Today in Tedium: A few years ago, I decided that I was going to listen to every number one song in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. That’s 1143 songs released between 1958 and 2022. I decided I would listen to one song per day. Why would I spend years of my life doing this? Mostly because I’m a musician. I wanted to further educate myself on the past to improve my songwriting. But I have a strange perspective. I work on data analytics and personalization at Audiomack, a popular music streaming service. So while part of my musical education was driven by old-fashioned listening, another part of it was driven by a giant data set that I built about those 1,000+ songs. After crunching some numbers, one of the most shocking things I learned is that the groups of notes we choose to make number one hits with have changed dramatically over the last 60 years. In today’s Tedium, I break down the pop chart’s underlying key change. — Chris @ Tedium
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“Take a look at yourself and then make a change”: The power of the key change on the pop charts
One of the strangest things about Michael Jackson’s solo career is that he didn’t release that much music. In the two decades after his adult debut—1979’s Off the Wall—Jackson only released 5 solo albums, totaling 59 songs. As a point of comparison, in the two decades after his solo debut, Paul McCartney—the only realistic competitor to Jackson’s title as King of Pop—put out 14 albums containing 176 songs.
Nevertheless, given that nearly 40 percent of Jackson’s songs during this period were top 10 hits, it’s safe to say that he still wears the crown. Among those hits, there’s always been one song that’s stood out to me: “Man in the Mirror”.
“Man in the Mirror” is gospel record that sees the narrator looking to make a positive change in the world but quickly realizing that he first needs to make a change in himself:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror.
I’m asking him to change his ways.
And no message could’ve been any clearer:
If they wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change.
Part of the reason this record stands out among Jackson’s solo songs is his vocal performance. From “Billie Jean” to “Dirty Diana” to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the vocals on many of Jackson’s hits sound frantic, like he’s navigating through a labyrinth. “Man in the Mirror” is not like that. Jackson sounds comfortable and empowered. That performance makes the record distinct in his oeuvre.
But there’s another reason it stands out: the key change from G major to G# major that occurs at around 2 minutes and 52 seconds. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the simplest way to think of a musical key is a collection of notes around which a piece of music revolves. The beginning of “Man in the Mirror” is in the key of G major, which is built from the notes below.
When looking at every Billboard Hot 100 number one hit between 1958 and 1990, we see that the key of G major was a very popular key. This was because the key of G major is easy to work with on the guitar and piano, the two most popular compositional instruments during these years. In fact, across the decades, we see that keys that are convenient to use on these instruments (i.e. C major, G major, D major) are more popular than others that are less convenient to use, like B major and Gb major.
But songs don’t have to be in a single key. In fact, 23 percent of number one hits between 1958 and 1990 were in multiple keys, like “Man in the Mirror.” As previously noted, that key change is one of the most memorable things about Jackson’s recording. At the 2 minute and 52 second mark, Jackson sings “change” backed by a gospel choir as the key moves from G major to G# major. This shift makes you feel like you’ve received the Holy Spirit even if you’ve never been to a church.
The act of shifting a song’s key up either a half step or a whole step (i.e. one or two notes on the keyboard) near the end of the song, was the most popular key change for decades. In fact, 52 percent of key changes found in number one hits between 1958 and 1990 employ this change. You can hear it on “My Girl,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” among many others.
What’s odd is that after 1990, key changes are employed much less frequently, if at all, in number one hits.
What’s doubly odd is that around the same time, the keys that number one hits are in change dramatically too. In fact, songwriters begin using all keys at comparable rates.
The two factors that changed the key of pop music forever
So what is going on? Both of the shifts can be tied back to two things: the rise of hip-hop and the growing popularity of digital music production, or recording on computers. First, let’s talk about hip-hop.
Though hip-hop grew in popularity throughout the 1980s, it didn’t become the cultural zeitgeist until the 1990s. Hip-hop stands in stark contrast to nearly all genres that came before because it puts more emphasis on rhythm and lyricism over melody and harmony. For example, while you might be able to tap out the percussion or recite some lyrics from “Juicy” by Biggie Smalls, you would likely not be able to hum the melody. That’s because the song doesn’t have a melody in the same way that something like “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland does.
