant. Penny Lane? It's not even a key change (you just think it is). Brian Wilson was another master of that kind of songwriting -- Good Vibrations and Don't Worry Baby have some seriously interesting changes.

Great site, Gob. Thanks for the link.
posted by drinkcoffee at 5:50 PM on February 1, 2004

Great site! I almost always hate those gear-shifting one-step-up gimmicks...but I guess they can in Good Day Sunshine, when, unlike The Man in the Mirror (or other even worse examples), they serve to extend the song for no good reason, whereas, with Good Day Sunshine, a short song by today's standards, it is jarring in a pleasant and sunny way (by my boomer standards).
posted by kozad at 5:53 PM on February 1, 2004

Jimbob: Exactly.

I must say that I had never analyzed "Penny Lane" that closely, so I was kind of amazed to read how that key change works. Of course, he's right -- it's not really the key change you think it is. Brilliant indeed.
posted by litlnemo at 6:08 PM on February 1, 2004

In a lot of songs the key change is enjoyable and fun.

Agreed, it seems like a random, silly thing to complain about. But I guess the point is no one had created a website about it yet, and those holes must be filled!

Some great tunes with great key changes:
"You Better, You Bet"- The Who
"Joy to the World"- Three Dog Night
"Rainbow Connection"- Kermit the Frog
posted by Ty Webb at 6:10 PM on February 1, 2004

I think there are worse sins to be called out, anyway, like tempo/time changes (how are you supposed to dance to that?) and false endings.
posted by Jimbob at 6:21 PM on February 1, 2004

like tempo/time changes (how are you supposed to dance to that?)

one night, back in the dewy mists at the dawn of time, a drunken friend defied a drunken me to dance to "sound chaser" from yes' relayer album, so i did.
posted by quonsar at 7:34 PM on February 1, 2004

litlnemo, the word "gratuitous" is what you're missing, here. When nothing else is going on in the song, and they don't know how to finish it, and they decide to just dive in on a key change because it gives the illusion of a crescendo to a climax, that's lazy and formulaic, and incredibly overdone. Entering an upper register just to perform some fireworks is also cheesy, and was also overdone 20 years ago.

This is not to say that there's never a good time to change keys in a song, but if you're doing it simply because you've been programmed over the years to think that this is how you build a song's energy, or bring it to a flashy close, you're not thinking very creatively.

It doesn't matter if you're talking about "hack songwriting" or "sublime pop." Formulaic mimcry is no way to render a swell of passion.
posted by scarabic at 8:12 PM on February 1, 2004

one night, back in the dewy mists at the dawn of time, a drunken friend defied a drunken me to dance to "sound chaser" from yes' relayer album, so i did.

q, I would have paid money to see that. That song has that wonderful going-completely-mental guitar lines... if memory serves, and I think it does, despite my attempts to sabotage it through the egregious smoking of hash.

To the point at hand: Isn't that a key change in Annie Lennox's Why, the part that just rips your heart out ("Let's go down to the water's edge...")? And then that crazy series of modulations at the end of Seals and Crofts Hummingbird, too-- I'd be interested to hear a bit about that....

Oh, and of course there's the famous key change in Cole Porter's Everytime We Say Goodbye, where it parallels the lyrics: "How strange the change from major to minor... everytime we say goodbye." It's a writing tool, like many other things. Depends how you use it, and even some of the cheesiest examples on the site-- Livin' on a Prayer-- use it well.

When the chorus comes thundering back in the new key, for added measure, the song skips a beat. As does your heart – who can honestly say that they don't find themselves involuntarily punching the air with their clenched fist, bellowing out "whoa-oh, we're livin' on a prayer" at the top of their lungs?
posted by jokeefe at 8:20 PM on February 1, 2004

litlnemo, the "gear change" is a key change without any modulation.

Modulation, for you non-musicians, is a technical term. In a nutshell, you pick a chord (or maybe a sequence of them, if you're real slick) that belongs both to the key you're in now, and in the key you want to go to. You can then use the ambiguity of that chord to achieve a smooth transition from one key to another.

Graceful modulation is a hallmark of baroque and classical music. Romantics started experimenting with more jarring and musically unexpected modulation.

("Expected" might be a key a fourth or a fifth away, eg from C to F or C to G. A third away is relatively more extreme - say C major to A minor. A change to a key whose root doesn't even exist as a note of the scale in the key you're in is putting you in Wagner territory - say C major to E flat.)

In the last century, we've got so accustomed to extreme changes in key that we can perceive an unmodulated, extreme key change as mere change of flavour rather than a jarring transition.

A lot of popular music isn't really using classical harmony anyway. It's modal, and harmonies are unimportant (hell, a lot of dance music these days doesn't have two chords, let alone a progression). That might be another reason that some of us don't find this as offensive as others.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:22 PM on February 1, 2004

From the FAQ:

I suggest you check out Crazy Crazy Nights by Kiss, which is a perfect example of the, ahem, oeuvre.

If you're going to use "ahem," you should have the right word: it's genre.

That said, like many songwriters, I share this guy's disdain for gratuitous last-minute key changes. For decades, my collaborator and I have called 'em "the Barry Manilow Special" (and we've used one occasionally, e.g. "do you think this would be a good place for a Barry Manilow Special?") There are, after all, ways in which it can work. One of my best songs is one in which it sounds like this has happened when the last chorus returns, but in fact a previous series of modulations has set you up so that the "new" key is really the original key, and that's also the textual point of the song. But most often, yeah, it's just there because the songwriter didn't know what else to do.

