Songwriting basics and tips 8: Ch…ch…ch…changes

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Give me five!

Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

A key change, particularly when the song moves up a key or two, can really enliven a song.

There’s one type of key change that dominates popular song – and dominate is the mot juste here.  It involves moving to a new key and first signalling the change by employing the dominant chord of that key.d7.gif

Remember I said that D major/D7 , when played in the key of C, desperately wanted to be followed by G? Well, that was because D is the dominant chord of the key of G.

It’s probably called that because it forces you to anticipate the move to G, but it’s also called the Fifth, or sometimes just Five, because it’s based on the fifth note of the scale.

1) G 2) 3) 4) C 5) D!

I remember my old music teacher telling me a story about the composer Mendelssohn:piano.gif

Every morning, his butler used to get sleepyhead Mendelssohn out of bed by going to the piano and playing what’s known as a series of  dominant cadences in G, ie he would play

G..D7|G..D7|G…D7|G..D7 ………

and just leave the last D7 hanging.

This would drive the composer crazy to the point that he had to rush out of bed and play a “Tah-Dah!” over a G chord to finish the cadence. Try it sometime!

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Show me the road and the miles to that key …

So, how do we make a smooth transition to another key using “Route 5”?

Here’s a nice easy way:

From Key X,  simply move to the dominant or dominant 7th chord, of Key Y.

Then play the main chord (known as the First, or 1 chord – also known as the tonic chord because it sets the tone.

Foe example: to move from to the key of B, you could play the progression
A, F#7, B.

It doesn’t have to start from either. You can start from any chord in the key of A, eg
E, F#7, Bwt.gif

Try this out:

Play Wild Thing in A (that’s the key the Troggs play it in). It’s just a simple A, D, E7 progression.

Then, at the end of a verse, instead of  playing a full bar of E7, just play 2 beats then move to F#7 for the last 2 beats and straight into playing the song in B, ie using  B, E, F#7.

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Bunch of fives …

There’s a thing called the Circle of Fifths (if you treat each note as the Fifth of the one to the left) or the Circle of Fourths (if you treat each note as the Fourth of the one to the right). Here it is, in all its confusing glory!

Circle.gif

For our purposes, we’re looking at it from an anti-clockwise perspective. So, following this system, there’s a nice, smooth key change from C to F. You can make the same sort of move from F to Bb, or Bb to Eb, and so on …

It also works with minor keys, so Am can transition seamlessly into DmDm into Gm, and so on, and so forth (or Fifth!).

Basically, it’s a way of changing key by taking the tonic or First of the key you’re in, re-labelling that as a dominant or Fifth, then moving to the key in which that chord is, in fact, the dominant.

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Dazed and confused …

Sounds a bit hard to get a handle on?

I know.

Probably best to look at an example:

If you’re playing a song in F, then you ask yourself the following question:

In which key is F the dominant or Fifth chord?

Look at the next chord going anticlockwise from F on the circle.

It’s Bb!

So, you can change key from to Bb simply by playing F (or F7), then straight to Bb

And that’s exactly what Johnny Cash does changing from Verse 1 to Verse 2 intrw.gif

I Walk the Line

(if you try to play along, you’ll need to sharpen your tuning slightly – either they were all tuned sharp, or the engineer speeded-up the tape a little to make it sound tighter).

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Going round in circles …

Some songs actually use, or adapt,  the Circle of Fifths as a substitute for the usual chords found in a key.

Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Lifebright.gif uses an adapted version, (swapping about majors and minors) for the chorus: first it moves from G to Em, then it follows the notes of the circle to Am, then D, and back to G.

The 60s classic Whatcha Gonna Do About It? by the Small Faces used the progression on the right-hand side of the circle – namely E, A, D as the basis for the whole song.

Also check out Eric Clapton playinghobo.gif Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out which mixes up standard chords with circle chords.

C                 E         A7 
Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Dm               A7          Dm         
Spending all my money didn't have any cares
F             D7               C           A7 
Took all my friends out for a mighty good time
D7                         G 
We bought bootleg liquor, champagne and wine

C        E       A7 
Then I began to fall so low
Dm           A7                Dm           
Lost all my good friends, had nowhere to go
F             D7         C      A7 
If I get my hands on a dollar again
D7                                 G
I'll hang on to it, till that old eagle grins


Chorus:
C          E     A7 
Because nobody loves you
Dm           A7      Dm    
When you're down and out
F          D7    C         A7 
In your pocket, not one penny
D7                         G 
And as for friends, you don't have many.

C             E            A7 
When you get back on your feet again
Dm         A7               Dm        
Everybody wants to be your long lost friend
F             D7        C          A7 
I said it straight, without any doubt
D7                           G 
Nobody knows you, when your down and out.

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Next time, we’ll look at a few other ways to change key – both for the whole verse, and as part of the verse itself!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

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