Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Can you take me high enough?: 24 songs with a pivotal key change

Bonnie Tyler nails it in "Total Eclipse Of The Heart."

As guitarist Nigel Tufnel despairs to director Marty DiBergi in Spinal Tap, once your amps are turned up all the way to 11, “Where do you go from there? Where?” Many songwriters stuck in a creative corner kick up the jams with a tried and true chestnut: the key change. This showy yet effective tool can underline a song’s true meaning, turn a simple ditty into an epic saga, or highlight just how strongly Sisqó feels about thongs. The below list features two dozen songs that took it just a little bit higher.

1. Ramones, “I Wanna Be Sedated” (1978)

Perhaps the Ramones’ best-known song, despite not appearing on the charts and only getting a video 10 years after it was recorded, “I Wanna Be Sedated” is a wisp of a song even by the band’s two-minutes-and-out standards. It repeats the five-line verse three times, with only minor variations, then hits the refrain. It’s also a bit slower than frantic early songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “Judy Is A Punk,” as if the band needed to stretch out to reach the 2:29 mark. But it never feels any less energetic, as the song jumps up a step halfway through, giving the third verse just enough of a kick that you don’t think about it essentially being the first verse again. If there was one thing the Ramones were great at, it was getting the most out of a simple song. [Mike Vago]


2-3. The Beatles, “Penny Lane” (1967), “Hey Jude” (1973)

As with many things in pop music, The Beatles took the idea of the key change and perfected it. The warm-up is “Penny Lane,” Paul McCartney’s paean to his hometown street. In this change, the shift in the song’s register reflects the transition of the narrator’s own story, as the change is teased by the lyric “very strange.” Which, at that time in music, it certainly was: Producer George Martin considered it a bold and innovative shift in pop-song structure, and called it the band’s greatest single. A year later, “Hey Jude” perfected the formula. The perfectly timed key change in that seven-minute-plus long epic turns the coda of the song into a spectacular anthem for the ages. It essentially flips the main chord progression, and thereby flips the switch into classic song status. “Take a sad song and make it better,” indeed. [Alex McCown]

4. Weezer, “Undone—The Sweater Song” (1994)

Rivers Cuomo knows the value of a good bridge, the melodically distinct passage that leads many a Weezer song into its final charge. (Think of the “dear daddy” section of “Say It Ain’t So” or the self-described Beach Boys breakdown from “Holiday.”) Opting for a different mode of modulation in “Undone—The Sweater Song,” Cuomo and band instead skip up the scale a few steps during a ripping mid-song guitar solo. This flashy show of virtuosity flips the script on Cuomo’s meticulous song structures: Whereas his bridges are nods to the influence of similarly pop-conscious acts like Nirvana, Pixies, and Kiss, the “Sweater Song” solo is a flashback to the Weezer leader’s childhood as a string-shredding metalhead. [Erik Adams]


5. The Hold Steady, “Massive Nights” (2006)

The hard-partying prom theme “Massive Nights” is one of The Hold Steady’s fastest and most celebratory-sounding songs—the Thin Lizziest, if you will—especially in the band’s live show, where it sometimes teeters on the verge of falling behind its own spectacular rush of a fist-pumping and whoa-whoaing in the chorus. Both in the studio and in concert, that chorus gets an extra reprise with a frenzied key change in the final stretch, and though the key changes generally aren’t go-to moves in The Hold Steady’s arsenal, this one sounds as right on “Massive Nights” as the similarly rare sax solo on “Hostile, Mass”—unexpected yet kind of inevitable. “Massive Nights” is how the song sounds from the first chorus; a key change is basically the only thing it can do to kick itself into higher gear before its three minutes are up. [Jesse Hassenger]


6. Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (1992)

This Dolly Parton song was the best possible vehicle for Whitney Houston’s astonishing vocal chords. Houston even starts her version with an a cappella verse just to show that she doesn’t need instrumentation, thank you very much. The song is famously featured on The Bodyguard soundtrack, in which the main couple doesn’t wind up together—unusual for such a blockbuster, but maybe that’s what sets it apart. Houston’s saga here is her ode to the man she’ll never see again, and she spends the beginning of the song wishing him a nice life, joy, and happiness. Then that climactic key change storms in (after an equally dramatic drum beat), throwing everything that came before it under the proverbial bus, and cementing the song’s true meaning: She is going to pine for this man for the rest of her life. The key change transforms “I Will Always Love You” from a “fare thee well” to an out-and-out torch song. [Gwen Ihnat]


