Cheap trick? Cringe-inducing sign of a lazy writer? Or sublime moment of musical ecstasy? Key changes are subject to mixed treatment. In the one corner you have Westlife stepping off their stools and making you physically sick. On the other, you have a rare few songwriters using the device with depth and subtlety.
The Truck Driver Gear Change is a name given to that very simple, excessive shift-up of the final chorus so often used in pop music. Think Michael Jackson’s ‘Man In The Mirror’ (note lyrical match-up with “Make that CHAAANGE”). You’ve also got the master of modulation Barry Manilow, as well as tracks from Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, Bonnie Tyler, Stevie Wonder, Kelly Clarkson, Sisqo and, of course, The Beatles. Often the overblown addendum fails to polish a dreary turd though it’s hard not to get carried away with Bonnie Tyler’s epic ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ or ‘Adiemus’. Whether you think the amateur key change is a crime against music or not, this muso article explaining it further is fascinating.
But why do key changes sound so intense to us? Modulation works by violating our expectations. An unexpected change in melody or harmony fires the most primitive areas in our brain, specifically the amygdala, and elicits an emotional reaction. As a key lurches to another place our synapses are piqued, until the resolution comes with a return to the “tonic” or original key. That’s why people look kind of sweaty and aroused when they sing along to Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ in horrible Chelsea clubs.
In the late 18th Century French composer and music theorist Charles-Henri de Blainville described modulation thus:
Modulation is the essential part of the art. Without it there is little music, for a piece derives its true beauty not from the large number of fixed modes which it embraces but rather from the subtle fabric of its modulation
Sometimes key changes can be pretty cool and though they’re rare in rock and indie we’ve found some killer examples. Some of them have just one major key change, others have a fair few (The Who’s ‘My Generation’, Elliott Smith’s ‘Miss Misery’, Fucked Up’s ‘Vivian Girls’). David Bowie’s key change in ‘Quicksand’ (01:10) is so low-key you might miss it while ‘Do You Realize??’ is so robust it possibly belongs in the cheese corner.
Let me know what we’ve missed and we’ll add them to the Spotify playlist below.
The Flaming Lips – ‘Do You Realize??’
Elliott Smith – ‘Miss Misery’
Radiohead – ‘Sulk’
The Who – ‘My Generation’
REM – ‘Stand’
Beach Boys – In My Room
Ramones – I Wanna Be Sedated
Fucked Up – Vivian Girls
(Thanks to @ChrisDeerin for this suggestion)
David Bowie – Quicksand
Arcade Fire – Reflektor