Can a Song Be in Multiple Keys?

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If you are starting to dip your toes into music theory, you might be amazed by the complex world of harmony.

It’s always a great idea to boil down this new knowledge into real-world examples, and analyzing songs you like is just a fun way to do it.

But perhaps while doing so you stumbled upon a music piece that at a certain feels like it shifts from one key to another, and that can be confusing at first.

Can a song be in multiple keys then?

Songs can be in multiple keys, but in most cases, not at the same time. Usually, composers shift between keys along different sections of a song to evoke different feelings. Think of it as changing the setting or location of a scene within a play.

In this article, I will tell you all you need to know about how songs that use multiple keys work, how to think about them, and even how you could work with them.

After leaving this page you will have a clearer idea about the harmony concepts behind songs in multiple keys, and even how to improvise over them.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

What is the key of a song?

You can think of the key of a song as a list of notes that sound good along with each other, and where each has a certain function within that list. The function of evoking a certain feeling within its context.

Imagine a certain key as a list of ingredients that work well together, and that you could use to cook several different dishes.

In most cases, songs will gravitate around a certain key.

A key from which not only the chords used in the piece can be extracted, but also the notes that comprise its melodies.

Can songs be in multiple keys?

When you start analyzing more complex pieces of music you will find out that songs can be in multiple keys.

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Chords
Chords

But, don’t panic, apart from very weird musical experiments, or more common and easily identifiable musical resources such as what’s known as a “modal interchange”, songs tend to use one key at a time.

And that’s something important to remember, so you don’t lose your mind trying to think of multiple scales (another way of referring to keys) simultaneously.

You see, music composers usually write parts of a song in a certain key, and then use different “tricks” to set up a key change that feels natural for the next part.

Once you train your musical ear to hear these changes they will start feeling so obvious in a way you can’t ever again not hear them.

How to know if a song is in multiple keys?

As a disclaimer, I will mention that musical theory, and harmony in particular is a very complex topic, and what one musician could describe as a song being in multiple keys, another academic could determine as incorrect and claim that there’s something else happening there.

Let’s not focus on details and nuances and try to be as simple as possible.

If you still can not hear key changes in a song, the best way to determine if a tune shifts through multiple keys is by analyzing its chords.

It would be important, however, that you can easily recall the chords for a certain key. However, you can always google it.

First, start breaking up the song into sections. 

Look at the verse first.

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What chords does it use?

Do those chords fit into a certain key/scale?

Which one of those chords feels like home?

If you can define that, well, there you have the first key for that song.

Now, look at the following section of the song. 

Mainly you should be looking for alterations to the notes that belong to the previous key you defined, or for different chord qualities than the ones you already analyzed, or for the ones that “should” belong to the key from the verse.

For instance, say you defined the verse was in C major key, with no alterations on the notes, but in the bridge, you stumble upon a D major chord.

First of all, the D chord in C major should be minor and not major. Secondly, the note that makes a D major chord a major chord is an F#.

So, these are some clues to suspect that the song shifted to G major or E minor (both keys contain the same notes and therefore the same chords).

Is this enough to determine it?

Not really, there could be a lot more to it, but I will rule it as sufficient for this unofficial internet blog exploration.

Does it really matter how many keys a song uses?

The quantity of keys a song uses has no value in itself whatsoever.

A song is not better for having more key changes, nor it is worse for not having any.

Music is art, and art is not a competition.

The only thing that matters for a song is how it makes you feel. Or if it makes you feel something at all.

I’m pretty sure there are 2 chords and 1 key songs that could bring you to tears, as there are songs that go through multiple keys and achieve the same result with no more or less merit.

How to improvise over a song in multiple keys?

Improvising over multiple keys is a little bit harder than doing so over a single key, as you could imagine, but it’s an experience that hasn’t killed any musicians yet, at least that I’m aware of.

The easiest way of taking on this task is by breaking things bit by bit.

Namely, just improvise over the key of the moment.

Ok, it sounds easier said than done.

But let’s go back to our example: Think of a song that’s in C major for the verse.

So let’s jam in C major for the verse. Easy isn’t it?

Now, when the song shifts to D major, just pull out your D major shapes and shift into them.

This is a very basic, but effective way of approaching it, that will get you out of any trouble.