On the Uses and Abuses of Key Lifts

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It’s quite a few years since I last mused at length on the subject of key lifts, but my attention has returned to it in the wake of a couple of conversations I’ve had recently with barbershop friends. Interestingly, one was with someone who had come to the conclusion that she was done with them: she had heard too many, to the point that they just sound formulaic and are rarely well enough sung to transcend the cliché. The other was with someone who was keen to have one in an arrangement I was doing for his quartet, in a song which I felt not only didn’t need one but whose expression would be impaired by one.

As conversations are wont to do, I found the dialogues clarified my own ideas, and I have emerged with a more developed set of opinions than I had last time I blogged on the subject. Though, looking back, I don’t disagree with that post – I have merely had extra thoughts that inflect when I am likely to want to include or not include them in any given arrangement.

A little history is possibly useful. Back in the day, the barbershop judging category of Arrangement used to operate with a kind of shopping list of arranging devices and other musical features for which you could either be rewarded or penalised if used in your contest performance. Having a key lift was on the ticklist of things that vouchsafed extra points, and so was one of the primary features people would look for in music for contest. It is now 30 years since the old Arrangement Category of barbershop judging was superseded by the more holistic and performance-focused Music Category, but the folk memory still remains that a key lift is A Good Thing to have in a contest tune.

And it sometimes still is, although you can see with that history both why I was being asked for key changes in a commission and why some people might feel they’ve heard too many of them already. The issue is, I think, less whether they are Good Things per se, but rather what they are doing in any particular context.

The point of a key lift is effect expressive change, usually escalation. So the question becomes, does this particular song have a narrative need for a significant moment of escalation? The prime example that leaps to mind is unhelpfully one that you won’t know, as it’s an original song I wrote in the late 1990s and I don’t know that anyone other than my quartet of the time ever heard it. (The song was quite cute, in a light kind of way, but the arranging skills were definitely rookie; I suppose I could unearth it and have another go at it now that I know what I’m doing.)

Anyway, the first part of the song was looking forward to going on holiday, and the last verse was sung from beside the pool on vacation. There was a key change at the point of take-off from the airport, and there was even a mildly witty punchline in the lyric at that moment. This worked, I feel, because the song’s story breaks the dramatic unities of time and place, so breaking the tonal unity at that moment of rupture is believable.

With songs that remain in the same world throughout – in terms of physical setting, or the protagonist’s emotional journey – then a key change feels like breaking the fourth wall musically. It risks the arrangement drawing attention to itself, and thereby highlighting the artifice of the whole situation. To find believability in a group of people (whether of four or forty) singing from the subject position of an individual takes considerable suspension of disbelief, and the arranger’s job, in my view, is to help that happen rather than show off their technical smarts. (You’ll note that point is relevant to devices way beyond the key change…)

There’s a point here too about integrity of characterisation. Tonal unity acts in a way as a metaphor for sincerity, or constancy of character. In the same way that a performance that loses tonal centre is less believable than one that maintains tonal integrity, an arrangement that changes key arbitrarily (that is, without dramatic or narrative imperative) suggests a protagonist that can be diverted from their sense of purpose. So whether to include a key lift becomes a question as to whether the song’s persona goes through any fundamental change within the course of the song; if the lyrics suggest not, the music should probably not suggest otherwise.

Of course sometimes, you want to break that fourth wall, and the arrangement itself can become part of the entertainment package along with the performers’ virtuosity. If the whole point is to revel in clever vocal and musical acrobatics, go for it with the key changes, they’re part of the show. You find this most often in songs that have relatively little inherent emotional or narrative content, but which can thereby become the pretext to have a lot of fun with embellishments. Jonathan refers to this in barbershop as ‘Pimp My Polecat’ songs, but of course it’s the same principle that brought us the Diabelli Variations.

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