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Why the key change has disappeared from top-charting tunes

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The biggest hits in pop music all used to have something in common - a key change, like Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY (WHO LOVES ME)")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) My lonely heart calls. Oh, I wanna dance with somebody.

CHRIS DALLA RIVA: Changing the key is just a tool. And like all tools in music, the idea is to evoke emotion, to make the listener feel a certain way.

SHAPIRO: Chris Dalla Riva is a musician and a data analyst with the music streaming platform Audiomack. He spent the last few years listening to every No. 1 hit in the Billboard Hot 100 from 1958 to today. That's more than 1,100 songs. And he found that the key change has all but disappeared from modern pop hits. OK, now if your music theory is a little rusty, let's say a song is in a key like G major.

(SOUNDBITE OF G MAJOR PIANO SCALE)

SHAPIRO: And then you shift up a half step to A flat.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FLAT MAJOR PIANO SCALE)

DALLA RIVA: Basically, they'll shift up the key one or two notes - a half step or a whole step - during the last chorus, and it sort of injects energy into the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ON TOP")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Oh, baby, baby, it's you.

SHAPIRO: Beyonce's 2011 hit "Love On Top" never reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, but it pulls listeners through a relentless four key changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ON TOP")

BEYONCE: (Singing) You put my love on top, baby, 'cause you're the one that I love. Baby, you're the one that I need.

SHAPIRO: According to Dalla Riva's analysis, which he wrote about for the website Tedium, from the 1960s through the '90s, roughly a quarter of No. 1 songs changed keys. But he says, in the entire decade from 2010 to 2020, there was only one - Travis Scott's 2018 track "SICKO MODE," featuring Drake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SICKO MODE")

TRAVIS SCOTT: (Singing) Young LaFlame, he in sicko mode.

SHAPIRO: So why did the key change fade away? Hip-hop historian Dan Charnas says the key change kind of got stale. It sort of became a crutch.

DAN CHARNAS: Not everybody can rock a key change like Stevie Wonder - you know? - who used it masterfully.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN LADY")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Golden lady, I'd like to go there. Golden lady...

CHARNAS: Mostly, composers used them to sort of - it was like a device. It was like, OK, let me pull out my wrench.

SHAPIRO: And tastes have changed, too. Instead of melody, popular music today often prioritizes rhythm, like rap and hip-hop.

CHARNAS: There's lots of ways to get dynamics in a song and in a composition. Key change is just one of the ways.

SHAPIRO: It's just not one of the ways musicians use much today. So next time someone complains they don't make music like they used to, well, you can admit they have a point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN ON A PRAYER")

BON JOVI: (Singing) When that's all that you've got. Woah, we're halfway there. Woah, livin' on a prayer.

SHAPIRO: Sing along. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallika Seshadri
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.