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Note from Siegfried Baboon: This is an essay generously contributed by self-confessed songwriting anorak Dominic Pedler, author of The Songwriting Secrets Of The Beatles. This definitive book is published by Omnibus Press, and you are strongly encouraged to buy a copy!

If you have any feedback on this article, please send it to feedback@gearchange.org and I will pass it on to Dominic.

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The truck driver's gear change: a muso's introduction

One of the most vital secrets of great songwriting is modulation, an all too forgotten art that separates the men from the boys in these rhythm-obsessed times. Modulation is the process of switching keys, introducing fresh harmony that takes the listener to a new musical landscape, with notes and chords that are intuitively heard as revolving around – and resolving to – a new "tonic", or tonal centre.

Yet if modulation is such a sure-fire way of generating songwriting novelty, how is it that the great Jimmy Webb, who penned such classics as "Macarthur Park" and "Wichita Lineman", can write the following, apparently slagging off the very concept?

Modulation is in disrepute. Suggest modulation to a contemporary musician and you are likely to be sneered at, if not banished in perpetuity to the boneyard of the un-hip. Your invitations may begin to wander mysteriously in the mail.1

Webb's put-down is a perceptive comment in response to a gradual but fundamental sea-change in songwriting practice over the last few decades. His objection is not to the transitory modulations that move away from – and then back to – a given key centre, a technique which songwriters from Cole Porter to the Beatles and right through to Oasis have pulled off with such panache. No, the target of derision is what has become known as the final modulation, which Webb defines as "modulating without returning to the original key, usually for suspect, overly dramatic reasons".

The most famous culprit in all this is where the song, in a painfully predictable show of amateur dramatics, is shifted up a key – or perhaps two or three (or more!) – lock, stock and barrel. American slang is to refer to this trick as the truck driver's modulation (or as Siegfried Baboon prefers: the truck driver's gear change), because the effect is one of changing harmonic gears, even if the tempo itself remains constant. University of Michigan musicologist Walter Everett regularly uses the term "truck driver's modulation" and echoes Jimmy Webb when he calls it "an odious time killer in much commercial music".2

Why, though, is the practice so comprehensively sneered at by musos?3 After all, a shift to the key of the ♭II takes us to the nether regions of the Cycle of Fifths, the musical map of the world, suggesting that we have targeted an ambitious new harmonic landscape. And one which, theoretically at least, should also be highly impenetrable, given that there are no pivot chords to help us make a smooth transition.4

The objection is that songs which "resort" to the semitone shift do so by merely repeating a previous harmonic idea (almost always the chorus) identically in the new destination, usually that half-step higher. No new interval relationship exists between the chords; therefore, to the extent that there is no other harmonic, melodic or rhythmic development, the trick is seen as a cheap, tacky way of generating artificial momentum.

That's not to say it doesn't work. Pop history is littered with hits that use the trick for a sudden burst of energy, by shifting wholeheartedly to a new key. Lionel Richie's "Easy", Stevie Wonder's "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life", The Carpenters' "Goodbye To Love", ABBA's "Money, Money, Money", Oasis' "All Around The World" and Robbie Williams' "Old Before I Die" are just a handful of songs where the last chorus takes us to a pseudo-celestial territory, using a variety of different gears in the box. Which doesn't mean these aren't all great songs; but the formulaic effect of the closing chorus is instantly apparent.

Worse still, it's been done to death. Indeed, it now represents not merely an old chestnut but a seriously controversial feature of pop songwriting. George Michael even admits that he was pulled up for the habit by Atlantic Records supremo Jerry Wexler. He provides a candid account in his autobiography Bare:

Jerry Wexler told me, whatever you do, avoid making a one-note key change – taking everything up one key at the end of a song. All it means, he said, is that you can't think of anything else to do and you want people to notice that something else has happened in the song. He said it's the oldest and worst cliché in the book. And since that day I have never put a one-key progression at the end of my songs. But you hear it everywhere – you hear it on every Whitney Houston record.5

Whatever the gripes of the purist, audiences and songwriters have been lapping it up since pop began. Former Spice Girls songsmith Richard Stannard even explains how, in the modern dance music market (and especially the Ibiza scene), the truck driver's modulation is seen as such an essential element that the A&R men actually demand it from their songwriters. As he puts it: "If it's not there, you can guarantee they'll say: 'where is it?'!"6

