If you’re a beginning songwriter or arranger – or just someone who is looking to put their own spin on a cover – it’s likely that you’re looking for a way to make your song:
- stand out
- seem more exciting
- feel more emotionally charged
- to add motion towards the end of a piece or a climax of a piece…(like if your piece, um, has no other climax?)
- sound like a Christmas carol…
If so, you may be sorely tempted to resort to the notorious truck driver’s gear shift.
What is the Truck Driver’s Gear Shift?
When a truck driver pushes down the accelerator and slowly releases the clutch, he (or she) is changing gears, right? In general, if you’re out on the highway, you’d be in a higher gear. It’s also help to be in a higher gear to help avoid stalling.
Shifting gears in a big truck also tends to be much noisier and dramatic than in a car.
Songwriters sometimes find their tunes in a slump: maybe the lyric has nowhere else to go, maybe the music is as finished as it’s going to be… except the song’s not quite over yet, length-wise.
What can they do to avoid stalling out on the song?
Get into a higher gear, of course!
While it’s not the kind of musical terminology that’s going to show up in any formal course offered by a four-year university, the truck driver’s gear shift is something for musicians to be aware of – but not necessarily implement.
So what is it, exactly?
As its very most basic, the truck driver’s gear change is a simple key change or modulation. The key change shifts upward (a half step or whole step) and usually happens towards the latter half of the song close to the ending. Oftentimes, this change doesn’t come with any new lyrics – you’ll hear a repeat lyric in a new key instead – and it serves as a prelude to the repeat-and-fade closing and outro of a song. Note that a hallmark of the truck driver’s gear change is that it never shifts gears back to the original key, and it never modulates down. The only place to go is up (by a half step or whole step) – and quickly.
But why stop there?
Most semi-trucks have 10 or more gears to pick from. So how about, let’s say, 14 key changes? Maybe this doesn’t quite fit Beyoncé’s original intentions:
If the tune didn’t display to you quite clearly why you should, indeed, have stopped “there,” here are a few other reasons why you ought to avoid any resorting to the truck driver’s key shift in your songwriting:
- It sounds too Disney (and not in the best way possible)
Unless you’re trying to emulate a Disney sound (because you might be an elementary music teacher writing music for your school’s play this year or because you are a songwriter aspiring to Disney-level productions), you may want to eschew songs like resemble “A Whole New World”.
- Your own music should contain natural phrase and shape that doesn’t require a sudden key change to make it more exciting.
While this gear change might have been a novel musical concept when it first made its appearance in pop and rock music several decades ago, one taste of it now reeks of rookie songwriting skills since it’s neither difficult nor creative to take a nearly-finished song and take it up a key towards the end. In fact, its relative ease is what got pop music into such a mess to begin with. If your song is in E and you take it up to F, that’s all you have to do to have a TDGS – and if that’s all you have to do to create interest in your song, be honest with yourself: how interesting was it to begin with?
To be fair, our ears naturally take interest in key change, but that doesn’t equate with goodness.
- Just because it’s easy to do doesn’t mean you should do it.
Unless your name is Emeril, don’t feel the need to kick it up a notch.
Here are a few musical examples of the Truck Driver’s Gear Shift:
Yet, like it or not, the gear shift has worked for some pretty popular songs:
I Want It That Way (Backstreet Boys)
After the Boys have sung about the way they want it and demand to be told why “it ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak” several times, they decide to go into a higher gear with less than a minute left of the song at [2:32] repeating the same sentiments they just expressed throughout that final minute. Nothing else is new other than the key change:
I Will Always Love You
At [3:10], Whitney changes gears like a truck driver. Does anything else happen lyrically for the next minute?
Nope, she continues to express her love in few words. Does anything else happen musically? Nope, just an outro (while it’s sung beautifully by Miss Whitney, it remains, nevertheless, an outro).
For inquiring minds who want to know, the original Dolly Parton version didn’t contain any sort of key change whatsoever:
Mr. Stipe and company produced an upbeat little bubblegum tune here as well as—count’em—two gear shifts. R.E.M climbs up the register at [2:31] and [2:48] before it wraps up a few seconds later.
