Often in our Sun­day wor­ship, we’ll have a setlist of songs that are in unre­lated or dif­fer­ent keys to each other. Part of the musi­cians role (par­tic­u­larly and most impor­tantly the key­boardists role) is to change keys between these songs (mod­u­late) so that the tran­si­tions and dead time between songs are as seam­less and smooth as possible.

It’s worth div­ing a bit into some basic musi­cal the­ory, as this will help us to under­stand the prin­ci­ples and appli­ca­tion of switch­ing between keys. This is by no means advanced musi­cal the­ory, but does take a bit of under­stand­ing and prac­tice to really get right.

Firstly, every key has a scale degree. Their names are:

1 = Tonic

2 = Supertonic

3 = Mediant

4 = Subdominant

5 = Dominant

6 = Submediant

7 = Lead­ing tone (major scale)/Subtonic (nat­ural minor scale)

81 = Tonic

Each num­ber refers to the note in the scale of the key. For instance, in the key of F major, the tonic (I) is F, the sub­dom­i­nant (IV) is Bb and the dom­i­nant (V) is C.

The aim of a dom­i­nant chord is to pro­vide what’s called a cadence. A cadence is a way for the song to head back to the home key or the tonic. We hear this V to I pro­gres­sion in pretty much any piece of music you could think of. This struc­ture is impor­tant in our under­stand­ing of how key changes work. If we look at the key of F major as our exam­ple, we can see three main ways to achieve this.

  1. A com­pletely unpre­pared key change

This sim­ply means to fin­ish the song and go straight into the new key. The ben­e­fit of this is that there’s very lit­tle prepa­ra­tion required, and it’s how a major­ity of Corps and churches will han­dle their transitions.

A down­side to this method is that it can take a few bars for the con­gre­ga­tion to adjust to the key. It also means that your singers will have to be con­fi­dent in the tran­si­tion and be able to carry the melody through to the new key.

  1. Use a repeated note com­mon to both keys

This method is slightly more sub­tle in its approach. It requires the player to find a com­mon note that is shared between both keys, and to use it as a “bridge” to link the keys. It may or may not be the melody note, but it needs to be a com­mon note.

For instance, mov­ing from the key of F to Db allows us to use F as a bridg­ing note, as it’s a shared note (being the tonic (I) of F and the medi­ant (III) of Db). By repeat­ing this note, you can change the key quite easily.

It does require that the singers are again able to carry the melody through, and also requires that you under­stand which notes relate to the key you are try­ing to move into.

  1. The pivot/​magic chord

The third method is the most ver­sa­tile but requires the most under­stand­ing to get right. For­tu­nately, it’s rather sim­ple once you get the hang of it, and can make tran­si­tion­ing between the most awk­ward keys sim­ple. The most impor­tant part involves play­ing a V to I pro­gres­sion in the bass, with a IV to I pro­gres­sion in the right hand pro­vid­ing a dif­fer­ent cadence.

Lets look at an example:

If we want to move from F to G maj, we need to iden­tify the dom­i­nant note (V) of G — which is D. Our V to I cadence there­fore is D to G and will be played with the left hand, the bass.

The right hand will play a IV to I (or C to G) cadence.

When we’re fin­ished, our pivot chord will look like this: a C chord with a D in the bass. This leads nicely into the tonic of the new key.

If this is start­ing to make your head swim, don’t fret! Just look at it on your key­board and it’ll make visu­al­is­ing the dis­tances between the keys easy. Try play­ing the pre­vi­ous exam­ple and it should click after a few tries.

Mov­ing through keys is a valu­able skill for any musi­cian, so it’s worth invest­ing some time in get­ting it right. It’s worth not­ing that it’s much eas­ier to move up through keys than down, though you can exper­i­ment with the pivot chord to see what kind of results you get.


What are some tips or tricks you’ve come across that help with mov­ing between keys? Have any great resources to share? Why not com­ment below and have your say!