How the Billboard Hot 100 Lost Interest in the Key Change

Sunday, November 27th, 2022

Chris Dalla Riva, a musician from New Jersey who works on analytics and personalization at Audiomack, explains how the Billboard Hot 100 lost interest in the key change:

When looking at every Billboard Hot 100 number one hit between 1958 and 1990, we see that the key of G major was a very popular key. This was because the key of G major is easy to work with on the guitar and piano, the two most popular compositional instruments during these years. In fact, across the decades, we see that keys that are convenient to use on these instruments (i.e. C major, G major, D major) are more popular than others that are less convenient to use, like B major and Gb major.

But songs don’t have to be in a single key. In fact, 23 percent of number one hits between 1958 and 1990 were in multiple keys, like “Man in the Mirror.”


The act of shifting a song’s key up either a half step or a whole step (i.e. one or two notes on the keyboard) near the end of the song, was the most popular key change for decades. In fact, 52 percent of key changes found in number one hits between 1958 and 1990 employ this change.


What’s odd is that after 1990, key changes are employed much less frequently, if at all, in number one hits.

What’s doubly odd is that around the same time, the keys that number one hits are in change dramatically too. In fact, songwriters begin using all keys at comparable rates.


So what is going on? Both of the shifts can be tied back to two things: the rise of hip-hop and the growing popularity of digital music production, or recording on computers.


Hip-hop stands in stark contrast to nearly all genres that came before because it puts more emphasis on rhythm and lyricism over melody and harmony.


As hip-hop grew in popularity, the use of computers in recording also exploded too. Whereas the guitar and piano lend themselves to certain keys, the computer is key-agnostic. If I record a song in the key of C major into digital recording software, like Logic or ProTools, and then decide I don’t like that key, I don’t have to play it again in that new key. I can just use my software to shift it into that different key. I’m no longer constrained by my instrument.

Furthermore, digital recording software lends itself to a new style of songwriting that isn’t as inviting to key changes within a recording.


Because songwriters in the pre-digital age were writing linearly, shifting the key in a new section was a natural compositional technique.


  1. Grasspunk says:

    You move the song key around not so it sounds better but so it fits the characteristics of your singer, for example to make the belted notes of the chorus line up with the power range of the singer.

    I’m kinda bugged by the lack of mention of disco, EDM and especially Max Martin and cohort, which drive the patterns of a lot of modern pop music. The data he provides for disappearing key changes shows a fall starting in the late 90s which lines up with Max Martin’s Swedish invasion, certainly much better than hip-hop does.

    Just for fun there are some fine key changes in the awesome original Attack on Titan theme.

  2. Anomaly UK says:

    Regarding Grasspunk’s comment above, the degree of impact of one songwriter on pop music is easy to underestimate and worth looking into.

    Max Martin wrote or co-wrote:

    Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” (1998)
    the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” (1999)
    Bon Jovi “It’s My Life” (2000)
    Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (2008)
    Maroon 5′s “One More Night” (2012),
    Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” (2014)
    The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” (2019)

    and dozens more; I’m just picking songs I know or have at least heard of, and I was hardly listening to new music at all over that whole period.

  3. Longarch says:

    Actually, the key-change mafia were propping up key-change practices in pop songs until Casey Handmer proved that there was no key-changed song written in orbit that could profitably replace a single-key song written on earth. Then the key-change mafia had to diversify into bored-ape tokens and helium-lifted airships.

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