Of all the Genesis songs out there, this is the one that’s widely considered the conclusion of Genesis’ journey from prog rock to pop rock, so it comes as no surprise that we find the truck driver’s gear shift present here [3:07] among other elements of 80s pop rock featured throughout the song. After Phil Collins sings about a woman who “seems to have an invisible touch, yeah,” repeatedly again for three minutes, his voice makes a small ascent up the register to a new key for the final repeat-and-fade styled sixty seconds of the song:
A quick note on what it’s not…
Now, please note that the idea of the Truck Driver’s Gear Shift doesn’t pertain to all key changes. Key changes in and of themselves are not bad, cheesy, tacky, or lazy – they can be purposeful—mindful, even.
The following tunes might be up for debate, but as far as I see and hear it, they are not examples of the truck driver’s gear shift. Do they contain key changes? Yes. Do the key changes add to the song? Absolutely. Most importantly, are the key changes included at the latter half of the song for emotional impact or a climactic moment only? Certainly not. Have a listen and see what you think:
Penny Lane (The Beatles)
The Lennon-McCartney classic contains shifts in modulations, yes, but they don’t follow the TDGS method. Instead, the changes occur throughout the song between the verse and the chorus ([0:38], [0:54], [1:28], [1:44], [2:19], and [2:36]). In addition, The Beatles aren’t ascribing to the “take it up, take it up” mentality—the keys go up and down the scale:
Total Eclipse of the Heart (Bonnie Tyler)
This song, now a staple of those “best of the 80s, 90s, and today” type of radio stations, also contains a few modulations, but again, they aren’t included only at the end of the song or only because there was “nothing else to do there”:
Hey Jude (The Beatles)
The Fab Four prove their musical genius time and time again. Over their active years they continuously created fresh new sounds, and “Hey Jude” is just another example of this. It is not, however, an example of a truck driver’s gear change. Ok, ok, the melody does, admittedly, take a turn up at the ending and the song does fade out, but this isn’t without good reason. Examine the following lyric: “take a sad song/and make it better.” They do just that by taking a lovely ballad and amping it up into an anthem of a singalong:
Your turn: Detecting the Gearshift
Even though I personally haven’t learned to drive a stick shift, I know that you have to use your clutch and stick at the same time in order to change gears. With that in mind, even though you may not have written any songs that contain this musical device, use your newfound knowledge regarding the truck driver’s gearshift to identify where it happens in the songs below:
It Must Have Been Love (Roxette)
Using the timer feature on YouTube, can you detect the moment of the truck driver’s gearshift in this classic Roxette song?
You Raise Me Up (Josh Groban)
Josh Groban is Mr. Smooth, but he can shift gears with the best of them. Can you find the two instances where the truck driver changes gear in this piece?
To Be With You
In this day and age, if you hear the name Mr. Big, your mind might instantly go to that HBO show starring Carrie Bradshaw and The Big Apple. However, back in the early 1990s, Mr. Big was synonymous with the following tune that happens to contain two gearshifts. Can you find them?
Can’t Smile Without You (Barry Manilow)
The MacDaddy of gearshifts in one song, can you find the three moments of shifting gears in this Manilow classic?
Many consider the King of Pop equally as royal when it comes to the truck driver’s gear shift. Listen the following Jackson songs to find out which songs have the truck driver’s gear shifts within – be sure to have a pad of paper nearby to jot your answers down:
Don’t change gears, train your ears!
Whether you’re a songwriter, a music arranger, or just a guy or gal who jams with friends on the weekends, you need to find ways to make your songs interesting and unique. I hope you know by now that implementing the truck driver’s gear shift is not always the best way to achieve your goals – unless you’re part of an 80s-inspired hair band, a possibility I won’t rule out since leggings have made a comeback and perms are having a strange new moment, too…
Don’t get your gears stuck; instead, experiment with your own brand of music. Sharpen your skills with one of these ten mini-challenges. Play a songwriting game (and feel free to include your kids!) to create a new sound. Or just check out any of our free songwriting resources to inspire new creativity and break free of a writing block.
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