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Musical Modulation

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This is one in a series of free music theory lessons. It is about change change keys in music. Click here to subscribe. This lesson teaches you what musical modulation is. why it is useful, and how to do it. An advantage of these music lessons is that you can ask questions if you don't understand something. You can post questions on my group collaboration music website by clicking here. Thanks.

You will notice links in this music lesson. They will take you to other music education resources you may find useful.

Musical Modulation --What is it?

Key Center. First let me introduce the concept of a key center. The key center in music is a tone that usually sounds in the bass part at the beginning and the end of a piece of music. It serves as a foundation. This foundation note has various names: the tonic, the keynote. In a major key it is "do" of the familiar do-re-mi. In a minor key, the foundation note is "la." The tonic may appear as the first note of the melody. If not, then the first note of the melody will usually be a major third or perfect fifth above the key center. (mi or so in a major key) The first chord of a piece usually has the same name as the key center. The first melody note will often be one of the tones of this chord. The chord and the key center are also referred to as "I" or tonic.

(In this lesson I assume you are familar with what is called solfege. (solfege uses do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti) If you aren't, please click on the solfege link and read about it.)

The I chord (or tonic chord) is made up of do, mi, and so. The syllable do is the first tone of the major scale. Mi is the third; so is the fifth.. The tones do mi and so help to establish the key center.

So modulation in music is the changing of a key center. For example, if a piece of music may start out in the key of A major, but then modulate, say, to C major. This means that the tonal center of the piece has changed from A to C. (Note: if I don't say "major" or "minor," you can assume I mean "major" in this series of lessons.) Consider the syllables: do - re - mi - fa- so"? These are the first 5 tone of the key (or scale). In the key of A, do=A. In the key of C, do=C. Often a composer will indicate a new key signature to show that a modulation has taken place. But sometimes the composer will not change the key signature (especially if the modulation is temporary) but will show the modulation with accidentals.

Why modulation in music is useful. Modulation is useful because it gives music a fresh sound. Every key center has a unique quality. Some think that keys with sharps in the key signature seem to have a brighter feel. And keys with flats seem to be more mellow. Even if you transpose the music exactly into a new key, you have introduced an element of variety. At the same time you have unity, because of the repetition of the melody, rhythm, and functional chords. (Note that when you repeat music in a new key, the chord letter names have changed, but the functional names of the chords have not changed. A I chord is still a I chord in the new key.

Classical composers often followed a formula where a piece of music had three sections, named like this:

I. Exposition
II. Development
III. Recapitulation

The Exposition would, itself, be broken up into 2 parts. The first part of the Exposition would be in the original key. The second half of the Exposition would move to a new key, often the key of dominant chord. The Development section would modulate to various keys as it developed the ideas in the Exposition. A modulation would then occur back to the original key upon the start of the Recapitulation. The Recapitulation section would repeat the Exposition (sometimes with slight variations) but this time the second part of the Exposition would stay in the original key instead of modulating away from it. By not modulating away in the Recaptulation, the composers helped to keep the sense of the original key and to bring the piece (or "movement") to a strong conclusion.

As a rule of thumb, if a piece modulates away from the original key, it will usually return to that key by the end of the tune.

How to Modulate in Music

Modulation usually involves the use of the dominant chord. Before I go into that, I will review all the main chords in a major key. If you already know this, you can skip ahead to Modulating with the Dominant Chord. There are 7 main scale steps or tones in a key. They are sometimes called do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti or they are just given numbers: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. We can build a chord on each of these scale steps. For now, I'll just talk about triads, which are three-note chords. This table shows the seven triads in the key of C. Notice that I am showing the functional names, letter names and chord tones for each triad..

Main Triads in the Key of C Major

Scale Step Letter Name Functional Name Chord Tones Chord Type
1 C tonic

1-3-5
do-mi-so

Major
2 D supertonic 2-4-6
re-fa-la
Minor
3 E mediant 3-5-7
mi-so-ti
Minor
4 F subdominant 4-6-1
fa-la-do
Major
5 G dominant 5-7-2
so-ti-re
Major
6 A submediant 6-1-3
la-do-mi
Minor
7 B leading tone 7-2-4
ti-re-fa
Diminished


Only one thing changes about the chord facts when a key changes. The only thing that changes is the letter name of each chord. For example, look at these 7 chords in the key of A major.