Back in their formative years the Beatles came face to face with some notable truck driver's gear changes in their covers repertoire. Listen to the Fabs going through the motions on their version of "Beautiful Dreamer", as the song takes flight with a shift from G to G# for the last chorus. The same goes for "Take Good Care Of My Baby", though here, in remaining faithful to Bobby Vee's original, they at least make the effort of entering the new key through a "connector" chord rather than directly: a D#7 adds a modicum of interest by taking the song not directly from G to G#, but via the V chord of the new key.7

In one example from their Hamburg days, however, the Beatles went for an extraordinarily bold variation on the theme: switching between the disparate key centres of E and C on their highly personalised rendition of Marlene Dietrich's "Falling In Love Again".8 While it would be pushing it to call this an original approach to modulation, the Beatles' completely off-beam arrangement is in its own way revealing – an early indication of their later, highly rebellious, attitude to the whole concept of tonality.

This last example also reminds us that shifting a song up a single semitone is not the only manifestation of the truck driver's gear change. Sure, this is the most popular ploy. If we take our earlier examples, then "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" (B to C), "Easy" (A♭ to A) and "Money, Money, Money" (Am to B♭m) would be cases where the truck driver pushes up just a single gear. But listen to "Old Before I Die" to hear Robbie Williams boldly going for a tonsil-testing, trouser-bursting three-semitone leap from the key of A up to C. Then there's the Eagles' "Already Gone". Well, you would be too if you had to jump that perfect fourth from G up to C. Indeed, this reminds us that the nature of the truck driver's ploy is usually for singers to show off their range, as with so many of Whitney Houston's larynx-tearing finales.

Sometimes the truck driver's trick is disguised by using it not for an obvious chorus, but for a verse or refrain section, perhaps using new lyrics, which would at least suggest that the writer put in a bit of extra work. One favourite in this regard is the Buzzcocks' awesome "I Don't Mind", where Pete Shelley takes us up a semitone from D to E♭ with the new line "How can you convince me?"

There's also such a thing as a progressive truck driver's modulation, where we move up sequentially through the gears to more than one new key. Check out The Who's "My Generation", where Pete Townshend takes us from the key of G, on to A, and up again to B♭, before Keith Moon's mayhem ends the song in D.9 Rather less elaborate in terms of interval jumps is Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady" – evidently a bit of a social climber, as her chorus unfolds first over a Gm chord and then in each of the next five higher keys, before the faders finally come down on a tailing Cm.

It's a reminder that the technique can sometimes be justified on semantic grounds, where the movement in keys encourages the music to reinforce the textual message. Or, in the case of the Supremes, sexual message. Listen to the 1967 Motown smash "The Happening", where we find Diana Ross moaning "and then it happened" as the tonal centre moves from G to G# for a sensuous vamp, before the song is rehashed in this higher key.

Talking of the earth moving, Oasis used a trucker's shift for a more literal globe-spinning metaphor on "All Around The World". Again, the device helps express the theme of the song by matching the music to the lyrics. By shifting not merely from the key of B to C, but also later on to D in another example of a progressive truck driver's expedition, the Gallaghers take the listener literally on a journey around the musical world – while metaphorically around the globe itself.

 

The Beatles on trial

The issue of semantics (and "excuses" for the flagrant use of the truck driver's gear change) brings us back to the Beatles.

It is testimony to their sense of songwriting amour propre that the Beatles never exploited this final modulation as a cheap, throwaway gesture. There was always an end that justified the tacky means.

Let's take a look at the only four instances in their entire original catalogue where an allegation of truck driver's tackiness could be made, before suggesting excuses that explain why we should let them off the hook.

Song Target Progression 1st key 2nd key
And I Love Her ♭II iv–i–iv–i (etc.) C#m
(verse)
Dm10
(solo)
Good Day Sunshine ♭II ♭V=IV
(see below)
B
(chorus)
C
(chorus)
Penny Lane II
(see below)
I–IV A
(chorus)
B
(chorus)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) II I–♭III–IV–I F
(chorus)
G
(chorus)

 

1. And I Love Her (A Hard Day's Night)

The charge:
A truck driver's gear change in the solo as George's nylon-string Ramirez takes centre stage. True to form, we remain in the higher key for the remainder of the song.