Thus, if you changed the key of “Juicy,” Biggie wouldn’t necessarily have to change how he raps, but if you changed the key of “Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland would have to sing different pitches. If you picked the wrong key, those pitches might be outside of her vocal range. In short, key doesn’t matter as much in hip-hop.
As hip-hop grew in popularity, the use of computers in recording also exploded too. Whereas the guitar and piano lend themselves to certain keys, the computer is key-agnostic. If I record a song in the key of C major into digital recording software, like Logic or ProTools, and then decide I don’t like that key, I don’t have to play it again in that new key. I can just use my software to shift it into that different key. I’m no longer constrained by my instrument.
Furthermore, digital recording software lends itself to a new style of songwriting that isn’t as inviting to key changes within a recording. Before we get a sense of how recording works today, let’s generalize how it was done for decades.
Imagine that I’m Sting and I sit down to write a song in the early ’80s for my group The Police. While composing, it’s likely that I’ll work linearly. What this means is I’ll write section-by-section. First, I’ll write a verse, then a chorus, then another verse, and so on. One way to create intrigue as I get to a new section is to change something. Maybe the lyrics. Maybe the melody. Or maybe the key.
On “Every Breath You Take,” Sting does the third. Most of the song is built around a laid back groove in Ab major, but then on the bridge, the energy kicks up as the song shifts to the key of B major. Because songwriters in the pre-digital age were writing linearly, shifting the key in a new section was a natural compositional technique.
But in the computer age, this linear style doesn’t make as much sense. Let’s look at a song I recorded recently in Logic Pro to understand why.
There’s a ton going on here, but I want to focus on a few things. Let’s start with the second pane from the left, the one that you see “Guitar—Arpeggio” at the top of. This pane displays each track you are recording. So when I needed to record a bass, I created a new track, labeled it “Bass”, and was able to record my bass directly into the program. In this image, I have the bass track selected. Direct your eyes to the section just to the right of the bass track.
You can see a visual representation of what I’ve recorded. But something interesting is going on here. I only recorded two bars of the bass. I then copy-and-pasted those same two bars throughout the entire song. I was able to do this because I built this song around a bunch of short loops. After that, I went back and wrote the melody and lyrics over the recorded track. This process illustrates how digital recording software generally encourages a vertical rather than linear songwriting approach. Joe Bennett, a professor at the Berklee College of Music, explains this in a chapter of The Oxford Handbook of the Creative Process in Music:
The orchestral-score style vertical layout of most [digital recording software] … may encourage loopbased writing, because the default setting of the software is to display only a few bars horizontally on screen, with several vertically stacked tracks. This layout, I suggest, makes the songwriter more likely to work on vertical production elements and instrumental layering, and to pay less attention to linear elements.
Together, these factors not only explain why songwriting has changed so dramatically in the last 30 years but also why, despite its timeless message, Jackson’s inspiring gospel song is a vestige of a bygone era.
Say what you will about key changes. Maybe you find them at best heavy-handed and at worst trite. I know that I often do. In fact, my love for the key change in “Man in the Mirror” is the exception not the rule. I usually think it’s lazy songwriting when a song injects energy by shifting up a half step or a whole step right around the last chorus. That said, something has been lost by kicking all key changes to the curb. A well-executed key change can elevate a song to a higher plane.
With that in mind, it’s probably not a coincidence that the only number one hit to use a key change during the 2010s is also one of the most iconic: Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE.” The song begins in the key of Gm with Drake delivering a monologue of sorts over a mysterious keyboard. Then at around the one minute mark there is a dramatic change: Drake goes silent and Travis Scott enters as the beat not only switches but the key shifts down a half step to Gbm. When Drake returns two minutes later, the song then moves into Ebm. These harmonic changes not only make “SICKO MODE” stand out, but its structural complexity makes it more akin to a classical composition than a typical hip-hop hit of the last decade. Justice for the key change!
Thanks again to Chris for a hugely thoughtful piece. Wanna tell others about this piece? Share it with a pal!
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