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A Cheap Trick That Works… Sometimes

Going into a new key for your Chorus (every time; not just for the last Chorus) is considered by many many songwriters to be… well, cheating.

Why? Because simply by changing key you potentially create a ‘fake’ version of the exciting lift that, in most cases, should come from the transition into the Chorus itself, without the ‘artificial stimulation’ of a new key. It can come off as giving false life to a weak Chorus.

Now, changing key into a Chorus is probably not something you want to get in the habit of doing, for the reasons stated above. But, like pretty much everything else you can possibly do when writing a song, in the right place, at the right time… it can work, and work well.

You want examples? I knew it! (videos below) I’ll start with Wild Cherry’s annoyingly catchy ‘Play That Funky Music White Boy’ (Parissi); it’s a classic example of the cheap trick that works. It stays on E7 for the entire Verse and Pre-Chorus then, completely out of the blue, jumps up to a G7 for the Chorus (with the same riff and groove).

It’s brutal but effective (as is the over-the-top lyric). For the leadup to the end of the Chorus it again jumps up a minor 3rd, to Bb7, followed by another out-of-the-blue jump, back to E7 for the riff that ends the Chorus and brings us back to the Verse.

So… the whole song contains only three chords. Each one bears no harmonic relation to any of the others. The jarring nature of the chords actually, I believe, contributes strongly to the garish efficiency of this particular song.

On a considerably subtler note, check out  The Eagles’ ’New Kid In Town’ (Henley, Frey, Souther).

Harmonically the Verses couldn’t be much simpler – E, A, and B chords. The last bar has a big ‘key change’ moment: G#7sus4 to G#7. The Chorus then enters very naturally on C#minor (which itself is in the key of E…). It then goes back and forth between C#minor and F# (which is not in the key of Emajor).

So, between the big ‘key change’ G#s , and the F# chords, it feels like we’re in a different key (though I’m not exactly sure which one. Ideas?). Then the song moves to A and B chords, which end the Chorus by taking us back to the key of E – the Verse key. An understated (other than the big V chord) way of putting the Chorus in a different key.

Far more sophisticated still is The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ (Lennon/McCartney). The Verse:

|| B | E F# | B | Bminor7 | Abminor7(b5) | Gmajor7 | F#7sus4 F#7 | E ||

The Verse ends on E, which we’ve already heard, but now it’s being used as a V chord taking us a whole step down for the Chorus, to the key of A:

|| A | A/C# | D | D | A | A/C# | D | B/F# B/D# F# ||

In the Chorus’s 8th bar, they take us back, ever so smoothly, to the Verse key.

This is an example where the key change is ‘baked in’ so elegantly, so integrated with the melody and words, that it’s hardly even noticed (it’s felt, though). And it’s impossible to imagine the song without it.

This has been our brief ‘writing the Chorus in a different key from the Verse’ tour – from the ridiculous (but fun) to the sublime. Use this tool with care… it can bite back.

Any other examples?

(Another post on modulations here.)

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:


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8 responses to “A Cheap Trick That Works… Sometimes”

  • Great column, Tony. I’m reluctant to call the chorus in another key a ‘cheap trick’, I like the word ‘device’ better. (although it really is a cheap trick…) It’s a device that should be used sparingly, like all devices.

    “Penny Lane” is a great example. The best example of a song that moves through keys seamlessly that I can think of is “God Only Knows”. Unlike us mere mortals, Brian Wilson could do magic. The way the bridge wraps around back into the verse is unlike anything else I know of. I think of the song as musical Moebius Strip.

  • Wayne Somerville

    Brian Wilson also does it in Don’t Worry Baby…it’s so powerful and you really have no idea that he modulated.

  • Great post, Tony. The structure of “New Kid In Town” has always been a favorite of mine. Not sure if any other song is quite like it. The song starts off in one key, transitions to a new key after the bridge — raising excitement– and then after the final verse it transitions back to the original key, which seems counter-intuitive, but it raises excitement even further. That’s a great arrangement.

    Another thing about the song that I’ve always liked, it has what I call a “surprise bridge.” The song starts off like a basic folk tune — verse, chorus, verse, chorus. After the second chorus, the song moves to a guitar solo on the verse, so you feel like another chorus will be coming. But then the song transitions to a bridge out of the solo which is a cool, surprise move. They also do this in “Tequila Sunrise.”

  • Hey Tony! Great article. I think a key change for the chorus is a perfectly legitimate tool, although not everybody uses it well.

    A couple of titles I’d throw out for consideration are “Laughter in the Rain” by Neil Sedaka and “And She Was” by the Talking Heads. They show very different approaches to chorus modulations:

    “Laughter in the Rain” is very songwriter/crafty with its surprise shift to to a major key a minor third up from the verse. In effect, from a scalar standpoint, this moves to the parallel minor of the verse key, so that it sounds like a big color change, but it’s really easy to shift back. One could argue that the song is a little hokey, but that modulation is still uplifting for me, every time.

    “And She Was” in contrast sounds like it was created almost visually on a guitar neck, rather than by musical craft. The verse is all I IV V type stuff in E Major, until boom, at the B section it capriciously jumps up a half step and plays I IV V type stuff in F Major. Then to go to the chorus, it just as abruptly jumps back down to E. But somehow the entire effect is charming and perfectly in character. The somewhat nonsensical modulations add a big spark of interest and originality to what I suspect would have otherwise been a very middling song all in E Major.

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