Under the Hat: Counting and Key Changes

Counting and Key Changes

My new bilingual album is called Los Animales, and it’s pretty much what it sounds like: a collection of original song about animals.“Siete Elefantes” is a counting song, and a pretty simple one at that. In each verse you count different animals (elephants, butterflies, lions and crocodiles). The structure of the tune is four short verses with a bridge between verses two and three.

As a songwriter, you never want to be boring or predictable. So what’s the trick to avoid that with a song that is intentionally repetitive? In this case the answer is a combination of studio production arranging and key changes. 

If you listen, you’ll notice that the first verse only has three elements: vocals, acoustic guitar and guiro (a traditional Latin percussion instrument). The second verse adds acoustic bass and more percussion (timbales, cowbell). Still more instruments are introduced on the bridge: shakers, tambourine, and nylon string guitar. Then come a short whistle solo with a little touch of clarinet.

At the beginning of the third verse the song changes key and goes up by one half step (from C to Db). Even though it’s a subtle change, the higher key gives the song a lift. And at the top of the fourth and final verse, there’s another key change (from Db up to D). The higher vocal that results provides still more energy and helps create momentum.

I’ve always found it fascinating to dissect how songs are constructed. Next time you listen to music, think about the way different instruments come in and out of the mix. And be on your toes for a key change!


Mister G (Ben Gundersheimer) is an Amherst College graduate who spent 20 years as a singer/songwriter/producer in the adult music world prior to earning a Masters in Elementary Education at Smith College and transitioning to making music for children.  His most recent release, CHOCOLALALA, a collection of original, bilingual (Spanish/English) songs for children, won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award and is on the Grammy ballot for Best Children’s Album of 2012. A leading figure in the kids music world, Mister G’s 2011 bilingual release, BUGS garnered numerous national awards and was dubbed “irresistible” by People magazine. www.mistergsongs.com

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