Modulations

Modulations, commonly known as key changes, can help you create drama at key moments in your songs. There is no single rule that guides how you should approach a modulation, but concepts to keep in mind include abrupt modulation (usually a sudden change in key up a half or whole step), modulation using common tones, and modulation using the V of a new key (a modulation type related to secondary dominants).

A clever modulation – a change of key that is permanent or semi-permanent – can be just the trick to take your song to a surprising new place. The problem with modulations is that you must approach them carefully – you need to time them well, and you need to pick the right keys. Here are some potential approaches that might help you get started.

Abrupt Modulation

In perhaps the most common type of modulation in pop music, we abruptly move up a half step or a whole step. Jimmy Webb, in his terrific book Tunesmith, calls these modulation types “skip modulations” and “arbitrary modulations” in addition to “abrupt modulations.” We’ll refer to them as abrupt modulations here.

Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You” contains a typical example.

 

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The song is in F minor, and then abruptly leaps to G minor. Harmonically, the modulation leaps out of nowhere. This kind of sudden move up a whole step or half step is a common device to increase the momentum in a song. (MTV once made a list of the “most epic key changes in pop music,” and many of them, including Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” were modulations of this type. Then’s there’s Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” which features four modulations, all of them up a half step.)

This type of modulation can be effective, but to use it effectively, we should use repetition of other musical elements to offset the modulation’s absence of harmonic preparation. In this case, Clarkson prepares us to hear the modulation with repetitions of the phrase “because of you,” with identical i-VI-VII chord progressions in both keys, and with the reentry of the drums and other instruments right at the point where the modulation occurs. Harmonically, the modulation springs out of nowhere, but other aspects of the music help prepare us for its arrival.

An interesting variation on this type of modulation occurs in MGMT’s “The Youth.”

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We begin in the key of F, and the chorus has a progression of IV – V/vi – vi – V – I. After the last repetition of the chorus before the modulation, MGMT repeat the word “together” over a IV chord for two bars as the music begins to feel like it’s stuck in a loop. Then, suddenly, MGMT drift down a half step to the key of E for the next chorus. The result is disorienting, yet effective. Note that the chorus largely consists of four-bar phrases like the first four bars above. I assume MGMT included the extra two bars before the modulation because the transition to the modulation sounded better if it was preceded by a Bb chord rather than by an F.

In both these examples, and in many cases in pop music, key changes occur despite the two keys being harmonically unrelated — that is, the pairs of keys do not have similar numbers of sharps or flats. Our ears accept these modulations largely because the rhythmic and melodic materials on either end are virtually identical.

Modulation Using Common Tones

Modulations between keys that seem distantly or only tangentially related can be aided with the use of chords containing common tones. Here, for example, is a modulation that occurs between the chorus and the bridge of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” culminating with the arrival of the F major chord.

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The song is in the key of D major, but modulates to F major for the bridge. Listen to the modulation – it’s clear, aurally, that we’ve changed keys, but the modulation is also relatively easy on the ears. Let’s think about why that would be.

First, the last chord before the modulation – the A major chord at the end of the first line in the example above – shares a note in common with the chord immediately following the modulation (F major). That is, both A major (A, C#, E) and F major (F, A, C) contain the note A. Common tones like these can help make a modulation sound convincing. Also, F major is the relative major of D minor, and D minor is, of course, the parallel minor of D major. So F major and D major are somewhat related to one another, in a six-degrees-of-separation sort of way.

Modulation Using the V of a New Key

Another important modulation technique is to use chords we previously learned as secondary dominants to move to different keys. Secondary dominants allow us to point to new keys temporarily, and we can also use them to move to other keys more permanently.

For example, try playing a simple progression in the key of C.

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Now, in place of the G chord, let’s throw in an E major.

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If, from this point forward, the E7 chord were only a temporary departure from chords we typically associate with C major, we’d label it a V7/vi, and we’d often expect it to head to A minor.

