by Simon Critchlow
Following a trip to the see the English National Opera’s current production of Verdi’s Aida, I was reminded of a famous musical device that occurs in Act II’s Grand March.
The Grand March, featuring onstage trumpets, heralds the arrival of the conquering hero Radamès, fresh from his quashing of Egypt’s arch enemies, the Ethiopian army.
While it is a catchy tune, Verdi clearly didn’t think it was quite long enough for the action that was taking place on stage, so he did a neat little musical trick and simply repeated the tune but this time played a minor third higher (A flat to B Major) without any sort of preparation or artful hiding of the key change (it occurs at 2’52” in this recording):
So far, so unremarkable. But little did he know his little musical device would define the classic 3-minute pop song nearly 100 years later.
Let’s imagine: you’ve just written a good song, but it’s not quite long enough and it could do with about another 30% on the end. So what to do? Re-write the chorus? Add a newly written end section? Well, armed with Verdi’s little trick there is no need, simply repeat the chorus moved up a semitone, tone or whatever with absolutely no additional effort required.
This has become known as the Truck Drivers Key Change; unsubtle, sudden and slightly grinding on the ears.
It’s everywhere when you know where to look. From The Beatles’ Penny Lane and Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (reprise), Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth and Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, to name but a few, all owe their endings to Verdi.
But the worst offenders of all? That has to be Kiss with Crazy, Crazy Nights featuring no less than a stonking double Verdi-inspired key change. Crazy indeed. The great man would have approved. Probably.