Category Archives: Lessons

The Key Change: Useless Cliché or Lost Art?

Key changes are almost a taboo subject in the music community. Some songwriters shun the use of them, while others like them so much they employ them constantly. So who’s right? The way I see it, there are two schools of thought when it comes to a key change.

The first mentality is that of the pop songwriter: maintain the same key the entire song and then right when the listener starts to realize the song sucks hit them with a key change (often one step up) to get them through the song. This cliché is why key changes have such a bad reputation. They can be incredibly cheesy. On the other hand, however, they can occasionally work.

When using this technique, you walk a fine line between exciting and predicable. It is possible to use it outside of pop music, as many metal bands have proved. Megadeth, one of the most musically and harmonically unorthodox bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s, utilized this cliché with great success in the final chorus of Foreclosure Of A Dream off of Countdown to Extinction. While sometimes a key change is nice for a “big bang effect,” they can sometimes be the highlight of the song. In Arch Enemy’s Nemesis, the one and a half step key change during the final chorus sounds incredible and completes the song.

It is also possible to achieve the feeling of raising the key of the section while maintaining the original piece. Arch Enemy also uses this maneuver, which I like to call a False Key Change, on the song No Gods, No Master: The main part of the song is in C minor, briefly changes to Bb minor during the bridge, and returns back to C minor, the original key, during the final chorus. All of the choruses are exactly the same, but the third one feels higher and more exciting because of the energy generated from lowering and raising the key during the bridge.

In my opinion, this style of key change is very dangerous. Sure, sometimes it sounds incredible, but a majority of the time is sounds like garbage. Use With Caution.

The second school of thought concerning the key change is to use them freely and often. This type very often defies the cliché outlined above. The change could be by any number of tones, at any point in the song, and may happen between each section. This mentality is essentially the product of years of corrosion of the classical western system of music. All rules go out the window.

This mentality is very freeing, as it pretty much lets you do whatever you want. Death metal legend Chuck Schuldiner of Death fame was notorious for changing the key with every single riff. In his song Bite The Pain, the keys of the riffs are as follows: C minor, D minor, D# minor, no key, F# harmonic minor, D# Phrygian (covers from intro to end of bridge).

Changing to random and unpredictable keys sounds mysterious and often unorthodox, but is often jarring. A great way to work around this is to easy the transition by connecting sections through the use of pivot chords. This gambit is done by linking two unrelated musical ideas through the use of chords and notes they have in common.

To see what I mean, take a look at the analysis to the bridge of one of my songs:

Chord Progression #1 (play 2x)(125 bpm)(F minor):

Fm Absus2 Dbsus2 Ebsus2

Chord Progression #2 (180 bpm)(F harmonic minor):

Abmaj Bbm Cm Cmaj

Riff #1 (180 bpm)(A minor)

When I was writing this song I had two completely unrelated pieces of music: one was in F minor and was slow and depressing while the other was in A minor and was fast and uplifting. On paper they should have been kept in completely separate songs, but for some reason I got a gut feeling that they had to be connected, so I forced them together using the interlude detailed above.

In this example, the song is broken into three sections: chord progression #1, chord progression #2, and riff #1. Finding a pivot for the first two was easy, since the keys are almost exactly the same, save for the seventh degree. The second transition was more difficult, since there was only one chord to link them: Cmaj. Normally in a minor key, the chord associated with the fifth degree is minor. In harmonic minor, however, the fifth is major. (An explanation for this would take a whole other article. Just take my word for it for now). By playing a Cm and then a Cmaj, the key is changed from F minor to F harmonic minor. Now that we pivoted to Cmaj, the key can be changed to A minor, since Cmaj is one of the tonic chords of the key, leaving us at our final objective.

While this was a rather complex example, it shows that pivots can be particularly useful for transitioning into a new and unexpected part of a song.

So what’s the verdict? Is a key change a useful songwriting technique or a bad maneuver? Which type of key change is better?

Personally, I take a no rules approach to songwriting. To me, all theory is a suggestion that can be followed or ignored, depending on context. I believe that key changes follow a trend of diminishing returns. Each time one is used, the smaller the benefit gained next time it comes around. Use them whenever they sound good, but be cautious of overuse.

What are your thoughts on changing key? Do you have any originals or favorite songs that are a good example? Be sure to share your opinion below.