Note, however, that in addition to being the V7 of A minor, the E7 chord is also the V7 of A major. Remember, the reason why secondary dominants like V7/vi are effective is that they can temporarily tilt our ears in the direction of a new key. We can also use secondary dominant-like chords as pivots toward more permanent key changes. Here’s an example of how we might use that E7 chord to modulate to A major. (I’ve added a crescendo, or increase in volume, to help sell the modulation.)

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As the end of the fourth measure arrives, our melody outlines the E7 chord, then continues with the same materials we had at the beginning. Now, though, they’re in the key of A major.

Faith Hill’s “The Way You Love Me” features a number of modulations in which the key ascends by whole step. Unlike in Kelly Clarkson’s sudden modulation, though, “The Way You Love Me” mostly modulates by introducing the V chords of new keys before they arrive.

The verse ends with a I-bVII-IV-V progression in the key of C major, then introduces an A chord that points our ears toward D because it’s the V chord of that key.

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From there, the prechorus is in the key of D major.

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The transition between the prechorus and the chorus features a similar modulation, as the song introduces a B major chord before modulating to E major.

Modulation Between Related Keys

Many of the modulations we’ve examined so far have occurred between keys that don’t seem that closely related to one another, by which I mean that their key signatures are not especially similar. For example, “The Youth” modulated from F major (one flat) to E major (four sharps). “Summer of ‘69” modulated from D major (two sharps) to F major (one flat). These modulations are quite striking because the seemingly distant relationships between the pairs of keys involved hit our ears in striking ways.

On the other hand, modulations between related keys can be more subtle while still creating an effective change of pace. By “related keys,” we mean keys that are separated by one or zero sharps or flats. Bb major and Eb major, for example, are related because Bb major has two flats, and Eb has three. E minor and D major are also related, because E minor has one sharp and D major has two. Since the keys involved are so similar, modulations between closely related keys are less jarring than modulations between more distant ones.

The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” demonstrates the restrained effect modulations between closely related keys can have. Most of the song is in G major, and the chorus has a somewhat typical IV-V-I-vi-IV-V-I progression.

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The bridge, however, is in C major. G major and C major are closely related keys because G major has one sharp, while C major has none (while also having no flats). The change of inflection between the two keys is slight, but it becomes clear right away, since the Beatles begin the bridge with a D minor chord, starting a progression of ii-V-I-vi in the key of C. The D minor chord, of course, contains an F natural, the only note that’s in the key of C major but not in G major.

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The Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving” shows that it’s possible to create the sensation of modulation without ever technically leaving a single key. Here’s the song starting near the end of the first verse.

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There’s nothing here that’s outside the key of Eb major. But because the first chord of each line of the verse is Bb and the verse melody emphasizes the Bb triad, we hear the Bb-Eb progression in the verse as I-IV in the key of Bb. So when the Ab chord arrives to start the chorus, it takes us by surprise. The Ab chord is IV in the key of Eb, and the rest of the chorus stays in that key: IV-ii-V-I-vi. It might also be possible to simply label the Ab chord a bVII in the key of Bb, but the chorus seems to head toward the Eb chord in the second line, so it’s more compelling to see what’s happening as a modulation, albeit a subtle one.

Example: Eric Clapton, “Layla”

Eric Clapton’s “Layla” (I’ll refer here to his Unplugged version, not to the original version with Derek and the Dominos) features a couple of modulation types already discussed here. The song begins with a i-VI-VII-i progression in the key of D minor, then abruptly modulates down a half step to C# minor, using the C from the D natural minor scale as a sort of leading tone to the new key. (The leading tone of C# minor is B#, which is the same sounding pitch as C natural.)

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As the verse progresses, it ends in something close to E major. E major is the relative major of C# minor, and as we’ve seen, pop songs frequently tether back and forth between relative major and minor. The verse concludes with an A major chord (IV in E major, or VI in C# minor). A major, of course, is the V of D minor, and Clapton uses this chord to modulate back to D minor, where the chorus features similar musical materials as the intro.

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Songwriting exercises

1. Write the melody and chords of a verse and chorus that use the V chord of a new key to begin a modulation.

2. Write the melody and chords of a verse and chorus that feature a modulation to a closely related key.

Next Chapter: Rhythm