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OF THE WESTERN
Modulation is the single most extraordinary and musically potent
aspect of the Western tonal system of 12 major keys, 12 minor keys
and equal temperament.
As discussed near the end of Chapter 5, modulation means
changing the key, moving the tonal centre within a piece of music.
bad most songwriters don’t know how to exploit the capacity for modulation. It’s
one of many reasons they turn out boatloads of unforgivably monotonous tunes.
Making the transition from the original tonality (key) to a new one
usually takes from a couple of bars to a full four-bar phrase.
Songwriters who know how to modulate will often change keys at a
natural sectional boundary, such as the end of a verse, going into a
bridge or chorus. At the end of the contrasting section, tonality
moves back to the original key.
If the tonality does not move back to the original key, you
probably have a shift modulation, a decidedly distasteful way of
moving tonality (see below).
If a song modulates
to a closely-related key (a key that shares many of the same scale notes and
chords with the original key), it’s called a near modulation.
the tune modulates to an unrelated key (a key that shares very few of the same
scale notes or chords with the original key), it’s called a remote modulation.
it modulates to a key that’s neither remote nor near, it’s called ... um ... a moderately distant modulation. Or something.
get an idea of what’s considered “near” or “remote,” have a look at Heinichen’s
Circle of Fifths (Figure 101). Pick a key, any key. Whatever key you pick is
closely related to other nearby keys in the Circle of Fifths. For example:
key of D major is “near” such keys as B minor, G major, E minor, A major, and F♯
key of D major is “remote” from keys on the other side of the Circle of Fifths,
such as the keys of A♭ major, F minor, E♭ major, C minor, C♯ major, and B♭
key of D major is “moderately” related to keys such as F major and D minor.
(Even though the keys D major and D minor share the same tonic note, they use
significantly different scales, so they’re only “moderately” related).
Heinichen’s Circle of Fifths
In general, regardless of the method of modulation, you
absolutely must establish tonality firmly in the original key before
modulating to another key. Otherwise, confusion reigns. You
establish the original key by using the I, IV, and V7 chords at the
outset of a tune. Simple triads and dominant seventh chords serve
as the most useful chord types in establishing and supporting an
initial tonal centre.
the new key, you need at least one cadence (especially V7 – I, where I is the
new tonic chord) to clearly confirm or validate the new tonality. Otherwise your
brain assumes it’s only a possible shift in tonality, a transient modulation.
you use jazzy, extended chords from the outset, such as 11th chords or suspended
chords or 13th chords, you will find it harder to establish tonality (at least
in the collective mind of your audience—regardless of whether you think you’ve
succeeded in establishing a tonal centre). And you’ll find it even more
difficult to successfully modulate.
not always easy to modulate to a nearby key. You can, for example, easily
modulate from the key of C major to its relative minor, the key of A minor, and
vice-versa, because the modes differ: major and minor keys sound way different,
even if they share the same scale notes.
if you’re modulating between closely-related
same-mode keys, such as C major to G major, it’s easy to lose the sense
of tonality because the two keys share not only the same mode, but also most of
the same chords and most of the same scale notes. So, if the harmony and melody
don’t clearly emphasize the key, the brain asks itself, “Which key am I in, G
major or C major?” and wanders off in confusion to find a better song.
to a remote key stands out to a greater degree than modulating to a nearby key.
Remote keys have few chords and scale notes in common (for example, the key of D
major and the key of C minor). Your listener’s brain senses fresh new harmonic
territory and stays interested.
Here are some modulation ways and means.
In relative key modulation, the song establishes tonality in a major
key (such as C major), then moves to its relative minor (A minor) and
establishes tonality there. Or vice-versa.
NOTE: A large proportion of popular songs have a casual mix of
major and relative minor chords. But casual use of relative minor or
relative major chords in a song that does not actually establish
tonality in the relative key does not constitute relative key
Chase-charted examples of relative key modulation coming up:
On My Mind”
In parallel key modulation, the song establishes tonality in a major
key (such as C major), then moves to its namesake minor (C minor)
and establishes tonality there.
Chase-charted examples of parallel key modulation coming up:
Was A Very Good Year”
Shift modulation is the most common and most abused technique
of changing keys.
a shift upwards occurs near the end of a song to create a contrast with the rest
of the song. For example, the song starts off in, say, the key of C. Then, for
the last verse or chorus, tonality shifts upwards to the key of D. Why? Because
an increase in pitch is exciting (recall “Emotional Effects of Pitch” near the
end of Chapter 3).
