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How to Use Parallel Key Changes in Your Songwriting

Similar to relative key changes, parallel modulation is about changing between major and minor keys. So its main function is to change the overall mood of the song with a simple chord change - major keys generally being upbeat and "light", minor keys generally being ominous and "dark".

This gives you a number of possible creative directions for your songwriting, both in the chord progression and the song structure. Songs have the ability to take the listener on a journey, through various emotions, and key changes are a powerful way of doing this.

Watch the video below for an introduction to parallel key changes and how you can use them in your music...

The Mechanics of Parallel Key Modulation

The idea of a key being "parallel" comes from the fact we are changing the tonic (1 or I) chord from major-minor or minor-major on the same root.

This means if we started in C major, its parallel key would be C minor. We could therefore call Cm the "parallel minor" of Cmaj and Cmaj the "parallel major" of Cm.

Pivot chords

As covered in the video, the switch between keys is most effective when you use a pivot chord - a chord that facilitates or prepares the change into the new parallel key. Think of it as a signpost that tells you we're about to return home, but that home can be a "happy home" (major tonic) or an "unhappy home" (minor tonic).

The "strongest" pivot chord is the V (5) chord, also known as the dominant. In relation to Cmaj or Cm, the V chord would be Gmaj or G7.

Not entirely sure what these numerals (I, IV, V etc.) mean on the fretboard?
I highly recommend Jonathan Boettcher's crash course in guitar theory.

The below table shows you this same relationship in several keys. Take a listen to the audio (and play along if you know the chords), which pivots between the parallel major and minor tonics, to help internalize this important relationship known as dominant - tonic.

< V > Parallel
Cmaj G7 Cm Click to hear
Dmaj A7 Dm Click to hear
Emaj B7 Em Click to hear
Gmaj D7 Gm Click to hear
Amaj E7 Am Click to hear
Tip: you can also use the audio tracks to practice switching between parallel major and minor scales...

Over the major tonic and V chord, play the major scale or major pentatonic. Over the minor tonic, switch to natural minor (or any minor scale, such as Dorian or melodic minor) or minor pentatonic on that same root.

For example, over Cmaj and G7 play C major. Over Cm play C minor.

By doing this, you can make that important connection between the chord progression and melody (whether instrumental or vocal).

In a larger progression, we might incorporate this V pivot chord as follows...

Cmaj / Em / Fmaj / G7 / Cm - click to hear

Or, moving from a C minor key into C major...

Cm / Abmaj / Fm / G7 / Cmaj - click to hear

Borrowed chords

Another way of moving between parallel keys is to borrow a chord (or chords) from the parallel key.

First, you need to be familiar with both major scale and minor scale harmony - the chords that exist within these scales. For example, here is what C major and C minor look like in parallel...

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Cmaj Dm Em Fmaj Gmaj Am Bdim
Cm Ddim Ebmaj Fm Gm Abmaj Bbmaj

The idea is, whatever key you start in, you can take chords from the parallel key to help you move into that key naturally.

So, if we started in C major, and we wanted to move into its parallel C minor key, we could use a chord from the C minor key to "prepare" that change.

For example - Cmaj / Fmaj / Abmaj / Cm - click to hear

C major key C minor key
Cmaj Fmaj Abmaj Cm

Abmaj was "borrowed" as the 6 (VI) chord from the C minor key, so it prepares us nicely for a Cm tonic and the establishment of the new parallel key of C minor. Use your ears to judge whether the borrowed chord sounds natural as part of this transition.

Tip: borrowed chords can be used more generally as a way to generate ideas for your progressions. They don't always have to result in a key change. For example, Abmaj could have simply moved back to Cmaj.

Let's listen to another example, this time moving from the minor key into its parallel major key...

Cm / Bbmaj / Fmaj / Cmaj - click to hear

C minor key C major key
Cm Bbmaj Fmaj Cmaj

Fmaj is borrowed from the C major key as the 4 (IV) chord, before resolving to the Cmaj tonic.

While many songs stay in one key, I hope you'll see how parallel key changes can give you more freedom to take your songwriting in new directions and turn a repetitive and predictable cycle of chords into a more progressive journey.

Thanks for your time!

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