This is a list of my 9 favorite key changes in pop music. I should say now that this list is devoted to only one kind of key change: the obvious kind, in which the tonal center suddenly moves up. I am not talking about non-diatonic chord changes, or any sort of modulation that might occur over the course of a chord progression. I’m only talking about the kind of key change that everyone recognizes immediately: the kind that grabs your attention and brings the song up a little higher.

#9. “Get Out Of Here,” by Thin Lizzy. This song has a few key changes, but my favorite is the one after the guitar solo. The new key hits the sweet spot in Phil Lynott’s voice, making it my single favorite moment in any Thin Lizzy song.

#8. “I Hear A Symphony,” by Diana Ross & The Supremes. This whole song is key changes, appropriate for a song about symphonies.

#7. “Ronnie,” by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. This song goes up a half step at the very end, making you lean forward during the fadeout.

#6. “Always Be My Baby,” by Mariah Carey. She has a way of anticipating the key change that makes me think her voice has frets on it. It is an effect I love.

#5. “Surrender,” by Cheap Trick. This song has a key change almost immediately, before the first verse, and then another before the third verse. They work so well that you forget about them.

#4. “Man In The Mirror,” by Michael Jackson. Everything stops, and the key change happens on the word “change.” Wish I’d thought of that.

#3. “To Be With You,” by Mr. Big. Billy Saps first turned me onto this one. It is the song that made me care about key changes.

#2. “Rock And Roll High School,” by The Ramones. They go to a key change, and then they immediately cut to an extended drum break, and then they all come back in the new key. It’s like a disappearing act, but when the magicians reappear, they’re all a foot taller.

#1. “I Will Always Love You,” by Whitney Houston. It is my opinion that no one will ever beat this. It is unbeatable. Go home and listen to it again.

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  1. Check out Beyonce’s new song “Love on Top,” great use of key change!

  2. don says:

    Obvious key changes give me a big smile but also a big sadness, like, why does it have to be this obvious for the dopamine to kick in?

    • I think it’s because a really obvious key change makes you hear the song with new ears, and it’s almost like hearing it for the first time again. And when a song is really great, hearing it for the first time is a special kind of magic. So that’s why the obvious ones have always been my faves. But someone should make a list of great small key changes.

  3. CON says:

    i don’t know how i stumbled upon this post a month later, but, here i am, and i have one song to add to the list which relates to this and your more recent post on solo-ey guitar solos….in undone (the sweater song) by weezer, rivers has an awesome guitar solo after the second chorus which modulates in a super subtle way. subversively even.

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