David Wright’s List of Key Changes

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One of the subjects that came up at the arrangers’ day with David Wright back in August, unsurprisingly, was key changes. In fact, it came up each time we studied a chart that included one, and so David periodically gathered together the threads to give us an overview of the range of possibilities we had explored so far. And once I had likewise gathered them together in my notes, it looked like the kind of list to share.

So, here are four ways that came up that day to get into a new key:

  • Approach via V7 of the new key. This is very orthodox and will prove frequently useful. It can take you into pretty much any new key you want, though it is most commonly used to lift either a semitone or a whole tone. It gives a clear ‘here it comes!’ signal so that it functions to wake everyone up a bit if they had drifted off.
  • ’Up a 4th’ as David put; I’d think of it as down a 5th, as the examples he gave were generally presaged by I7 to take us gently and seamlessly into the subdominant key for a passage of bass melody. The observant reader will notice that this is technically an instance of the first type, but David listed it separately, probably because it has a different expressive feel. Rather than giving the music a shot in the arm (secondary dominant transformed into actual dominant), it aims to smooth the way into the new key so we don’t really notice. The point is to get to a nice range for the bass to sound awesome, and there’ll be a bit of a sense of relaxation, too, from the reduction of the harmonic charge, but the overall impression is of musical continuity rather than surprise.
  • Common tone (tertian) This is where you move to a key a third away from where you started, mediating between quite tonally distant keys by have a note in common between the tonic chords of old and new keys. These kinds of key changes work expressively to give a sense of transformation, of going into a whole new world (it’s the kind of key change, indeed, that you get in ‘A Whole New World’)
  • Outward chromatic movement. For those of use who are familiar with classical harmony, this is the kind of behaviour you expect from an augmented 6th: e.g. what looks like an E flat 7 chord expanding out to a 2nd inversion on G. (The classical musician wouldn’t spell it as a dom 7th of course, but the barbershopper would probably tune it as one.) There’s a structural strength, and a contrapuntal logic to the contrary motion of the part writing that leads the ear from one chord to the next. We saw similar part-writing lending aural credibility to a key change that David had categorised as cross-the-clock (flat 5 substitution for those who prefer that terminology). A D7 chord holds the 3rd and 7th stable while the root and 5th pull outwards against each other to the 5th and root of A flat 7. If you work through this one, you’ll notice the first chord needs to be in second inversion for the chromatic move to be a pull outwards rather than push inwards. We didn’t discuss this on the day, but my instinct is that the pull is the stronger motion for key structural moments like this.

And, for completeness, here’s one we didn’t discuss:

  • 1/2-tone (or full-tone) hitch Like the tertian shift, this involves just slamming straight into your new key without any preamble, only without any common tones between old and new to make it sound smoother. This is a pretty cheap kind of key change, which is possibly why no examples came up – the repertoire David brought to study was all expressively pretty ambitious. But if you are arranging music that is essentially accessible and frivolous, having an accessible and frivolous means to get from key to key can be useful.

And, while we’re on key changes, one other exchange I found fascinating. In David’s chart of ‘A Dream is a Wish You Heart Makes’, he had notated a semitone key lift as going from B flat to C flat major. Why not into B major? I wondered. In my synaesthetic head, B major, as a key full of sharps is much brighter than the maximally flat-filled C flat, and so would carry more of an expressive punch as a new key.

In David’s head, it turns out, B flat and B look too similar on the page. You use all the same lines and spaces to read both keys, so the reader’s experience doesn’t change in any usefully salient way across the key change. Isn’t that interesting? I had genuinely never thought of that before, but now I’ve started listening to key changes, especially the cheap half-tone shift types, in a new light. Early indications are that ones notated on the same lines and spaces are achieved with greater ease but are more likely to slip back to where they came, but those that involve a visible change are found harder in the first instance but stay more secure.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with that information. I’m not going to re-notate a change from A flat major into A as B double flat, as that would be silly. But I’m going to keep thinking about it. There are all kinds of interesting implications in there about people’s relationships with key, not least where they form them. My grounding in tonality came from playing scales and arpeggios on the piano throughout childhood; if you come into music through a cappella singing, you probably have a whole different set of kinaesthetic associations in play.

I’d be interested to know if modulations between minor keys were discussed at all? While I guess that’s outside of the classic barbershop idioms to an extent, doing so smoothly is a bugbear of mine - especially when it’s a natural minor/Aeolian and the presence of a V7 could be jarring. The best I can manage is to stumble in by introducing the bVII or iv of the new key before the tonic, but it’s hardly systematic. Any thoughts?

Good question James! Now you point it out, we were pretty much exclusively in major keys for our examples that day - and the exceptions mostly stayed in the same key throughout.

I'd have to think about it at greater length for a definitive answer, but my immediate hunch is that minor keys and semi-tone key lifts feel awkward, up a whole tone might work better.

Opinion to be revised and/or expanded upon when I've given it some more thought and listening around...

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