I’ve run into this several times learning songs. The singer will make a half step key change in the middle of the song. It’s such a small change in pitch, why bother? I doubt the average listener even notices. I often don’t catch it either unless I’m listening closely to the chords.
For example Emmylou is singing her hit One of these Days. She starts with the capo on the third fret. She’s playing in G, so that would be A# with the capo. For the last verse she slides the capo up a fret while Marty is playing mandolin. It’s at 1:46 in the video.
She’s still playing in G so with the Capo that would be B. The key really doesn’t matter. She’s using the capo to make it fit her vocal range.
Singers, why add in a half step key change?
I usually leave it out on songs I play. I can’t adjust the capo unless there’s other instruments that can keep the music going. I’m certainly not playing in the key of B with bar chords either. It’s not worth the hassle for a half step key change.
I’ve seen quite a few singers adjust their capos during picking breaks. It’s a bit risky because sometimes a capo will throw off your tuning. There’s no time to fix it when you’re playing live. Emmylou often puts two capos on her guitar. So she’s already got another capo positioned for a different song in her set. She’s an experienced performer and after 40 years has learned a few tricks.
I have seen key changes with male and female duets. Tanya Tucker and Paul Overstreet performed* I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love*. He sings his verse in a different key. I don’t blame him. Tanya sings low. Even for a guy singing Tanya’s part is hard. Listen for the key change.
Me and my musician friends kind of poke fun at this technique. Whenever a band or singer go up a half or full step on the last verse or chorus, we yell out “MODULATION!” It’s a bit of a musical cliche, although it can work in the right circumstances. The reasons for doing that is it gives the song a feeling of increased emotion or something to that effect.
That Emmylou Harris link is not quite the cliche example. I’m thinking (although I’m lost at examples for now) of 80s and 90s ballads and power ballads where the key goes up a step for the final chorus. I don’t know why I’m blanking, but there’s plenty of examples of it.
And modulating keys within songs can be a pretty cool technique that gives contrasting color (for example, a verse in one key, and a chorus in another key.) It’d be pretty boring if songs always stayed in the same key.
Here’s one I just remembered. REM’s “Stand” has the type of modulation I’m talking about at about 2:30. You can also hear it after the guitar solo in “I Wanna be Sedated” by the Ramones, where it goes up a full step. And it seemed like every pop metal song of the 80s used this technique, too. Now, it’s certainly a valid technique, but once you learn to hear for it, it’s always like “GET READY! HERE COMES THE MODULATION!” And most of the time, you don’t deal with adjusting the capo up. You just use the new chords in the key you’ve modulated to and fret accordingly.
If done subtly, it can be very effective; the listener senses a change without quite being able to put their finger on it. The Beatles song “And I Love Her,” for example, modulates a half-step for the guitar solo. Gives it an extra note of longing, but is subtle enough that it doesn’t call attention to itself.
I used to date a musicology major. She hated that technique. She called it a “cheap pop-music trick to try to make the song sound more interesting.” Ever since her rant about it, now I can’t help but notice it every time.
One of my favorite uses of that is in Sandi Patty’s version of How Great Thou Art. It gives the last chorus a slightly different feel than the rest of the song…also where she does the most high notes. (not my favorite style of music, but the woman has an incredible voice)
Old blues records sometimes feature a slightly increasing tempo, say, speeding up 4-5 beats per minute each verse. It’s not easy to do, but can be very effective.
I think of raising the key as a similar technique: most of the audience doesn’t know what’s changed, but it feels different. It can be clichéd, but at least it’s organic - I certainly find it less annoying than myriad electronic effects. YMMV.
Part of the problem of being a musician is that we notice such tricks. Relax and enjoy.
And thereby hangs a trivia question I came up with some time ago…
Modulation is a technique that’s been used since the earliest days of pop songs, and probably in classical music before it as well. It’s not always a cliché; it can sometimes be effective.
But The Beatles apparently saw it as one. Besides “And I Love Her,” I’ve been able to identify only three other Beatles songs in which modulation is used. And one of those isn’t even the classic kind where an entire verse or chorus is heard again a step higher.
So…can anyone name the three other Beatles songs that use modulation?