The hallmark of shift modulation is that the song almost always
does not return to the original key, as is the case with other kinds of
modulation. Ballad-like songs sometimes shift-modulate to relieve
not uncommon for a songwriter to write a song in a single key, only to have an arranger
introduce a shift modulation (without authorization) for some artist covering
the song. In such a case, the shift modulation is called an “arranger’s
In some recordings, shift modulation occurs multiple times. For
instance, the song starts in the key of C major, then shifts up to D,
then up to E, and so on, once every verse or two.
Here are a few songs with shift modulation:
I Love Her” (The Beatles)
(Peggy Lee recording)
Generation” (The Who)
Man” (Sam & Dave recording)
Are the Sunshine Of My Life” (Stevie Wonder)
songs, aren’t they?
Shift modulation has a problem. It was relatively novel up to the
1950s and 1960s. But since then, it has been done to death.
modulation is the easiest way to change keys. Even a complete dolt of a
songwriter or arranger can shift modulate. Consequently, that’s exactly what has
happened over time.
Today, shift modulation is the mark of a rank amateur.
... don’t do it unless you have a good reason, or you really know what you’re
Here are two examples of shift modulation done well, both by the
great Johnny Cash (and both, incidentally, from the 1950s, when the
technique had not yet been completely abused):
Feet High and Rising” ... In this tune, Cash keeps shifting the tune
upward with each verse to match the ever-rising flood waters in the song’s
lyrics. “Two feet high and rising ...,” “Three feet high and rising ..., “Four
feet high and rising ... “
Walk The Line” ... In the original recording of this song, here’s
what Cash does:
- Starts in the key of F, then
down a fifth to B♭, then
down a fifth to E♭, then
back up a fifth, returning to B♭, then
- Shifts back up a fifth again, returning to F, ending the
song in the original key.
(No doubt, the guitar players at the recording session had capos on the first
fret and were playing the chords, E, A, and D, instead of F, B♭, and E♭,
But here’s the kicker: The second time Cash sings the tune in F, he sings the
melody a full octave lower than the first time in F. The words are
identical in the two F-key verses, creating a striking contrast. Overall, it’s a
masterful piece of arranging. Within this song, Cash’s singing range is two
octaves plus a major second.
Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame
Shift modulation has become such a horrible
cliche that there’s a website dedicated to exposing recordings of shift
modulation. The website is called The Truck
Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Shame, so named because shifting gears while driving a truck is
an apt metaphor for this type of modulation.
Before you consider writing another “truck
driver’s gear change” song, you may want to check out the website:
In sequential modulation, a melodic phrase or a configuration of
chords (or both) repeats at a different pitch to bring about a
modulation, which eventually returns to the original key.
chords of the same type can be used palatably, such as C - D - E - F♯ (sequence
of major seconds). Or chords of the same type can progress along a scale: Gm7 -
Fm7 - Em7 - Dm7 - Cm7 ( C minor scale).
Chase-charted examples coming up:
Was a Very Good Year”
Girl from Ipanema”
A pivot chord is a
chord that’s common to both the prevailing key and the key to which tonality
eventually moves. For example, the chord F major is common to both the key of F
major (the tonic chord) and the key of C major (the IV chord). So F major can be
used to “pivot” out of the key of C major and into the key of F major.
Figure 102 (below) shows an example of using a pivot chord to
modulate to a remote key and back again (no particular song, just
a generic example).
this example, the original key is C major. The remote key is C♯ major / A♯
minor. The pivot chord is F in the original key and F7 in the remote key.
Chase Chart: Using a Pivot Chord to
Modulate to a Remote Key
Two keys, no matter how unrelated, will always have at least two
chords that share the same root note (usually more than two
chords). You can use these chords as pivot chords.
can often exploit the diminished chord for pivot potential. The diminished chord
has equal-sized minor third intervals, so, technically, it has no root.
Therefore, it repeats itself every three semitones (see Figure 103 below). Since
it’s so unstable, you can use it to take a number of different harmonic paths.
as noted earlier, the VIIm can sometimes substitute for VIIº, as these chords
have two notes in common.)
Chase Chart: The Versatile Diminished
104 below shows the potential pivot chords for two keys that are moderately
closely related: the key of G / Em and the key of E / C♯m.
Chase Chart: Potential Pivot Chords,
Modulation to a Moderately Close Key
Chase-charted examples of songs using pivot chords coming up:
Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’”
Bells (Jimmy Brown Song)”
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