Songwriting 101: Part 1 Introduction

This article is an introduction to a series called Songwriting 101, a course that will be aimed at helping songwriters, of all skill and experience levels, improve their craft. The series will detail the major ways that the songwriting skill can be sharpened, before delving into some more unusual theories on how else this can be done. The four major ways to improve songwriting are developing technique, learning music theory, analyzing music, and practicing.

1. Technique

Discussing technique seems to almost be a taboo subject when discussing songwriting. The two are seen as opposites that are unrelated. However, improving your technique can unlock new possibilities that seemed unattainable before. The modern songwriter no longer relies on scoring to compose music. This effectively limits his options to what is within his technical limits.

Working on technique should be like adding tools to the tool belt and improving the usefulness of the ones already there. Sure you can build something with a hammer, but if you have a hammer and a wrench, now you’re going places. To bring it back to musical terms: if you are not capable of playing past 160 bpm, then there could be plenty of songs past that tempo that you could have written.

2. Theory

Okay, admit it. You saw this one coming. I know it’s pretty predicable, but it has to be included. Why? Because it helps. It is important to get a decent understanding of music theory. Nothing crazy, but if you have a solid understanding of chord progressions, melody, harmony and modes, you will have a lot more guidance in arranging your music. Think of it in the same way as technique: it gives you more tools, creating more options.

3. Analyzing Music

Again, predictable. But, true nonetheless. By analyzing your favorite artists, you will take note of what you like and do not like and then begin to incorporate them into your style. Think about the types of riffs being played. Why did your favorite guitarist choose that note?

One of the biggest tips I ever received was to pay attention to the way artists arranged their songs. Many musicians will tell you that you can learn from your idols, but what they often leave out is that you can “steal” their song structures. (No one has to know.) If you look at some my music, pretty much all of their structures are lifted from Trivium, Death, Amon Amarth, or the standard Verse-Chorus structure. It doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if you don’t know where to put them, and looking to your idols for guidance will certainly help.

4. Practice Makes Perfect

The cliche holds true. The only way to become great at songwriting is to write as many songs as possible. If you are just starting out, your songs are probably going to sound horrible for awhile. Do not be discouraged, this is normal. Instead, keep pushing forward and know that each song you write will be better than the last. Songwriting is as much of a technique as sweep picking and should be practiced as such.

I know this is pretty general, but it was only meant to serve as a broad introduction to give an overview while also providing some information, kind of like a syllabus day in school. The upcoming installments of the series will be much more in depth and cover the areas discussed above, as well as any other aspects I can think of. If you have any suggestions for a lesson or questions you would like addressed, let me know in the comments.

The Locus Of Control: Why You Should Wait To Start Music Lessons

There appears to be two general methods of learning guitar: taking lessons or being self-taught. History has proven that both work very well, each with their own pros and cons. But, what if there was a way to combine the two methods?

A musician’s success is dictated by his drive to succeed and the responsibility he takes for his own progress. As musicians, it is essential for us to know that only we can decide our musical success. This is where learning through lessons fails. Learning through a teacher early on in learning an instrument creates what is known as an External Locus of Control.

According to MindTools.com, “Locus of control describes the degree to which individuals perceive that outcomes result from their own behaviors, or from forces that are external to themselves” (Link Below). A person with an external locus of control believes that the forces around him dictate his success and that action can do little to change it. This phenomena leads to the individual placing his responsibly for success on others, rather than himself. When learning an instrument exclusively through lessons, it is easy to develop an external locus of control, (in regards to music at least,) transferring the responsibility from the student to the teacher. This is problematic, as a teacher cannot practice the instrument for someone else; all they can do is offer guidance and monitor progress.

A person with an internal locus of control takes full responsibility for her life and believes that her actions control personal success. This mindset is optimal for achieving not only in music but in all other areas as well. A musician who is self-taught has to develop this mentality in order to succeed: there is no other way. There will not be anyone watching over your shoulder. No one cares if you succeed. No one but yourself. I believe that being self-taught during the early years is necessary in order to establish an internal locus of control. 

Only once the locus of control has been established should you start lessons in order to learn what you were unable to teach yourself. I believe that for a guitarist to be successful, he must be self-taught at heart. It is important to learn from others, but there is a certain beauty in learning yourself and creating your own style. You have more freedom to choose what you want to learn. This is, of course, a double-edged sword, as it is very easy to neglect the necessities and less exciting aspects of music. However, if you maintain the discipline to do these things, you will be unstoppable.

Source:

“Locus of Control: Are You in Charge of Your Destiny?”: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_90.htm