The defence:
Far from blatantly hyping a final chorus, the device provides an important harmonic "platform" that lifts George's guitar solo sublimely into our consciousness. It also adds yet another dimension to the delicate interplay between relative minor and major that defines the song. Academics still argue as to whether the song is in C# minor or E major, as we see-saw between the two tonal poles during the intro, verse, chorus and bridge.

Of course, after the truck driver's modulation, the same dichotomy is heard as an oscillation between D minor and F major.

 

2. Good Day Sunshine (Revolver)

The charge:
A truck driver's gear change at the very end of the song, as the refrain rises a semitone before immediately fading out.

The defence:
Yes, you have a point, but we claim two mitigating factors. First, the key shift of the final chorus, from B to C, is only implied. We never actually hear a C chord – the last harmony we hear is an F chord. OK, so this is the IV that would have taken us down a perfect fourth interval to the following C chord that is faded out. But it doesn't enjoy that predictable resolution and, as such, it leaves us hanging in the air, as follows:

  Key of B Trucker ahoy!
Old key I V I V IV IV7 ♭V of B
Sequence B F# B F# E E7 F
New key             IV of C
  Good day sunshine Good day sunshine Good day sunshine Good day sunshine

The second mitigating factor is that while unresolved endings aren't necessarily inspired, in this context they are.

This is because the whole premise of the song is that it is based on a clearly defined twin-key structure, a whole-tone apart. The chorus is in B major, while the verses unfold in A major. Neither key can be said to prevail over the other; hence to end the song in this musical no man's land, as McCartney does here, is a brilliant way of getting around the problem of which tonality to favour at the close.11

 

3. Penny Lane (single/Magical Mystery Tour)

The charge:
A blatant truck driver's modulation as the penultimate chorus in A major is repeated, verbatim, a whole step up, in the key of B.

The defence:
If you look at in isolation, then yes, your honour, guilty as charged. Look at the song as a whole, however, and you'll see that it is not a truck driver's shift at all, but an inspired twist which creates structural unity in one of Macca's finest compositions.

Up until this closing gambit, what we have in "Penny Lane" is the reverse of "Good Day Sunshine": a chorus in a key a whole step below that of the verse. It's a brilliant twin-key scheme that serves famously to delineate McCartney's detailed observations in the verse key of B, with the euphoric sing-along celebrations in the chorus key of A.

As we know from "Good Day Sunshine", the songwriter is faced with the problem of how to end this type of structure. Macca opts for a truck driver's shift into second gear – but notice that, ingeniously, his target is not some contrived new harmony, rather the tonic that originally started the song!

Our ears accept the ploy as "squaring the circle", with the shift from A to B best captured by the formula ♭VII–I, rather than a tacky I–II which it nominally appears to be in isolation.

 

4. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) (Sgt. Pepper)

The charge:
A truck driver's gear change midway through this "reprise" section, as the opening chorus in F major is raised oh-so-predictably to G major, again for a verbatim repeat of the same musical material. How do you plead?

The defence:
Guilty, m'lud. Though it's not really a fair cop. First, it has to be said that this is seamlessly done. You can hardly "see the join" as the Beatles take us into the new key as secretly as a Gordon Brown stealth tax. The clue is the D7 chord, which we're led to believe might be a VI7 "turnaround" chord but which is actually just a scam to act as V7 of G major, the key into which we are kidnapped.

If that's not such a big deal, then its deployment at this point in the album is surely a stroke of genius. For, as we all know, Sgt. Pepper is widely acknowledged to be a concept album. While lyrically this is a matter of debate, musically the album manages to achieve a conceptual sense of flowing unity. Think how Billy Shears takes us smoothly into "With A Little Help From My Friends", for example.

It's the same in this case, as the reprise takes us dreamily into "A Day In The Life". But it only does this by segueing effortlessly into the latter's key of G, at a stroke justifying the truck driver's modulation from F to G, as the Beatles prepare us for the new harmony midway through the previous song.

Case dismissed!

