Often we don’t know where we are in history until hindsight tells us. We look back and, in my experience, regret spouting off on matter too soon.
The Death Of The Key Change was a recent article by Chris Dalla Riva. He put it out, I think, I on November 9, and I had read probably twenty discussions ABOUT his article before I got to read the article itself. And, I started forming my thoughts and writing this before I even read the piece. I began to foresee arguments and argue them presumptively. I got some right. Others not. And I wound up in some of the same places, and some of my own.
Riva looked at 60 years of Billboard hit songs and found trends. Between 1958 and 1990, for example, he noted that a lot of songs were in the key of G major. And this made sense to me, not because I happen to know where the majority of voices are most comfortable singing, although that would be nice to know, and I should investigate. It made sense intuitively because it’s one of the keys that’s relatively easy to handle on an acoustic guitar. The collection of chords most intermediate-level acoustic guitar players learn to play is confined to E, A, D, G, C, F, Am, Dm, Em, Bm, and F#m. And songwriters aren’t usually virtuosos. Those chords can get a good bit of work done in only a few different keys — D major, C major, and G major. So that’s what the songwriters wrote their songs in.
And indeed, Riva made the same point. So far, so good.
But then Riva pointed out that about 1/4 of the songs in that time frame also included key changes, which is to say, at some point, the song left one key and arrived in another. I immediately thought of all the Barry Manilow songs that jumped a whole step for their final chorus, Mandy, I Write The Songs, Even Now, Daybreak, Can’t Smile Without You. (Not “Could It Be The Magic” I’m guessing because he knew the underlying Chopin one way, as I do, in C minor.) He did these key changes like it was a requirement. That’s a certain sort of key change though, the sort that kicks things into another gear at the end of the song. And the gear metaphor is why that “up a step” sort of key change is called the “truck driver modulation.” But that’s just one, and probably the simplest type. “Key change” can also mean interwoven modulations that are more an integral part of the song, like the fact that the Beatles’ Penny Lane has verses in one key and choruses in another. It goes back and forth. And it occurs to me now though, McCartney goes with what might be considered the truck driver modulation at the end and gets that pre-Manilow boost, although really, it’s a bit craftier than that. Yes, it’s a whole step higher than the preceding choruses, but it’s a cuter turn than just that. I digress…
Then I noticed Riva’s timeframe for that trend ends in 1990, and I thought… “When did Digital Performer come out?” Hey! It was 1990. Digital Performer was one of the first Digital Audio Workstations. Perhaps you’ve heard of ProTools, the king of the Digital Audio Workstations (DAW). Or Apple’s GarageBand, the prince, I might argue. DAWs such as Digital Performer, Logic, Vision, and eventually Pro Tools brought about the home studio era. And that changed the way we wrote music, especially sample-based music. Everything from there goes mostly to hip-hop.
Why don’t we have chord changes in hip-hop? For starters, Riva is not wrong when he says hip-hop is more about lyrics and rhythms than about melodies and harmonies. That’s certainly true, but it’s not a cause. Key changes are the stuff of “melodies and harmonies,” yes, but hip-hop doesn’t lack either of those things entirely.
Let’s talk about songwriting craft. Feather-rustling though it might be, key changes, apart from the truck driver type, are compositionally advanced. Modulation is not rocket science, but compared to just strumming through those basic chords it’s a next-level device. Here is where the cheap seats on social media ring out, “Does difficulty make music better, you snob?” And the absolute answer is NO! But it certainly can make music better. Does flowery vocabulary make poetry better? Not necessarily, but it certainly can. It depends! Can I tell more expressive stories with more words in my lexicon? Not necessarily, but, c’mon, you get my point, let’s not be silly about this. It’s a more advanced skill that has value and takes time to learn. And that investment in time requires both a motivation and some opportunity, or at least the absence of impassable obstacles.
Let’s get back now to the development of the most important genre of the past thirty years, hip hop. Why are there few key changes? I suggest that it’s not that they were undesirable because melody and harmony weren’t and aren’t what it’s about, but rather that modulation was unavailable; too many obstacles; impossible to justify. They’re too heavy a lift, technically.
One paragraph of music theory now: Key modulation is a transition from here to there — you start out here in your present key center, but you kinda want to go elsewhere, so one technique is to find a note or a chord that’s got one foot here in this key center and the other foot there in that new one, and you compose through it to form your transition. As simple an example as I can come up with is “Hey Jude.” Let’s say it’s in C. (It’s not really, but it makes no difference.) You’re in the key of C, and you’re gonna be playing the chord, C, when you sing “to make it better.” You want to modulate to F as you sing, “anytime you feel the pain.” And here’s how you’re gonna do it, Paul. You add a Bb note to your C chord, making it a C7, and voila the tension you’ve built into that C chord all but necessarily sends you to the key of F major. Mission accomplished. The chord C functions in both the key of C and the key of F, so it was a great pivot point, a smooth transition.
What if, instead of your facility with a guitar, your raw materials are samples from other recordings, how much can you do to manipulate them into changing keys? If you’re working with a sampled eight-bar phrase that doesn’t contain a key change, how hell-bent are you on implementing one? And what would it take if you were so determined. Maybe the song you sampled contains a modulation somewhere, but you’re not doing a cover; this is YOUR song, not theirs. You don’t want their composition, just their elements. You’re doing something transformational. Can you execute a key change using those elements? No, not without a TON of determination, and questionable reward for your effort. What about pitch shift, you say? The DAW’s ability to change the pitch of an audio file has come a long way but it wasn’t long ago that changing pitch meant substantially changing the way the music sounded, akin to speeding up or slowing down a vinyl record on a turntable. Who would do that to a groove? If, as we said, hip hop is a lot about groove, let’s make sure we groove. The genre evolved without that element of songwriting, I’d suggest, in part because it was impractical. And now, it’s not part of the aesthetic, but other things are, and if you won’t look to find enjoyment in it, you’re pretty much only hurting yourself.