7. Cheap Trick, “Surrender ” (1978)

The narrator of Cheap Trick’s almost criminally catchy 1978 hit repeatedly assures us that “Mommy” and “Daddy” are all right, despite their obvious strangeness. (He also reminds us of the merits of capitulation, if only to a point.) But it’s hard to take those assertions of his parent’s okay-ness seriously at first. After all, they don’t seem all right: Mother spends the first verse wringing her hands about STDs and pernicious drugs, while Father spends the second alluding to his wife’s own sordid past. It’s not until the key change kicks in, right before the song’s third verse, that we get some hard evidence: The narrator stumbles upon his parents, “rolling on the couch” while listening to his Kiss records and doing drugs. While watching your parents mack to “Detroit Rock City” definitely seems “a little weird,” the uplifting feel of the upward modulation assures the listener that this brief glimpse of their inner cool is really for the best. [William Hughes]


8. R.E.M., “Stand” (1988)

R.E.M.’s goofy, carousel-pop hit “Stand” is a relatively straightforward, carefree song about living in the moment and relishing your current location. But after the exaggeratedly psychedelic bridge—defined by Peter Buck’s equally exaggerated use of a wah-wah pedal—the song breaks from its merry vibe and takes an urgent turn: repeated airings of the chorus (“Stand in the place where you live / Now face north / Think about direction, wonder why you haven’t now”) in different, incrementally higher keys. These changes amplify the song’s innate sense of wonder and joy—the realization that even the familiar and comfortable can feel different when people look at them with fresh eyes. [Annie Zaleski]


9. Michael Jackson, “Man In The Mirror” (1987)

Much like Spinal Tap’s famously fine line between stupid and clever, it’s often difficult to determine the tipping point when brilliance downshifts into bombast. Such is the case with “Man In The Mirror,” the fourth single—and fourth consecutive U.S. chart-topper—from Michael Jackson’s 1987 album, Bad. Written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, “Man In The Mirror” was very much a message song, one which Jackson felt obliged to take to heart before he’d even finished singing it, opting to “make that change” at the 2:52 mark. It’s a moment that listeners couldn’t miss even if they wanted to, as the key change happens at the precise moment a gospel choir explosively delivers the word “change.” Sure, that’s laying it on a little thick, but given the over-the-top nature of the lyrics (not to mention of the video), it fits perfectly. [Will Harris]


10. The Lonely Island (featuring Akon), “I Just Had Sex” (2011)

Some examples of the truck driver’s gear change verge on self-parody. When the The Lonely Island reaches for higher semitones at the end of its ode to consensual flopping around, it’s just straight-up parody. But like special-guest vocalist Akon says, “Still counts!”: The content of the song notwithstanding, the “I Just Had Sex” key change is no joke. It’s the sincerely triumphant exclamation point on The Lonely Island’s ironically swaggering sentence, the musical orgasm symbolized by the sparks shooting out of Akon, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone’s crotches. And that’s the mental image any songwriter should conjure when they consider adding such an ending to a new composition. [Erik Adams]


11. Beyoncé, “Love On Top” (2011)

Beyoncé has a powerful voice, but her solo career hasn’t been defined by vocal fireworks. She often places inventive production and sneaky hooks above traditionally diva-ish singing, which imbues her occasional showing off with a greater sense of purpose. “Love On Top,” a song from 4 (her best and most underrated album), doesn’t announce itself as a showpiece; it starts off as a mid-tempo R&B jam so throwback it almost reads as parody. The song stays the course as an exuberant, horns-assisted ’80s-sounding love song for three minutes, at which point Beyoncé begins a major stunt, repeating her chorus in four ascending key changes. Using multiple high-wire key changes as a pledge of devotion to her beloved is a little self-regarding in that Beyoncé sort of way, but it’s also enormously charming. For about a minute, the technical prowess that American Idol and its ilk fetishized and wore out sounds delightful again—an expression of real joy. [Jesse Hassenger]


12. Bon Jovi, “Living On A Prayer” (1986)

Things don’t start out so well for our friends Tommy and Gina at the beginning of Bon Jovi’s blue-collar anthem. Tommy’s job at the docks has been lost to a union strike, and Gina’s slaving away at a diner. The two scrape by and tell each other it’s okay, but neither of them believe it, and the band’s, “We’re halfway there” chorus sounds mocking. Significantly, after the only time Jon Bon Jovi spits out the line, “You live for the fight when it’s all that you’ve got,” the pair’s fortunes are raised by the gift of a higher key in a post-bridge key change. After the proclamation of the duo’s desire to battle their bleak fate, the key change instantly transforms the song from a hopeless dirge into a hopeful one, that might actually be “halfway there.” For the first time, it looks like Tommy and Gina could escape their current status, leaving the two on a literally higher note than the song started in. Now they just have to get that six-string out of hock. [Gwen Ihnat]


