My Favorite Things: Key Changes

I’m going to state the obvious: I love me a good key change. Take, for example, Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror.” I’m pretty sure that like every person alive knows this song, but just in case you need a refresher, check out Broadway star Keke Palmer’s version from the movie Joyful Noise*.

Watch this video on YouTube.

You think the song’s over, there’s a big buildup to the end, and then just as we hit the word “change” — it happens. There’s this moment of triumph that you can’t even really explain, because it’s almost subconscious. Your brain got used to the way the song sounded, and then suddenly something’s different. The music has literally shifted to a new level and it pulls you up with it.

Okay, so key changes are exciting. How can writers use that in musical theatre? Turns out, when used in just the right way, a well-placed key change can do a little storytelling all on its own.

“Nicest Kids in Town” – Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

First up, you’ve got the change-keys-every-verse option, like in the song “Nicest Kids in Town” from Hairspray. Changing keys so often might seem a little gratuitous, but there’s no denying that it heightens the energy of the song. There’s a continuous build that just gets you PUMPED.

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“So Much Better” – Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe

Some people argue that a key change is a cheap way to make a song sound more exciting than it is. To those people I say, listen to “So Much Better” from Legally Blonde and tell me you aren’t 100% PSYCHED to go kick your ex-boyfriend’s butt in law school. (Spoiler alert: you can’t.)

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“In My Life” – Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil

Besides emphasizing the emotion of a scene, key changes can be used narratively too. The setting for “In My Life” from Les Miserables transitions from Cosette’s inner monologue to a conversation between her and Valjean to a new conversation between Marius and Eponine. There are quite a few key changes in this song, especially when a new voice enters — it’s almost like starting a new paragraph when a new character starts speaking in a novel. My favorite key change, though, is when Cosette sings “In my life, I’m no longer a child and I yearn for the truth that you know.” Here, it’s not that the character speaking is different, it’s what she has to say. She’s made up her mind and she wants Valjean to KNOW – cue determined key change.

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There’s a special place in my heart for the 3 measures of buildup to the key change at Marius’ entrance. It’s almost too much, but then the guy comes out and he’s so excited you can’t help but embrace it.

“First Date/Last Night”Pasek and Paul

Let’s look at an example that’s a little more subtle: “First Date/Last Night” from Dogfight. Reason number 28342 why I love this song: a KILLER key change. I’m talking about just before Birdlace’s second verse. He takes over as narrator, yes, but the whole tone of the song changes too. He starts really looking at Rose, and thinking about how he really feels about her. As the key changes, he sings, “Blank slate, blank stare/yeah you made her cry – why do you care?” You can actually hear his change of heart.

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“I’ll Be Here”Adam Gwon

Sometimes a great key change is best saved until the last minute, à la the King of Pop. “I’ll Be Here” from Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days (sung here by the incredible Betsy Wolfe) uses this method, and it works. In this case it’s not so much a pick-me-up as an emotional punch in the face, but still. The last key change takes the song to a whole new level and leaves the listener feeling like they’ve gone somewhere, heard the whole story. Give yourself a minute to listen to this song, and don’t be surprised if you burst into tears at the final chorus.

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“Lost”Miller & Tysen

Changing keys can certainly add to the emotion of a song, and sometimes this has great comedic value. I’ll leave you with this fantastic piece from Fugitive Songs, beautifully performed by Barrett Wilbert Weed. With a simple key change, the song turns from a rant about being lost in the woods to a rant about getting even with the guy who brought her out there — to hilarious effect.

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*Did I rent this movie just because Jeremy Jordan was in it? Maybe. Did I enjoy the HECK out of it? You bet. Keke Palmer is FAB, you guys.

What are your favorite musical theater key changes? 

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