Where Have All The Key Changes Gone?

Paul, our musical expert on this year’s Eurovision NZ jury, ponders the disappearance of an old Eurovision stalwart: the key change. Where did it go, why did it go and can we look to history to find it again?

That old prop of Eurovision past, the key change, has all but disappeared with only a handful of entries using it this year: Denmark, Hungary, Montenegro…and then there’s Georgia, but more on that later.

The ‘key change’ is a common device in pop music, with roots back into the early 20th century. The Urban Dictionary defines key change as: “An emotional crescendo in a situation. The point at which everything seems to kick off.” This is fair enough and describes points in almost all songs, but that’s not what I am looking at. I am talking in strictly musical terms about taking a phrase or chorus up a step towards the end of a song to increase the musical impact—not just going through a series of chords leading back to the original key. By moving the tonal centre or the underlying key up, we form a point of energy in the song, the vocalist(s) get to sing higher and show off their range, and it all seems more exciting somehow, or so the theory goes.

There was a time when this device was common with party songs and ballads alike. Looking back at the last 40 years of Eurovision, the late 70s and 80s was definitely a key change era. Between 1978 and 1987, seven winners used this device, classic examples being Bucks Fizz with “Making Your Mind Up” (1981) and Johnny Logan’s “Hold Me Now” (1987).

Celine Dion kicked off the next decade with a key change in “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi” (1988), but only three winners followed her. Between 1998 and 2007, there were five. In fact, 2007 is the last year a key change occurred in the winning song – Serbia’s “Molitva“. None of the winners since then have used a key change.

What? Not even Conchita’s soaring Bond-Theme-like anthem “Rise like a Phoenix”?
No, it begins and ends in D minor, all the choruses are in D minor. There is a clever little tierce de Picardie at the end of the 2nd chorus—we are momentarily in D major—then a bridge section, molto crescendo, hit the high note, build the lighting and…back into D minor for the chorus and flames, lots of flames. The Urban Dictionary definition may fit this song perfectly but, musically, no key change.

If no-one is winning using a key change, are any songs out there getting close? Back in 2007, the fabulous Verka Serduchka incorporated two key changes in “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” and was pipped to the post by Serbia. In the last few years Sweden’s “Undo” reached 3rd place (2014) and Russia’s highly technical set-fest “You Are The Only One” also came in 3rd (2016). In the same year Poland’s classic minor-key ballad “Colour Your Life” used two key changes and placed 9th. Israel’s “Golden Boy” was the highest ranking key change in 2015 with 9th place, and last year The Netherland’s “Cry No More” was the highest at 11th.

Why is this?

Eurovision could just be mirroring trends in Pop music. Google ‘best key changes of all time’ and other than Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” you rarely get a result later than Beyoncé’s “Love on Top” from 2011. (With 4 key changes and 4 costume changes, this should have been in Eurovision!)

Eurovision’s live arena performances in recent years have become considerably more technical in their staging, lighting and projection techniques.

There is speculation that songs with an ‘ambiguous key centre’ are more common. Trying to leave the technicalities aside, these songs can be heard as belonging to two or more keys, depending upon how you approach the chord analysis. The chord progression used in these songs creates an acoustic interest just on its own (absorbing music-theorist discussion on Reddit regarding “Get Lucky” if you want more on this). Moreover, in an era of EDM beats, synths, rap, loops, and a plethora of musical styles, it is possible to build musical suspense and interest through the song without ever changing key.

It is also fair to say that Eurovision’s live arena performances in recent years have become considerably more technical in their staging, lighting and projection techniques. There have been all manner of devices and props to introduce visual drama (hopefully no more running machines, Sweden), but this has meant emotional interest can be created just from the physical space and the way it is lit.

Take for example “City Lights”, Belgium’s entry last year which placed 4th. It has a very simple understated melody, which is repeated an octave higher towards the end to increase emotional tension but remains in the same key, and relies heavily on the backing track arrangement and lighting to build its climax.

This year might best be exemplified by Estonia and their Popera track “La Forza”. Without that huge fabulous circle dress and the amazing organic projections onto it, the song wouldn’t have the same impact. Elina Nechayeva is, after all, standing stock still for the whole performance, so they are relying heavily on the song and lighting to create drama. Let’s not forget that Eurovision winners are a combination of a good singer, good song, good staging which suits the song, and importantly good TV. A winner has to make a memorable statement on the night through the medium of TV which is a very visual experience.

Unfortunately for this year’s key change candidates, none are predicted to reach the top ten. Possibly the entry with the most potential for a high placing is Denmark’s Viking-like anthem “Higher Ground” which has very definite styling and staging (no sequins here) and a bit of an earworm chorus. At time of writing, it is predicted to land in the top twenty. Hungary’s punk-rock explosion is estimated to reach the mid-twenties, and Montenegro is trying not to be last with nil points!

Georgia is predicted to fall somewhere between Hungary and Montenegro, which is a shame because they have a musically interesting song. Georgia’s entry this year is “For You” by Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao.

That’s their title, Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao, which describes where they are coming from musically: introducing jazz elements to traditional polyphonic Georgian song. “For You” does have a strong traditional tune, but the harmonies from instruments and vocals give parts of it a distinct laid-back jazz lounge flavour. For our key change purposes it starts in G major, and doesn’t take long to go into Bb major (which is more than a step up, that’s a noticeable shift) and it goes along in this vein, until near the end when we build energy and it changes into …G major. Starting and ending in the same key with the middle of the song in a different key is not an easy thing to achieve, but they make this work. And with all the strong harmony singing, gushing strings and strident horn section coming in at the end for a rousing finale, it is so very fitting for Eurovision.

What is your favourite key change song from Eurovision? And have I missed any noteworthy entries?