How Many Chords Make a Key Change?

From: Dan

To: Ian

The core question here will be, as per title, how long do you have to spend in key [x], as measured in time or chords, before it feels like a key change, rather than a bunch of non-diatonic chords?

But the song I’m going to use as a prop has another property that I want to ask about first, which will be spoiled if I send you right to the candidate key change… so first listen *only* to the first 12 seconds (until the melody starts) (all the links and videos I’m including will start and stop at the right times). All the chords you’ll here are [B][E], or really [Bsus4][E/B].

Is this in B (I→IV, I→IV…), or is this in E (V→I, V→I…)? Is it self-evident with no melody, just by the way it’s played? Does the sus4 matter a little?

OK, now think about that for a bit… are you back?

Now you can listen the the first two lines of the melody. Then stop again, I need your full attention.

Interestingly, the first time I picked up a guitar to play the melody, I heard different notes than subsequent times. Now that my ears know what key it’s in, I literally transcribe different notes, and I think the melody answers the B vs E question. But only your responses will tell me whether I knew the key already when I got to 0:12 the very first time I heard it. Alternatively, I can ban this song from my playlist, then set a reminder to listen to it in 2050 and maybe I will have forgotten enough to answer the question myself.

I’m 99% sure it’s in E, and I’m 94% sure there are A’s in the melody… although the sheer number of F#7’s in the chorus (which I haven’t let you listen to yet), and the fact that the whole song ends on a Bsus4 (also haven’t let you listen to that yet either) give me 1% hesitation to commit to E…

OK, now listen to the whole first verse, up to the chorus.

This is what you just heard:

[Badd4]7 AM, the usual morning [E/B]lineup
[Badd4]Start on the chores and sweep 'til the floor's all [E/B]clean
[C]Polish and wax, do laundry, and mop and [G]shine up. Sweep a-
[B]gain, [B/A]and by [Esus2/G#] then  it's like [F#]seven  fif[B7]teen

To me, that [C] → [G] (“polish and wax”) feels like a legitimate key change that lasts for just two chords. It’s two chords that would be non-diatonic whether the key is B or E, and interestingly, if we agree it’s a key change, we have the same dilemma: I→V or IV→I? This time the melody doesn’t help: there’s no F/F# to tell C from G. I say it’s IV→I, and it’s a two-chord key change to G, if for no other reason than the next chord (which, if you’ve been following my instructions, you haven’t listened to) is a B, which would be III in G or VII in C, and VII makes me itchy.

So is that really a key change? Is 2 chords in 5 seconds enough? Are there other instances of legitimate key changes this short?

Also, is this all I have to say about this song? FUCK NO, it’s a Disney princess song! And at this point I pretty much write a blog about Disney princess songs! (Incidentally I was actually in Disneyland last week and I was soooo happy to be immersed in instrumental piano renditions of every Disney princess song).

Other things you know you want to like about this song (you can go ahead and listen to the whole thing now):

  • Chorus uses both II and ii. II is just “above average”, but mixing II and ii is at least “OK, that’s something”.

    And so I'll...
    [E]read a  [A]book or maybe [F#m7]two or [E]three. I'll add a
    [C#m7]few new [F#7]paintings to my [Asus2]galle [E]ry.
  • My favorite little thing about this song… both choruses have a III→vi (G#-->C#m) in them (in fact the second chorus has two):

    I'll play gui[C#m7]tar  and  [F#7]knit and cook and 
    [A]ba [G#7]sica [C#m7]lly...
    [C#m7]brush and [F#7]brush and brush and 
    [A]brush [G#7]my [C#m7]hair. 
    Stuck in the [F#7]same place I've 
    [A]al[G#7]ways [C#m7]been and I'll keep...

    That’s already nice, especially since they didn’t waste any time between the II and the III. But what’s extra extra nice is that we have three instances of III→vi, then… wait for it, wait for it… a iii→VI!

    [F#m7]wondering and [Esus2/G#]wondering and 
    [A]wondering and [G#m7]won[C#7]dering

    Recapping what we just saw:

    That’s not just something, that’s awesome. Come on, you know it’s awesome.

  • I’m a total sucker for the high-on-the-neck chords with open strings (the whole B and E routine). I call this technique “snuffing the rooster”:

    (…which is a rare example of this on an electric guitar…)

    This is the first thing I always do when I pick up a new guitar; if it doesn’t sound lusciously lovely to the point of mocking itself, intonation isn’t good. Sometimes I go all-in on the sappy and play Esus2 and Asus2 like this:

    0    0
    0    12
    13   14
    16   12 
    14   0
    0    0

And on Tangled in general… quietly the second-most-expensive movie *ever made*.

Not the “second-most-expensive movie about Rapunzel”, or the “second-most-expensive animated movie”, the second most expensive movie *ever made*. If you asked 1000 people to name the top 1000 most expensive movies ever, I don’t think in those 1e6 responses you’d get a single instance of “Tangled”.

Full transcription here.


From: Ian

To: Dan

Holy fucking shit.

I would have voted for I → IV at the beginning but I am no longer able to hear it that way. And now I’m questioning as to whether I really heard that or I just didn’t try hard enough.

So I’d say it’s in E and the intro is V → I. And I wouldn’t call that thing in the verse a key change. The bVI → bIII isn’t that weird and is over before I realize what’s happening.

Off the top of my head, the best “is this a key change?” I can think of is the bridge of Every Breath You Take. If it’s not a key change, it’s a bunch of bVI and bVII. And I’d say it’s not a key change, but it sure does go on for a while.

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