Did the Key Change or What?

The unpredictable flow of shifting key centers can easily throw uninitiated players off balance, especially when jamming on unfamiliar tunes.

  For example, the New Real Book would lead an unsuspecting viewer to assume this tune is in concert Ab major throughout, and that it contains 21 accidentals.  However, “All the Things You Are” actually changes key 5 times within its 36-bar structure, and yet it contains only three accidentals!

Players unfamiliar with the road signs invariably drive off the cliff while trying to improvise over tunes containing unorthodox internal key changes like these.

Helping you navigate through complex tunes is one of the objectives of my course called “New Ears Resolution.”

How do you spot troublesome unexpected tonal alterations and play over changes easily and fluidly?

Let’s look at a passage I struggled with, until I figured out what was really going on inside its logic.  It’s half the bridge composed by Dmitri Matheny for Tadd Dameron’s “On a Misty Night” as recorded on Dmitri’s stunning 2022 CD “Cascadia.”  **

The chart as shown here appears to contain 10 accidentals, a bunch of “outside” chords, and a bewildering level of chromaticism.  It would take a bit of detective work to demystify a chart like this.

You may well ask, “Who cares?  What’s the point? Who needs all this theory?”  My answer is, “While you may not care about theory, there are two things about which all players care deeply.”

Suppose, for example, you walk into a jam session, and the vocalist says she wants to sing her favorite song in D flat.  So you open up the Real Book and find the song.  Now, as a horn player, you need to be able to do two things:

1.)  You need to be able to play the melody in her key.
2.)  You need to be able to solo over the changes.

How can you learn to do those two things efficiently and effectively?   Admittedly, it requires a bit of  detective work which might at first seem tedious.  But it soon becomes second nature, once you understand the steps.  And it yields a vast storehouse of confidence and ability.  Here are the steps to mastering those two skills.

  1. We note the key signature of 1 flat, which tells us the song is in F major.
  2. Next, we look at the chord changes.  The first two chords – C#m7 to F#7 – look like a ii-V progression in B major.
  3. Are we in the key of B major?  Let’s see if the melody affirms or contradicts that guess.  The first 8 notes do indeed fit into the B major scale.  In fact, they’re part of a lick Bird often used.  Here are the first 8 notes of the bridge and also that bebop lick:
  4. Now let’s look at the following chords – Cm7, F7, Bb major 7.  They look like a ii-V-I in Bb major.
  5. Once again, we see a group of 12 melody notes which sound as if they fit into the key of Bb major.   And again, this is part of a common bebop lick.
  6. Since this tune is in F major, it’s not far fetched to think it might call for a bridge in Bb major – a fourth up – just like the standard “What’s New” does.

And bop players love to hit a ii-V progression a half-step above the key.


7.  But there is a question: What do we make of that strange B7 in bar 3, with the melody outlining a B7 arpeggio?   Could it be a V chord in E major?  Sounds like it.

8.  The final bar repeats that bebop lick in Bb major, solidifying our suspicion that Bb is the home key of this 4-bar passage.

When I first saw this chart, I thought that memorizing the melody and improvising over the changes were going to be really hard.  However, once you learn to do the detective work described above, you begin to recognize the tonal shifts, and you discover that the chords are all diatonic.  The chord changes are just 2, 5, 2, 5, 1, 5, 1, 6.  The melody is also largely diatonic, with only four accidentals, three of which are the same degree of the scale (the pitch “Ri,” or #2), and the fourth is just a chromatic passing tone.

On the second chart above, I’ve shown the four key centers we discovered in our analysis, the chords as Roman numerals related to those keys, and the melody notes – also related to the keys – both as syllables and also with their numeric values.

Each time the key changes, the melodic note pivots from one scale degree to another.  The notation   TI=>DO (or 7=>8)    indicates that TI in the old key becomes DO in the new key.  That is, Bb (also known as A#), which was the 7th degree TI in the key of B, becomes the 1st degree DO in the new key of Bb.  This notation describing modulation is a really useful and powerful shorthand, which you’ll love, once you get used to it.  It reminds you what’s happening now in a quick, easy to remember image.

TI => DO    or      7 => 8
“TI in the old key becomes DO in the new key.”
or   ” 7 in the old key becomes 8 in the new key.”

The key change from Bb to E to Bb is the most obscure.  Those keys are a tritone apart.  It’s easiest to hear and understand if you hold the common tone “A” over all three chords like this.

Rest assured that – once you master this process – playing tunes by ear becomes easy, fun, and effortless.  You’ll comprehend what’s going on in the same way the composer understood the tune while writing it.  And the proof that you truly know the tune is that you can play it in all 12 keys.

What about improvising?

To improvise over these changes, you could simply play chord tones (assuming you know which notes are in each chord).  But that starts to sound kind of monotonous after a while.  Instead – if you want to play beautiful melodies that glide effortlessly over the changes – you need to know what key you’re in at each moment and the scale which fits that key.  Here’s a chart showing the appropriate scale for each tonal center.

Below you’ll find a chart and a recording, in case you want to shed this phrase in all 12 keys.

**   Dmitri Matheny’s 2022 CD “Cascadia” quickly joined my desert island short list.  The writing, arranging, ensemble work, and solos all fit together like a well-crafted symphony.  In particular, Matheny’s flugelhorn and Charles McNeal’s saxes flow like four hands with one brain.

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