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Is the Key to Change… a Key Change? posted on April 11th, 2023

By Brian Wheeler

I saw a fascinating factoid recently and I had to share this, as the vast majority of MusicMaster clients program music. I want to preface this blog with my pledge to you that I’m going to do my best to not sound like the ‘old man shaking fist at cloud’ while presenting this information to you. I do hope that the information reaches the music industry and a bit of a renaissance takes place because I feel like there’s been some stagnation in popular music today, and this graph appears to support that theory.

A handy and effective tool in a musician’s arsenal is modulation and key change. Modulations and key changes can help the artist convey emotion and feeling. There are countless examples of key changes that brighten (or darken) a soundscape or change a mood in general. A well-placed key change can have a very powerful effect that captivates or moves the audience.

But is this tool disappearing from the collective toolbox? This is the astonishing graph that compelled me to ponder that question.

There are many factors in play here, but the flatline can’t be ignored. Popular music structure has been undergoing changes for the best part of the last two decades. Instrumentation and general structure have seen a shift, and tools like Autotune and sampling have seen wider use. Even the length of a good number of popular hits has shifted to the 2-to-3 minute range we saw decades ago. Simple can be good, but are the days of complex compositions behind us?

As I went down the proverbial rabbit hole of key changes and their role in popular music over the last 60 years, I stumbled upon an astonishing nugget. There was a song I remember hearing on the radio when I was younger that boldly went into some impressive key gymnastics, although I didn’t realize it at the time. The song is “Never Gonna Let You Go” by Sergio Mendes, a song written by the popular writing team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The single hit number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 back in ’83 (Number 1 on the US AC chart), and it boasts a whopping 22 key changes! There’s an entertaining YouTube video from Rick Beato that discusses his attempt to decipher the song. I encourage you to check it out.

Obviously that’s an extreme example of key and modulation usage, but the question remains: are we seeing the demise of the unforgettable melody? What is the anatomy of a timeless hit? What is the essence of a well-crafted song? Is it the creation of thoughtful couplets? Perhaps the key change/resolution? And who will be the next great innovators? That may be an entirely different discussion. Back to the question I asked earlier: Will we see a musical renaissance? I believe we will, despite the assertion that it’s all been done. New ears will demand it.

For another Rick Beato video on this topic, check out “The Disappearance of Key Changes in Modern Music”