The site should have a spot for downshifting as well - one of my favorite godawful spots in a pop song is in "Life in the Fast Lane," after the middle 8 has spun out into several different directions, guitar solos and all, and the Eagles seem to say "oh yeah, we gotta do the third verse," so rather than come up with a transition, they just grab the gearshift and WHAM! there you are...
posted by soyjoy at 8:32 PM on February 1, 2004

Another great key change: the guitar solo of Queen's "Seven Seas of Rhye."
posted by Ty Webb at 10:09 PM on February 1, 2004

A key change (modulation) doesn't make a song a bad song and it is silly to assume so. They can be an effective way to build tension or energy in a song. Sheesh...

Brian Wilson was another master of that kind of songwriting

In the Beach Boys tune Dance, Dance, Dance, when they sing,"I hit the radio dial and turn it up all the way" there is a modulation right in the middle of the vocal line, on the word "radio." It's very cool and not been done that way to my knowledge before or since.
posted by wsg at 11:17 PM on February 1, 2004

Formulaic mimcry is no way to render a swell of passion.

It may not be a good way , but it is nevertheless a way. Cliches are cliches for a reason: because they work.
posted by wsg at 11:25 PM on February 1, 2004

Godamnit, is anyone listening? Modulation is not key change. Modulation is the smooth transition achieved by means of one or more pivot chords. The effect being ridiculed here is the abrupt keychange without such a transition.

Also, dropping in one chromatic chord, a la Dance Dance Dance, is not really a key change.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:56 PM on February 1, 2004

wsg's comment there does hit on an aspect of what is bothering me here. If the key change works, is it necessarily bad just because it's obvious or formulaic? 12-bar blues are formulaic, but I wouldn't write off the whole genre because of that formula. If the unmodulated key change works in a song (as I think it does in some of the examples listed on the site), is it a terrible thing? If the song is otherwise wonderful, does the key change manage to ruin it? And does it matter in modern pop if it violates classical harmony?

I'm sort of thinking aloud here.

Incidentally, I did like the original poster's link, even though I am sort of put off by the judgemental nature of the site.
posted by litlnemo at 12:06 AM on February 2, 2004

I think it's just an overextended (but not unamusing) joke, litlnemo.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:22 AM on February 2, 2004


In Dance, Dance, Dance, it is not just "one chromatic chord that is dropped in"; the key of the song goes up a half-step, for G to G#. Upon listening, I found I had the wrong verse, though. It's the one "At a weekend dance we like to show up last. I play it cool when it's slow and jump it when it's fast." The key change comes on "cool."
posted by wsg at 12:37 AM on February 2, 2004

Modulation is not key change.

Yes, it is.


modulation: (Mus.) A change of key...
posted by wsg at 12:47 AM on February 2, 2004

...FROM G to G# above.
posted by wsg at 12:49 AM on February 2, 2004

Yes, i_am_joe's_spleen, you are right, of course.
posted by litlnemo at 12:58 AM on February 2, 2004

Modulation generally implies moving through a number of keys to get from your first main key to your second main key. The gear box doesn't do this - it just shoves you straight in there. Its bad because it's cheesy.

The two worse offenders I know of are Since You've Been Gone (a song that I happen to really like, actually) by Rainbow, which just gets shoved up for the last chorus before the fade out, and Heaven Help Us All by Stevie Wonder, in which Stevie solos "OoOo-WoOo-AhWo" halfway through the song, taking it from A minor to A major (I think...a while since I had to play it). As the site says: My pet theory is that Stevie Wonder mischievously decided on the spur of the moment that he'd go for it, and the rest of the musicians were forced to follow.

Oh, also, I just checked out the dictionary definition, which supports what I said: "A passing or transition from one key or tonality to another". Modulation is getting from one key to another, by using a number of key changes.
posted by Orange Goblin at 1:42 AM on February 2, 2004

And if I can shift gears here for a moment...regarding Joe'sSpleen's comments...there was an article in the New Yorker a month or so ago about the Wagner in Tolkien and in the LOTR's soundtrack...mentioned especially was a shift from C major to E minor (or its equivalent in different keys).
posted by kozad at 6:46 AM on February 2, 2004


The definition doesn't say anything about "using a number of key changes." At its most basic, modulation is simply a key change. There are many ways to do it.
posted by wsg at 9:09 AM on February 2, 2004

Any modulation between "closely related keys" is "expected." Closely related means they have no more than one sharp or flat difference, and the relative minor (the C Major to A Minor Joe's Spleen cited) counts as closely related.

Now then, the reason for the distinction is that it is pathetically easy to modulate between closely related keys. You use a "common chord" which appears in both keys. For example, you want to get from C Major to G Major. You can modulate using a C Major triad, an E Minor triad, or an A Minor triad. If you are only half listening, you might not even notice.

With expanded harmony, borrowed chords, secondary dominants, and the like, you can get to more remote keys without losing your audience somewhere in the viola section. Still, I think there were composers who just decided that there would be a key change in measure 168 by god, and we'll harp on the dominant seventh chord till everyone catches up.

For what it's worth, I used "Livin on a Prayer" as a classroom example of a brute force modulation. It still cracks me up. So many of these just sound like "Hey, what do we do now? It's almost the end of the song, lets do the chorus one more time, up a step, and call it a day." Talk about lazy songwriter tricks.

oops, /pedant
posted by ilsa at 11:19 AM on February 2, 2004

Another common way to move between keys is to play a 2 - 5 of the key you want go to.
posted by wsg at 11:53 AM on February 2, 2004

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