Add Some Drama to Your Songwriting with a Step-Up Key Change

From the Fall 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY JUMPIN’ JIM BELOFF

Question: What do these four pop hits have in common: “Penny Lane” by the Beatles; “Man In The Mirror” by Michael Jackson; “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston; “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion? Answer: They all contain a step-up key change toward the end of the song.

If you’ve heard any of those recordings, you’ve already felt the power of a key change, even if you weren’t quite sure what it was. Simply put, a step-up key change involves a sudden rise of the existing key of a song to a higher one. Typically, it’s either a half-step, as in the case of “Man In The Mirror” (from G to G#) or whole step as in the case of “I Will Always Love You,” which jumps from A to B.

Technically known as a “modulation” or derisively as the “Truck Driver’s Gear Change,” this particular kind of key change can significantly raise the emotion and drama of a recording or performance. It’s been employed dozens of times in the rock era and has earned a bit of a love/hate reputation among listeners. For example, “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi is famed for its heart-stopping, late-in-the-song modulation, while the key change in Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” could be considered manipulative and, well, cheesy. It’s actually hard to find a Barry Manilow hit that doesn’t employ a step-up key change at some point, and his recording of “Can’t Smile Without You” changes keys three times before the final chord.

Like any other technique, a key change, if used judiciously, can be quite effective. Last year, my wife, Liz, and I decided to add the 1967 Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit “Somethin’ Stupid” to our repertoire. It’s the kind of song that works well for us and it’s a natural for a couple. It also has a retro quality that we like. As we built the performance, we decided that a key change would work well after the instrumental section. When we perform the song today we start in the key of F and follow the Sinatra arrangement, but immediately after the instrumental break we play a quick F# major and then a G major where we stay until the end. On this kind of a song, the key change is fun to perform and feels appropriate.


In 2006, I was asked to write a song for the biker comedy Wild Hogs. I had one day to write it and, ultimately, the song I wrote, “The Open Road,” didn’t make it into the film. Nonetheless, we began playing it in our shows and it has become one of our most requested songs. It also happens to have a whole-step key change in the middle of it. The song starts in C major and the first two notes of the melody “Give me…” are E and C. The song only has two verses and an outro, but to give it the proper length and feel, it seemed right to jump from the key of C major to the key of D major on the repeat of the first verse. The key change brings a certain excitement to the arrangement, but even more, makes literal the idea of traveling, freedom, and a higher purpose. To make the key change, all we do is sing the E note again on “Give…” but instead of dropping down to middle C we go a whole-step higher to D for the note on “me” and then play a D chord. Then all the remaining chords are pretty much a whole step above the original key.

Again, one should employ a step-up modulation with care. On the right song, however, it can make a good arrangement into a memorable one. Put the idea in your tool kit. Who knows, one of these days, it may be just what you need to get your song to the next level! 

“The Open Road” ©2006 Flea Market Music, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission. 

The Open Road Step-Up Key Change Beloff