Key Changes Faster Than You Can Say “Diatonic”

…if this post were one of the songs this post is about, it would have already changed key.

From: Dan

To: Ian

I was listening to the Grease soundtrack yesterday (BECAUSE IT’S FANTASTIC THAT’S WHY) and noticed that this nominally-ultra-conventional I → vi → IV → V song might be the earliest legitimate key change I can think of in a pop song:

[Ab] [Fm] [Db] [Eb]
[Bb] [Gm] [Eb] [F]
[Bb]We go to[Gm]gether like 
[Eb]rama lama lama ka [F]dinga da dinga dong
[Bb]Remembered for[Gm]ever as
[Eb]shoo-bop sha wadda wadda [F]yippity boom de boom

So if you’re keeping score, that’s one round through the chord progression before the key change.

Can you think of other songs with key changes essentially right away? Or, I’ll define slightly more broadly as “key changes before the lyrics start”.

There will be some gray area, but I’m going to vaguely disallow songs that basically just have a random guitar solo attached to the beginning of the song… because I know you’re all also thinking of Mr. Big’s “Just Take My Heart”:

...which opens with a random guitar solo that starts in Am, then moves to G, then starts the lyrics back in C. (It also uses a lot of bVII and bVI later on that creates ambiguity throughout, and of course hits you with a whole-step truck driver key change at around 3:30, because 1991... so basically all we can say for sure is that the whole song is in the key of AWESOME, occasionally modulating into the key of SHRED.)

Go ahead, take your time, listen to Mr. Big and play through the entire song for a few hours:

Let's formally define "starts with a random guitar solo" as having an intro that is not the same progression as any other part in the song, and is never revisited in the song, or is only revisited in an equally random outro. Besides that sort of early key change, which I'm disqualifying, I have one in mind that I think you'll come up with. Hint available on request.

From: Ian

To: Dan

I assume you're thinking of "Wouldn't It Be Nice"?

From: Ian

To: Dan

Oh I think "Come On Eileen" does this also!

From: Dan

To: Ian

I like both of these; neither the one I was thinking of... re-capping the results so far, then concluding with the one I was thinking of:

[A][F#m][Am][C]Wouldn't it be
[F]nice if we were older, then we wouldn't [Bb]have to wait so [Gm]long
And [C]wouldn't it be [F]nice to live together in the kind of 
[Bb]world where we be [Gm]long [C]

I'm having a monster of a time deciding on the two chords right at the key change (Am → C as written above), but it doesn't matter to this thread. They're not in D or F.

This is an awesome song, and the key change before the lyrics start is surprisingly not-random-sounding. That said, this is dangerously close to the "random guitar solo" line. But I think it qualifies at not-random because the same instrumental pattern is revisited later in the bridge, over vaguely similar chords in D (which is sort of like A), coming back into the verse in a similar way:

[Dmaj7]Maybe if we [Gmaj7]think and wish and hope and pray 
It [F#m7]might come true [Bm7]
[Dmaj7]Maybe then there [Gmaj7]wouldn't be a single thing 
We [F#m7]couldn't do [Bm7]
We could be [F#m7]married (we could be [Bm7]married)
And then we'd be [F#m7]happy (then we'd be [C]happy)
Oh wouldn't it be [F]nice

Verdict: qualifies as a key change before the lyrics start.

On to the next one:

The violin solo at the beginning is definitely in F, then the instruments come in as:

[C] (bass)
[C][C][Em][Em]Come on Eileen![F][F][C][G]
[C]Poor old Johnny [Em]Ray sounded [F]sad upon the radio 
Moved a [C]million hearts in [G]mono

Settle down, everyone. I know you're all *obsessed* with IV → iv movement, which we get in that intro part (Bb → Bbm). But let's stay focused on the key changes here, people. Mmmmmkay?

(OK, I did a little dance when I heard that iv...)

(Also I confess I never understood a single word of the lyrics in this song until just now when I Googled them...)

Also, on the topic of key changes, the chorus is in D, bringing us to a total of three keys without ever tipping into prog:

[D]Come on, Eileen, oh I [A]swear (well he means)
At this [Em]moment, you mean [G]every[A]thing

All that said, I'm going to disqualify this one as "random violin solo". It's in a different key (F), it's in a different time signature (3/4) than any of the *three* times that appear in the rest of the song (4/4 in the verse, double-time 4/4 in the chorus, and half-time 4/4 in the bridge) (i.e., the Eileen-too-rai-ae part). OK, at three keys and four time signatures, maybe this song is prog that MTV accidentally called pop.

Verdict: does not qualify as a key change before the lyrics start.

The other one I was thinking of is Layla:

...whose structure is definitely not prog but is presumably unique among rock/pop music... there are plenty of other songs with the chorus and verse in different keys, but Layla is:

Instrumental chorus in Dm (total number of songs opening with an instrumental version of the chorus is small to begin with...)


Verse in C#m (with a bonus bVI → bVII → I on "waiting by your side"):

[C#m]What will you do when you get [G#m7]lonely
[C#m]With nobody [C]waiting [D]by your [E]side
[F#m]You've been [B]running and [E]hiding much too [A]long,
[F#m]You know it's [B]just your foolish [E]pride.