But then, having been so circumspect as Beatles, both Lennon and McCartney would succumb to truck driving temptation later in their careers. In 1977, Paul painfully recycled the controversial celtic chorus of "Mull Of Kintyre" up a fourth, for a supposedly rousing finale (the key of A shifted up to D at 4.01). Meanwhile his former partner was similarly up for a Not The Ivor Novello Award in 1980 as his "Woman" found herself at the mercy of a hunky truck driver – one who took her helplessly from E♭ to E natural (at 2.22) before passing (or rather fading) out.

 

But perhaps we shouldn't be too harsh on the truck driver's gear change. After all, this type of modulation is just another manifestation of thematic repetition, which is so intrinsic to all pop music. Wherever you look, songwriters are repeating themes throughout their work, just as the great muso T. W. Adorno predicted in his theory on the "standardisation" of music.

Even songs based on the twelve-bar blues – a structure seemingly so street-cred – usually involves recycling an opening idea up a fourth interval, almost by definition. Similarly, there's the irony that we have no problem accepting, say, the "Hey Jude" coda, where we cycle nineteen times around a three-chord, double plagal cadence (F–E♭–B♭–F), for a mind-numbing four minutes.

Yet truckers get carpetted as soon as a single sequence gets jacked up a half-step! Indeed, quasi-scientific research has proved that the human brain is virtually hard-wired to respond to the whole category of "melodic sequences", where a given musical idea is recycled identically at a different interval.

To underline the point, here are some obvious examples of such sequences by each of John, Paul, George and even Ringo. Dig out your CDs and see if you can spot 'em.

Song Target Progression 1st key 2nd key
My Sweet Lord II ii–V E
(chorus)
F#
(chorus)
Teddy Boy III I–V–v–ii–IV–V D
(verse 1)
F#
(verse 2)
Octopus's Garden IV I–vi–IV–V E
(chorus)
A
(solo)
Happy Xmas (War Is Over) IV I–ii–V–I A
(verse 1)
D
(verse 2)
The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill VI I–V–I–iv–I C
(chorus)
A
(chorus)

They may not be truck driver's modulations in the formal sense of the term, but hey, they surely qualify for an honorary Yorkie!

 


 

About the author

Dominic Pedler is a freelance muso who is a regular contributor of rock, jazz and blues articles for a variety of music titles, including Total Guitar and Record Collector. He has an Honours Diploma from the Guitar Institute of Technology at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California.

 


 

Notes

1. Tunesmith: The Art Of Songwriting, p. 241. [Back]

2. The Beatles As Musicians: The Quarry Men Through Rubber Soul, p. 366. [Back]

3. Webb is by no means on his own. Many other pop commentators feel the same way, for example Rikky Rooksby, who describes the semitone shift as "slightly vulgar" (How to Write Songs on Guitar, p. 131). [Back]

4. C major has no sharps or flats. But the key of the ♭II (or really #I), C#, has seven sharps. [Back]

5. Extract from Bare by George Michael and Tony Parsons (Penguin, 1990), pp. 107–108. [Back]

6. In conversation with the author, March 2000. [Back]

7. Bobby Vee's original is in the key of F#, with the D7 "connector" making its appearance at 1.40. But Vee didn't bother with such niceties in "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes", taking us straight from D# to E at 1.33. [Back]

8. After an intro in the key of C, the Beatles move to E at 0.11 to unfold a Cycle of Fifths verse, and bridge at 0.34. But at 0.56 the verse/bridge format is repeated for the solo in the key of C, before returning back to the key of E at 1.31. Rest assured that the Dietrich original (in the key of F) doesn't jump around in this way. [Back]

9. The formula I–II–♭III–IV captures the method behind the madness of "My Generation". For a more arbitrary example, check out Eric Clapton's live treatment of Robert Johnson's "Ramblin' On My Mind" on E.C. Was Here. Here we find Clapton at the wheel of the "truck", shouting out the various key changes in his famous ruse to keep the band on their toes. But it's the same old twelve-bar blues in every key. [Back]

10. The opening chord of the solo section is Gm but, tonal ambiguity notwithstanding, musos would regard this as the iv chord in D minor. [Back]

11. The author is inspired on this point by Naphatali Wagner's paper "Tonal Oscillation In The Beatles' Songs", reprinted in Beatlestudies 3 (compiled by the Department of Music at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, in 2001). [Back]