13. Sisqó, “Thong Song” (1999)

Three straight minutes of catcalling and lecherous pseudo-rapping wasn’t enough for Sisqó to properly express his appreciation for women in tiny underwear. This is a man who loves thongs so much that the only way he could come close to communicating that affection is to escalate his message with one of pop’s most gratuitous key changes. Sisqó himself fades away, letting his overwrought backing orchestra build up some unearned tension for eight whole seconds. When he reappears, it’s with the same avowals as before, but Sisqó has been reenergized. He explodes into the song’s final stretch (accompanied by a literal explosion sound in the music video) with a heretofore-unimaginable level of thong appreciation. And even after all this, Sisqó remains incredulous. “I don’t think you heard me,” he threatens before launching into his last lustful ramblings. The track fades with Sisqó still singing, as if to imply that no amount of belting and cheesy key changes will ever be enough to fully express his love of thongs. If it’s any consolation, we heard you, Sisqó. We heard you. [Matt Gerardi]


14. The Fiery Furnaces, “Even In The Rain” (2009)

The Fiery Furnaces’ albums are generally littered with idiosyncratic flourishes that sometimes seem directly designed to alienate the band’s less-patient listeners: backward tracking, tempo shifts, extended keyboard noise solos, and key changes, among others. I’m Going Away, the group’s most recent (and maybe last?) record, is one of its most consistent and accessible, but it still manages to slip in some more subtle bouts of weirdness. For example, on stretches of “Even In The Rain,” the song sounds like a relatively straightforward ballad with a strong keyboard hook. But the chorus, which consists only of the words “even in the rain,” slides the song between keys several times, lending a lot of unpredictability to such a short, simple phrase. Some Fiery Furnaces experiments derail their own songwriting, but here the key changes keeps an otherwise pretty song weird, continually shifting the ground underneath the band and its audience. [Jesse Hassenger]


15. Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone” (2004)

Kelly Clarkson’s 2004 mega-hit was the perfect balance of Top 40 bubblegum pop and kicky rock ’n’ roll charm. This stylistic hybrid also fit the upbeat theme of the song: shedding the emotional baggage from a terrible ex and rediscovering your happiness and sense of self. In fact, “Since U Been Gone” itself signifies a long, slow exhale from a bad relationship, as Clarkson grows more and more enthusiastic and confident while the song progresses. However, the song’s real catharsis—and inarguable apex—occurs with a sudden key change in the midst of the chorus, right as Clarkson cries, “I get what I want!” With that exhortation, it’s clear she’s embraced her independence and firebombed the remnants of that last bad relationship. The lyric would’ve been powerful even without the key change, but with the added bump up, it now serves as an indelible rallying cry. [Annie Zaleski]


16. Daft Punk, “Within” (2013)

“Within” is an unassuming hero of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Its quiet key change occurs little more than 30 seconds from the track’s start. On its own, it’s awkward and fleeting, but taken in context with the rest of the album, it’s a godsend—a quaint bridge at the end of the thrilling cliff-side road that is “Giorgio By Moroder.” Random Access Memories’ first three songs share the same key and culminate with “Giorgio By Moroder,” a nine-minute journey through 40 years of dance music. By that point, poor A-minor has been exhausted, and after the soaring bombast of “Giorgio By Moroder,” odds are, so has the listener. On cue, “Within” calmly slides into view with a lilting piano melody that carries listeners into a new key to be explored throughout the next batch of songs. It’s a necessary downer and a key change with some actual musical utility, ushering in a new block of digestible pop songs to satiate listeners until “Touch,” the album’s most decadent number, barges in with a new key of its own. [Matt Gerardi]


17. Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery” (1997)

A slippery, instinctual sense of composition was one of the signatures of the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. “I spend a lot of time just sitting around playing, and not really paying a whole lot of attention,” Smith once said in an interview. “Because if you’re always looking at your fingers, then you see what you’re playing and you think ‘Okay: I can go to this or go to that.’” The Oscar-nominated “Miss Misery” certainly appears to have been written along those lines, shifting keys after its first chorus in a manner that suggests a damaged CD skipping to another track. It isn’t: It’s just Smith reaching for one of his favorite tricks much earlier in the song than he usually does. Nearly 20 years later, it’s still a knockout, the musical equivalent of the blended whisky referred to in the song’s revised lyrics. [Erik Adams]


18. Barry Manilow, “Looks Like We Made It” (1976)

Given that his tendency toward modulation is so well-documented that music professors have been known to use his songs to explain the concept, more than a few Barry Manilow songs feature spectacular key changes. But “Looks Like We Made It” is among the best known, having topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977. Although often perceived as a love song, “Looks Like We Made It” is really more of a post-game wrap-up, a reflection on a couple not actually managing to find bliss in their lives until after their breakup, but it’s easy to lose track of the lyrics in the midst of the music. A few drumbeats announce the impending key change in the song, and just after the 2:40 mark, Manilow takes the chorus skyward and keeps it aloft into the fade-out. [Will Harris]