Chorus back in Dm, making the intro definitely not a random guitar thing:

Lay[Dm]la, [Bb]you [C]got me on my [Dm]knees
Lay[Dm]la, [Bb]I'm [C]begging darling [Dm]please

Overall, impressively not-prog-sounding for a half-step key change in every verse/chorus transition.

Then of course there's the random unrelated piano ending in C, which is not relevant to this thread, but whose randomness does not take away from the key change we just talked about:


Ian, do you have a better explanation for that chord than Bb9(b5)? (Whatever that chord is, I need more of it in my life.)

This might depart from the original spirit of "changes key right away", because the verse starts 22s in, or longer in the live version. But it fits the adapted spirit of "key change before the lyrics start".

Verdict: qualifies as a key change before the lyrics start.

From: Ian

To: Dan

Dan wrote:

> Ian, do you have a better explanation for that chord than Bb9(b5)?

I think I'd call the Layla chord Bb9(#11).

I absolutely love a song with a non-sequitur piano outro. Another such song is Epic by Faith No More:


This one is simpler chord-wise, but the 7th is still pretty crunchy when it shows up.

I just had a weird feeling that maybe Shiny Happy People also changes key before the lyrics start.

From: Dan

To: Ian

Ian wrote:

> I just had a weird feeling that maybe Shiny Happy

> People also changes key before the lyrics start.

Good call... it's close to the "random thing not related to the song" line. Just like "Come on Eileen", it's a random thing in a random key and even in a random time signature (in 3, with the rest of the song in 4). But because the orchestral intro bit is revisited later (around 2:30), it definitely gets some "not totally random" points (even though the reprise is actually super-random).


(Up to tempo, band enters)
[B]Shiny [E]happy [A]people laughing

[F#m]Meet me in the crowd.   [A]People, [E]people
[F#m]Throw your love around. [A]Love me, [E]love me

Verdict: just barely qualifies as a key change before the lyrics start.

Is it weird that I never saw this video? This is like my prime MTV years, and I was sort of into R.E.M.; I guess this is came out in the narrow window where I only watched Headbanger's Ball.

So far the song at the start of this thread – "We Go Together" – is unique in literally changing the key of the same progression right at the beginning of the song. That is, it's at one on end of the spectrum, the opposite end of which is "random guitar solo". The others are all somewhere in the middle.

From: Ian

To: Dan

Okay, and I was going to post something else entirely about this song, but I realize upon listening that it also changes key before the vocals enter!

The intro to me clearly sounds like I → IV → Dan's favorite chord → ii →V. And I guess it's in D? Then, the verse is clearly in some other key. Maybe F? Maybe C? But it's sure as shit not D.

Then the chorus is clearly in D again.

Have we ever talked about this song? It's fucking insane. Paul McCartney should be (and is, I suppose) worshipped like a god.

From: Dan

To: Ian

Re: Maybe I'm Amazed. Agreed, this fits the bill. Also agreed, this song is spectacular. And also agreed, it's embarrassing that we haven't talked about it before.

FWIW we still haven't found anything else of the form "[progression in key X],[same progression in key Y]". But because this (Maybe I'm Amazed) does make its way back to this progression in the chorus, it's definitely not "random intro".

Interestingly having stared at this song for quite a while today, I'm agreeing with you on total ambiguity about the intro key (A? D?) and verse key (F? Bb? C?), but they're clearly different.


[Bb]Maybe I'm am[F/A]azed at the way you l[C]ove me all the t[G/C]ime
[Bb]And maybe I'm afr[F/A]aid of the way I lo[C]ve you
[Bb]Maybe I'm ama[F/A]zed at the way you pu[C]lled me out of t[G/C]ime
You h[Bb]ung me on a l[F/A]ine
And m[Ab]aybe I'm amazed at the w[Eb/G]ay I really n[C]eed you

[D]Maybe I'm a [A/D]man
Maybe I'm a l[D9]onely man who's in the middle of something
[G]That he doesn't really underst[D]and [D(#9)]
[D]Maybe I'm a [A/D]man
And maybe you're the [D9]only woman who could ever help me
[G]Baby won't you help me to underst[D/F#]and [Dm/F][Em7][A7]

I tend to go with D for the intro... which is uncomfortable, especially for me, because that makes the Dm a i (what?) instead of a iv, but that A7 really sounds like a V, and the chorus (where this repeats) is clearly in D.

Is it not super-double-awesome that the key is further confounded later not only by the same D → Dm transition, but also by a D(#9) (i.e., D and Dm at the same time) banged over and over on the piano? I'm not sure D(#9) is really accurate there, since the implication is that you would sensibly voice this with the #9 an octave above the third, but NOT SIR PAUL, he just bangs the F and F# on top of each other, and it totally works.

For the verse I guess I'd go with Bb (that's why I highlighted the C's and G's above as non-diatonic), but really, it's anyone's guess. Any key you pick, half the chords are non-diatonic, and amazingly none of them sound weird.

Have I mentioned that in my life I've seen more Paul McCartney concerts than not-Paul-McCartney concerts?

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