A few weeks ago I had a wonderful opportunity to present a regional keyboard workshop near where I live in the Seattle area. This workshop was unique from the many keyboard classes I’ve taught at worship conferences around the country, unique in that every attendee brought their own keyboards with them. That’s a lot of keyboard stands and sustain pedals, right?
By bringing their own instruments with them to the workshop, each musician was able to do more than listen to what I demonstrated from my instrument at the front of the classroom. They were able to play what I was playing. Feel every voicing with their fingers. Hear what it sounds like and feels like when you keep a common tone in the fifth finger of your right hand as a chord progression passes.
One of the attendees at the workshop asked a question that many related to, wondering how I might go about transitioning between songs when a key change is involved. You might have an interest in this yourself. Then again, some of you might be using Multitracks or some other type of supplemental tracks that have a definite start and end to the arrangement. In those cases, transitioning from song to song isn’t as much of an issue.
Still, I’m confident that many of us, at some point in a worship service we’re involved in, need to get from one key to another. Like the people at my recent workshop, I hope you’ll sit at your keyboard and experiment with the concepts I’ll be explaining now.
In years past, you might have been taught to navigate your way from one key to another by using a formula that would have you create a certain transitional chord progression. You might think of a “pivot chord” or “pivot phrase”. In those cases, you play a specific chord from the key you’re approaching to begin the modulation. In the modern worship genre, I’ve found that these types of modulations can be distracting, perhaps telegraphing to the congregation “here comes our next song” rather than sustaining the current song’s mood and unobtrusively shifting to a new key.
Here are some tips to creating a seamless transition between keys. The most significant point I can start with relates to an earlier statement I made about the fifth finger of your right hand. A conspicuous element of modern keyboard style is to keep an unchanging note here. That note is referred to as a common tone. It’s a pitch shared by two or more chords. So, what chords are involved at the moment in your set? Perhaps you’re playing “What A Beautiful Name’. Here are the chords and lyrics for the second half of the chorus.
What a beautiful name it is, nothing compares to this
Bm A G
What a beautiful name it is, the name of Je – sus
It’s time to get tactile. Sit at your keyboard and try these things for yourself. Play a D major triad. What are the notes? D F# A. Play an A major triad. A C# E. Play a B minor triad. B D F#. Play a G major triad. G B D.
What common tones do you see? The note D is shared by the D, G and B minor chords. The note A is shared by the D major and A major chords. Let’s make a couple of small changes to these chords that will result in even more common tones. The note D is shared by three of our chords. If you choose to play the A chord as an Asus or A(add4) you can now include D at that point of the song. Now the note D is in every chord involved. What could you do to make an A be part of the G and the Bm? Play the Bm as a Bm7 and play the G as a G2 chord.
Here’s a quick explanation of what a G2 chord is. The G chord contains root: G; third: B; fifth: D. By omitting the 3rd, B, and choosing to play the 2 instead, you’ve created a G2 chord. It’s a distinctive sound heard on thousands of modern worship recordings.
The main point of this exercise is to reinforce what it feels and sounds like to keep a common tone as the highest note in your right hand. Remember there are 2 common tones that will work well in this progression, the notes D or A. Choose one of those pitches and play it with your fifth finger, right hand. Don’t worry about playing the entire chorus’ progression. And don’t worry about playing lots of melodic activity or busy patterns. It’s great if you just play a quarter note pulse and better still if you play along with a metronome set to 74 bpm. Note that this type of steady quarter note pulse is heard on lots of piano-driven songs. Get comfortable with it!
Eventually you’ll be ready to establish the key of your next song. This is when your use of that common tone in your fifth finger is going to pay off. Obviously what follows here is going to relate to a particular key change. The two keys you’re working with certainly might be different. But, since so many of our songs these days are in sharp keys (G, D, A and E), I’m going to choose to go from the current key of D to the one of those sharp keys, the key of G. I’ll choose “Holy Spirit” as my next song. The progression of the verse of that song is G Cmaj7.
Now it’s helpful to think about common tones not just between the chords in your current song but also in the key you’re headed toward. The notes D and A that we’d been using in our fifth finger in the earlier progression both occur naturally in the key of G. The note D is part of the G chord in “Holy Spirit”. The A is part of the G chord as well if you play it as a G2 chord.
Whew! This is a lot to think about, right? The good news is that as you feel and hear the function of these common tones you’ll find that applying these concepts will become instinctual, automatic. Let’s keep going. Play your progression with the D in the fifth finger of your right hand.
It turns out this transition between songs and between keys couldn’t be much simpler. The G2 chord that ends the “What A Beautiful Name” progression is the starting chord of “Holy Spirit”! So, you can keep not just the D in your 5th finger but also the A and G below it. This is shown in the graphic earlier in the article.
After concluding a chorus of “What A Beautiful Name”, continue playing a quarter note pulse of the G2 chord. This is the point at which you can decide when you want to begin playing in the key of G. This G2, once you’re playing “Holy Spirit” is the first chord of your verse. On cue, someone can begin singing the verse. When you reach the point in the section when you play the Cmaj7 it’s a beautiful surprise since up to this chord there was no chord heard that suggested you’d left the key of D!
As you get more comfortable at your keyboard with these concepts for connecting songs, experiment with some of them at one of your worship team rehearsals. I think you’ll discover, like me, that developing these transitions within your worship set is WAY better than those awkward moments of dead air that often happen between songs.