19. Arcade Fire, “Intervention” (2007)

“Intervention” starts off with an acoustic guitar barely penetrating a wall of church organ. It’s a setup you might hear for a hymn at an actual Christian mass attended by the kind of mindless parishioners Win Butler spends the song decrying. His appeal is appropriately soft-spoken at first, but his disgust intensifies with the introduction of each new instrument. It’s all building to the key change, the final in a series of escalating moments that have been gradually transforming “Intervention” from simple hymn to dense, vitriolic anthem. It breaks the shackles that have been holding back the rest of the band. Unleashed, they scream alongside Butler, and the drums and strings are finally free to wail away with fervor to match. It’s the band’s last-ditch effort—the key change making way for the sound of a band desperately trying to preach their message to anyone who will listen. [Matt Gerardi]


20. Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” (1983)

The acrobatic key changes in this song have stretched the talents of any number of wannabe karaoke heroes. Blame it on songwriter/producer Jim Steinman, who seemingly wants to turn all of his songs into rock operas: from Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” to Air Supply’s “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All.” The song he started but didn’t finish until after meeting Bonnie Tyler (Meat Loaf was pissed) likely has the most longevity, due to its relentless insanity. Lyrics meant to depict a Nosferatu-era vampire love story? Of course. Keyboard effects that sound like cannon fire? Why the hell not? And let’s throw in a key change within a single word: Tyler soars upward in her final syllable up as she despairs, “every now and then I fall apart,” switching the focus from her breakdown to her desire for her shadowy lover. Because Steinman’s productions are nothing but over the top, the key change fits in perfectly with the rest of the song’s dramatic antics. [Gwen Ihnat]


21. Genesis, “Invisible Touch” (1986)

Invisible Touch and its chart-topping title track marked the completion of Genesis’ transformation from prog-rock weirdos to world-conquering pop act. Described as “an epic meditation on intangibility” by no less a musical expert than American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, the song rode to Billboard success on the back of a particularly shameless truck driver’s gear change. With Phil Collins singing the words “She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah” roughly 10,000 times during the song’s 3:26 runtime, the song is plenty sticky to begin with. Then the final verse slams smack dab into a key change, effectively refreshing the hook and propelling “Invisible Touch” into one final Top 40 cliché: The long fadeout. [Erik Adams]


22. Damn Yankees, “High Enough” (1990)

The biggest hit from Damn Yankees—the classic rock supergroup featuring Styx’s Tommy Shaw, Night Ranger’s Jack Blades and Ted Nugent—was 1990’s power ballad “High Enough.” The song’s appeal was certainly obvious: stacked harmonies from Shaw and Blades, sensitive acoustic guitars, a ripping solo from the Nuge and lyrics all about second chances in matters of the heart. Arrangement-wise, however, the song’s far more complicated than it seems, with key changes galore as the verses shift to the pre-chorus and the chorus, as well as on the solo: “Like if you listen to the solo on ‘High Enough,’ the solo is in E, but [Nugent] plays the solo in C-sharp minor,” Shaw noted recently. “So he’s playing it in the minor third of E and I didn’t even realize it. I was like, ‘How is he playing that? Where is that coming from?’” These unorthodox measures go a long way to making “High Enough” stand out from the post-hair-metal pack (and make Damn Yankees more than a historical footnote). But these key changes also underscore the song’s yearning, pleading optimism, as heard in the chorus: “It’s never over / Yesterday’s just a memory.” [Annie Zaleski]


23-24. Mr. Big, “To Be With You” (1991) and Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way” (1999)

One was a rag-tag bunch of rockers who found success by going acoustic, the other was a boy band backed by a pair of Swedish writer-producers (Andreas Carlsson and Max Martin), but both Mr. Big and the Backstreet Boys created climactic moments in their singles courtesy of key changes. The Boys’ 1999 album Millennium was full of such changes, but “I Want It That Way” featured the best of the bunch, although the video admittedly went a long way toward making the moment memorable. Mr. Big certainly had a few other catchy tunes on their 1991 album Lean Into It, including “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind,” but they all paled next to “To Be With You,” written by frontman Eric Martin and David Grahame, who later paid tribute to the single’s success by penning a song called “Song Equals House.” If it’s true that a song is only as memorable as its key change, then it’s no wonder that these tracks quickly became seen as their respective artists’ signature singles. [Will Harris]


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