The key change is like pretty much any other musical trope: if it’s used well, it can be an effective and inventive way to signal a shift in the mood or tone of a song; if it’s used badly, it can be a godawful cliché that makes your ears hurt and your heart fill with existential despair. We may get around to looking at the former in due course, but for now, it’s more fun to look at the latter — so here are ten of the poorest key changes in music, ranked from the worst to the absolute worst.
10. Mr Big — “To Be With You”
True fact: this song was #1 for about a thousand weeks in a row during the 1990s. Other true fact: “Mr. Big(s)” is rarely used Australian slang for actual human shit. Make of this what you will.
9. Berlin — “Take My Breath Away”
A prime manifestation of the, “Now sing the chorus a tone higher for extra emotional effect” key change. The fact that these changes usually occur in songs that approach emotion in a hamfistedly bombastic manner is no coincidence. Which brings us to…
8. Céline Dion — “My Heart Will Go On”
The song that puts the “power” into “power ballad.” Curiously, for a song that has such a formidable reputation, it spends its first three minutes as a rather pretty, understated piece of music… and then there’s a key change, at which point it becomes the musical equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. It’s not just your typical up-one-step thing, either — as with everything else about this song, Dion doubles down on the drama by going up two whole tones, because of course she does.
7. Oasis — “All Around the World”
Around the time Be Here Now was released, Noel Gallagher gave Q Magazine a track-by-track rundown of his opus. Of this song, he proclaimed proudly, “There are three key changes towards the end. Imagine how much better ‘Hey Jude’ would have been with three key changes towards the end.” Kids, this is why you should not do too much cocaine.
6. Sublime — “Pool Shark”
A mess of a song that’s less than a minute long and still manages to incorporate a key change, this time of the “just sing the entire song again in a different key” variety. Yes, it’s about Bradley Nowell’s heroin addiction, and yes, it’s very sad, but dear god, what a terrible piece of music.
5. Mariah Carey — “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)”
Given the abiding cheesiness of one-step-up key changes, it’s not at all surprising that their use tends to peak during December. (No, really, it’s true — check out the statistical analysis about three quarters of the way down this page.) Mariah Carey’s Christmas album is infested with the damn things, usually in combination with her infuriating habit of singing as many notes as humanly possible for every single syllable.
4. Ariana Grande — “Love Is Everything”
Also on the Christmas song front: Ariana Grande’s dire Christmas song, which fairly bursts with homilies about how love is all you need and how you just need to believe and pretty much every other trite holiday season cliché. It’s bad enough before the key change. It doesn’t need the key change. We’ve suffered enough already. But no, of course, because it’s a Christmas song, there’s a key change. Seriously, Christmas music is the fucking worst. (No, wait, there’s a scientific proof of this, too!)
3. Michael Jackson — “Heal the World”
It’s impossible not to hear these key changes — yes, there are two, both of the “I’m so emotional I’m just going to start singing HIGHHHERRRR” variety — without thinking of Jarvis Cocker charging up onto stage to wave his arse at the audience.
2. Westlife, generally
This awful Irish boy band were an early manifestation of Simon Cowell’s Antichristdom, and although they never managed to make any sort of impression on this side of the Atlantic, their CDs were staples of all your friends’ mothers’ music collections circa the early 2000s. Apart from the fact that they were collectively as wet as a lemonade sandwich, they’re notable because pretty much every single one of their syrupy chartbusters featured a gratuitous key change. Seriously. It was a dark time. But still, they can’t compete with…
1. Whitney Houston — “I Will Always Love You”
*the music stops*
Whitney Houston: “And…”
*a moment of expectant silence* *the cat shifts uneasily*
Whitney Houston: “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU”
*neighborhood dogs howl* *distant thunder crashes* *the cat bolts and hides under the table* *computer screen shatters*