According to NYU professor and author of Dilla Time Dan Charnas, the key change has faded out of popularity alongside the often slow and emotional ballad, which he calls a “bastion of key changes.” Meanwhile, hip-hop has taken center stage.
“Hip-hop is a rejection of a lot of the tropes of traditional musicianship,” Charnas says. Music composition has also changed, prioritizing rhythm and texture over individual notes and chords.
There are some numbers from the late ‘80s, like Michael Jackson’s 1988 hit “Man in the Mirror,” where the key change can be seen as both a mark of beauty and a cliché.
“You can look at that song in two different ways. On one level, it’s a perfectly constructed song, a beautiful piece of songwriting. A lot of craft goes into it,” Charnas says. “In another view, it’s tropey, maudlin and completely manipulative.”
While the key change was once a mark of musical sophistication, many now consider it a crutch. Dalla Riva says a lot of his peers think using the key change is lazy.
“It’s just like you get to the last chorus and you’re like, all right, we need to inject some more energy. Let’s just shift the key up a half-step or a whole step.”
Where pop music is headed
Some fans and pop music experts might be inclined to mourn the “death” of the key change, but Charnas says musical tools and composition techniques are constantly evolving.
“There's lots of ways to get dynamics in a song and in a composition,” Charnas says. “Key change is just one of the ways.”