Most of pop music’s biggest hits had one thing in common: a change of key, like the one you hear in Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
But key changes have become harder to find in the best hits.
Chris Dalla Riva, musician and data analyst at Audiomack, wanted to know more about what it takes to compose a hit. He’s spent the last few years listening to every number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1958 – over 1,100 songs.
“I just started noticing certain trends, and started writing about them,” says Dalla Riva, who published some of these findings in an article for the Tedium website.
He found that about a quarter of these songs from the 1960s to the 1990s included a key change.
But from 2010 to 2020, there was only one standout song: Travis Scott’s 2018 track, “Sicko Mode.”
How key change is used in pop music
According to Dalla Riva, changing the key – or changing the basic scale of a song – is a tool used in all musical genres to “inject energy” into a pop number.
There are two common ways to place a key change in a top hit, he says. The first is to take the key near the end of a number, as Beyoncé does in her 2011 song “Love on Top,” which took listeners through four consecutive key changes. This placement helps a song crescendo at its peak.
The second common placement, Dalla Riva says, is in the middle of a song to signal a change in mood. The Beach Boys took this approach in their 1966 release “Good Vibrations”, as did Scott’s “Sicko Mode”.
“The key is just a tool,” says Dalla Riva. “And like all tools and music, the idea is to evoke emotion.”
Major changes fall flat
According to NYU professor and “Dilla Time” author Dan Charnas, Key Change has lost popularity alongside the often slow and emotional ballad, which he calls a “bastion of key changes.” During this time, hip-hop took center stage.
“Hip-hop is a rejection of a lot of traditional music tropes,” Charnas says. The musical composition also changed, prioritizing rhythm and texture to individual notes and chords.
There are late ’80s numbers, like Michael Jackson’s 1988 hit “Man in the Mirror,” where the key change can be seen as both a cutie mark and a cliché.
“You can look at this song two different ways. On the one hand, it’s a perfectly constructed song, a beautiful piece of writing. There’s a lot of craftsmanship,” Charnas says. “From another perspective, it’s tropey, maudlin and completely manipulative.”
While key-changing was once a mark of musical sophistication, many now regard it as a crutch. Dalla Riva says that many of her peers think using rekeying is lazy.
“It’s like you get to the last chorus and you’re like, okay, we need to inject a little more energy. Let’s just turn the key up a half step or a whole step.”
Where is the pop music going
Some pop music fans and pundits might be inclined to mourn the “death” of key-changing, but Charnas says musical tools and compositional techniques are constantly evolving.
“There are many ways to get momentum into a song and into a composition,” says Charnas. “Changing the key is only one way.”
In the absence of key changes – and at a time when hip-hop and electronic music grew in popularity – composers turned to varied rhythmic patterns and more evocative lyrics.
And if you’re one of those people who want key change back, Charnas thinks there’s only one way to do it: fund music education.
“Want to know why Motown was such an amazing typeface? Three words: Detroit Public Schools.
While it might be cliché, Charnas says he misses hearing a key change when it’s used at its best.
“Am I missing good key changes? Absolutely. Would I like more people to be able to do a key change like Stevie Wonder? Absolutely.”
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