Songwriting is a lot like cooking: when a song is bland you can spice it up with some flavor, or you can give a great song an extra kick. The secret ingredient? The subtle-yet-effective key change. It can add a thrilling punch, transforming anything into one powerful track. The list below showcases 10 songs that have mastered this secret ingredient.
Michael Jackson, “Man In The Mirror”
In this uplifting ballad from 1988, Jackson cries out about making himself a better person to help the world. What better way to emphasize his dedication than to drive the entire song up a key change halfway through the song? The key change makes Jackson’s declaration that much more sincere.
Zac Efron & Vanessa Hudgens, “Start Of Something New”
Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” features an iconic opening song with Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) serenading each other and the song they are singing features a small key change at the very end of the song. Even avid fans might miss the subtle half-step change, but it is there and makes the introduction to Troy and Gabriella that much more exciting.
Taylor Swift, “Love Story”
Even the country-princess-turned-popstar has tried her hand at key changes. Back when Swift was still a country gal, she sang about being someone’s Juliet. It wasn’t until the last chorus that Swift takes the entire song up a key as she belts out the final conclusion to her love story, ending the song on one wild climax.
Céline Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”
As the theme song for the movie “Titanic,” “My Heart Will Go On” packs quite the punch already. Powerfully, Dion brings an intense performance that captures the essence of someone moving on. The key change that occurs in the last third of the song is the icing on the cake. All emotions are taken to another level as Dion ends on a high note.
Lady Gaga, “Perfect Illusion”
One of the more upbeat songs on this list, “Perfect Illusion” is just as power-packed as the rest. It is a single from Gaga’s latest album, “Joanne,” and features her new sound. And still, she manages to belt out a tortured love song, only to have her distress heightened at the last chorus of the song, when the key change kicks in and amplifies the song’s explosive conclusion.
Bon Jovi, “Livin’ On A Prayer”
“Livin’ On A Prayer” is also quite the upbeat song, especially coming from a rock artist like Bon Jovi. It is filled with heavy guitar and drums, coupled with Bon Jovi’s strong voice. With such uplifting lyrics, “Livin’ On A Prayer” only gets a boost in energy when everything is kicked up a key, transforming the song from uplifting to inspiring.
Alessia Cara, “How Far I’ll Go”
In this Hawaiian-inspired track for Disney’s upcoming film “Moana,” Cara sings about a journey, the ocean a focal point. Cara’s wonder is highlighted significantly by the abrupt key change that occurs right before the last chorus, which serves as a powerful climax to Cara’s journey-filled, reflective ballad.
Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You”
This iconic power ballad from 1992 is most likely imprinted into the brains of most Americans. Infectious to sing and tough to listen to without getting emotional, “I Will Always Love You” will have you in for a treat when Houston builds up emotion until the dramatic key change in the latter half of the song to top it all off.
Adele, “All I Ask”
No one knows emotional ballads better than pop superstar Adele. In this track, she begs her lover to pull her close one last time if it is their last night together. By the end of the song, emotions have run high, and the only way to express that level of passion is to do so with a full-step key change—something that Adele pulls off beautifully.
Sia, “Broken Glass”
In her emotionally charged track “Broken Glass,” Sia ups the ante, begging her lover for the fighting to stop. By the middle of the song, in full dramatic fashion, Sia jumps up a full-step and belts out the chorus, but that’s not it. Sia decides one key change isn’t enough and immediately goes up another full-step, belting out the chorus once more. And just like that, Sia sets the precedence for all key changes to come.
Ryan Amato is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.