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How Do You Change Between Keys?

Question by Anonymous

When soloing how do you switch between keys to make it sound good? I'm not sure where to move to make the solo sound good.


Key changes are considered an advanced aspect of music theory and I plan to have a series of lessons devoted to it, but let's look at a quick example to cover the main elements.

A lot of how natural the key change sounds is down to the underlying chord progression, but there are movements you can make as a soloist to make the key change sound smoother and less disjointed.

Identifying the "key change chord"

Take this simple G major key progression...

Chords before key change:

G major / A minor / D major
(I, ii, V)

Through this chord sequence, the G major scale (or major pentatonic) will work nicely, as these 3 chords are part of the G major scale.

Let's say the key changes from G major to D major.

We first need to identify which chord marks the move into a new key.

A lot of the time, the key change won't be marked by the new tonic chord itself (D major in this example), but will instead transpose to it through a related chord of that new tonic...

G maj / Am / Dmaj / Gmaj / A7 / Dmaj / Em / A7 / Dmaj
(I, ii, V, I, II/V, I, ii, V, I)

Hear it

A7 is our "key change chord" as it represents the V chord of the new key of D major. In other words, A7 resolves to D major.

We can assume that the D major scale will now apply as A7 is the natural V chord of D major.

It's then just a case of identifying which "landing note" from the D major scale leads us on nicely from the G major chord of the old key to the A7 chord of the new key.

Key change landing notes

Landing notes are an important concept to understand when soloing over any chord changes.

The safest landing notes to use are the root, 3rd (or minor 3rd if it's a minor chord) and 5th of the new chord.

So in this example, when G major changes to A7, be ready to land on the note A (root), C# (3rd) or E (5th). You can then continue the D major key solo from there, working around that new D major tonic when it resolves.

Tip: you can use arpeggios to outline chords in your solos, whether you're moving to a chord in the same key or a new key.

Modal changes

A more effective way to look at it is, if you know your modes of the major scale, use A mixolydian to highlight that A7 chord's tension before resolving to the new D major tonic.

You could also turn G major from the old key into G Lydian, as G Lydian, like A Mixolydian, would be a mode of that new D major tonic/key.

As I said, key change theory can get pretty complex and it's something you'll come to understand the more you break down chord progressions.

The chord progressions section covers this in great depth so take a look if you're ready. This will naturally correspond to your knowledge of modes.

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minor observation
By: Alice

Shouldn't that A7 be considered the V/V rather than the II/V?

II in old key - V in new key
By: Mike

I put II/V because A7, as the transition chord between Gmaj and Dmaj keys, has a dual function.

A7 would represent the II chord of G major as well as the V chord of Dmaj.

By: Alice

That makes sense! Thanks for clearing it up.

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