How to Change Keys Within a Pop Song

Modulation Explained

How to change keys within a Pop Song. Modulation is a word used in music about moving key centers within a song. This occurs any time the song moves out of a single scale/key. Grasping this musical tool will help in finding new tonal centers for moving your melodies and chords within the song to create interest.

Full Key-changes

If you remember Pop songs of the past, especially in the 60’s, it was common to move the whole chord progression of the song up a half-step after the main chorus or bridge. The song sounded like it took off somewhere, yet sounded the same. All they did was modulate the key up a half-step (like from the key of D Major to D# Major).

In Modern Music

Not suggesting that for today’s dance scene lol, but that’s a simple example of modulating to a different key or tonal center within the song. Going to the key’s relative minor for the main chorus was another often used change, but not really a modulation (6th degree chord of the scale; i.e., in C Major the relative minor would be A minor). OK, so those are really cliques today.

Using More Than One Key in a Song

But what if you don’t want to be tied down to simply one key and scale for your song? What if you want to reach out and find new harmonic possibilities using a few simple rules?

A very important basis to remember with musical movement is resolution. This applies to flow of chord movement in a song, developing a lead solo or melody, and also with modulating to a different key center.

Another way to say it is the ‘turnaround’. At the end of your verses or musical phrases most often you’ll have a turnaround structure that sets up the return back to the first chord in the key, the I chord.

What is a Turnaround?

If you look, you’ll notice it’s usually some form of the key’s V chord (a chord built on the fifth note of the scale you’re in; in key of C Major it would be a G chord). Even if you’re dealing with melodies, you’ll still find you’re doing it with notes. If you play a C-F-C-G chord progression, you’re ear will naturally want to play the G chord just before going to the C chord to end the song. That’s called a V-I resolution, or ‘turnaround’. Resolving from the V chord to the I chord is the most natural sounding resolution.

That V-I resoultion pattern is very important in Western music. Try ending a song that starts in the key of C Major with a different pattern than a G (V) to C (I) and you’ll understand. With modulating to a different key within a song, that V-I resolution is most often what you depend on to establish the new tonal or key center. To do that you can use commontone modulation, which is the easiest method.


For example: here’s the chords in the key of the C Major Harmonized Scale (C maj scale with each scale degree harmonized into chords). With this example our song is in C Major — something simple like a C — Em — Dm — G — C chord progression.


If you can find one of those same chords in another key, then you can modulate to that other key.

Let’s try the key of G –


Finding Similarities in Chords & Keys

Do you see those Am and Em chords in G are also common to the key of C Major? That means during your original chord progression in C Major, you can ‘pivot’ on one of those chords that’s common to both keys, and change the key center within the song to the key of G Major. But how do you establish the key center of G with the pivot chord? Simple, use chord resolution, the V-I movement mentioned above.

Ex: original prog. in key of C Major
C — Em — Dm — G — C

Do a pivot using a chord common to both keys:
C — Em — D — G

Using the Em chord as the pivot, and then the Dmaj chord, which is the V chord in the key of G, we’ve just established the tonal center of G Major. You would then continue to use the harmonized scale chords within the key of G Major to stay in that tonality (G-Am-Bm-C-D-Em-F#mb5). Remember, this kind of movement applies to scale notes and arpeggios too, hence melodies and arpeggiated synth harmony! (Basis of all music is made up of scale notes, chords, and arpeggios; so this musical movement applies to all three).

How do we get back to the original key center of C Major? You could… end your song in the new key center. But to go back to the original tonal center of C Major, you simply do the same type modulation with a pivot chord common to both keys.

Something like this:
G — Am — G — C

or G — Em — Dm — G — C etc.

Note that Dm (ii) to G (V) — C (I) movement to get back to the key of C Major.

To use this you’ll need to know how to spell key signatures (what sharps and flats are in which keys). You’ll also need to know the chords spelled in each key to find common tone pivot chords. For this you can use my chords in keys chart as well as research the circle of 5ths and circle of 4ths.

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An endless passion for music,for voices for discovery, for people, for life.