Triads in the Key of A Major

Scale Step Letter Name Functional Name Chord Tones Chord Type
1 A tonic

1-3-5
do-mi-so

Major
2 B supertonic 2-4-6
re-fa-la
Minor
3 C# mediant 3-5-7
mi-so-ti
Minor
4 D subdominant 4-6-1
fa-la-do
Major
5 E dominant 5-7-2
so-ti-re
Major
6 F# submediant 6-1-3
la-do-mi
Minor
7 G# leading tone 7-2-4
ti-re-fa
Diminished

 

Fill in the blank. When a key center changes, the letter names ______________ (change/do not change).

But the functional names ______________(change/do not change).

In the key of A major, the functional name for the I chord is ___________.

The letter name for the I chord in the key of A major is ____:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When a key center changes, the letter names do not change.
But the functional names change.
In the key of A major, the functional name for the I chord is tonic.
The letter name for the I chord in the key of A major is "A."

Modulating with the Dominant Chord. You can always modulate to a new key simply by introducing the dominant chord (V chord) of the new key and then the I chord of the new key. For example, if you are modulating to the key of G, you would sound a D chord and then a G chord. To make the modulation more convincing, you can use a dominant-seventh chord (V7) instead of just a dominant triad. In other words, you would sound a D7 chord. You might also use various alterations of the dominant chord (to be discussed in a future lesson.)

A dominant triad has just 3 tone; a dominant-seventh chord has four tones. The fourth tone is a minor 7th above the root of the chord. The V7 chord for G is D7 (the tones are: D, F#, A, C) The "C" is the 7th of the chord. A V7 chord in a major key is always made up of the tones so, ti, re, fa (scale steps 5, 7 2, 4).

(If you are having difficulty understanding dominant seventh chords, you may want to see Chapter 8 in What Makes Music Work which has a more detailed explanation.

Although you can always modulate in this way, if you want a smooth modulation it helps to make sure that the chord that comes just before the V7 chord belongs to both keys. This chord is called the "pivot" chord since it helps in helps in smoothly pivoting from the original key to the new one. An example will help to make this clear.

Suppose you are in the key of D and you want to modulate to A. This modulation is easy since D is both the I chord in D and the IV chord in A. So to modulate to A you could use the chords D - E7 - A. The table below shows how D is both the I chord in D and the IV chord in A.

 
D
E7
A
Key of D
I
-
-
Key of A
IV
V
I

The D chord uses do, mi, so in the key of D and fa, la, do in the key of A.

Progress check: which chord above is a pivot chord?

- - - - - -

The pivot chord is D since it appears in both keys.

You can often get a smooth modulation without thinking much about pivot chords. Just try ii-V-I in the new key and see if it sounds good. For example, if you are in D and you want to go to G, you could try the chords D Am, D7 G. If you analyze it will find

 
D
Am
E7
A
Key of D
I
v
-
-
Key of A
IV
ii
V
I

Notice that Am is analyzed as being "v". This lowercase "v" shows that the chord is built on the fifth degree of the key and that it is a minor chord. The Am chord doesn't occur in the key of A major, but it does occur in the key of A minor. When using a chord as a pivot chord, it is fine if it belongs to either the major or the parallel minor version of the key center.

If you try ii - V - I in the new key and it doesn't sound quite right, that's when it is time to insert a pivot chord to smooth out the modulation. For example suppose you are in the Key of C and you want to modulateo to B. You might try:

C - C#m -F#7 - B

This is not so smooth since the C#m chord does not exist in C major or C minor. Although this progression is possible, a smoother progression would be:

C - Em- F#7 - B

See if you can analyze it and identify the pivot chord. (Fill out the colored parts of the table)

 
C
Emi
F#7
B
Key of C
Key of B
 

 

Check your answer below:-

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

 
C
Em
F#7
B
Key of C
I
iii
-
-
Key of B
 
iv
V7
I

The Em chord is the pivot chord since it exists in both keys. Notice that Em is borrowed from B minor. Strictly speaking, B Major does not have a E minor chord, but as I pointed out earlier, it is common practice to borrow chords from the parallel minor key.

Subdominant based modulation. Another technique is to base modulation around the subdominant chord. The idea is to use iv of the original key as the pivot chord when modulating to a key with more flats or fewer sharps. Note that iv, here, designates a minor chord (since it written with lowercase letters.). If you are in a major key, you can still use iv; you are just borrowing the iv from the parallel minor scale. For example, when modulating from C to E-flat, you would use Fm as the pivot chord. The progression might be:

C - Fm - B-flat7 - E-flat

Fill in the blank. Fm is the pivot chord because Fm is iv (minor subdominant) in the original key, but in the new key of E-flat it is ________.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In the new key, Fm is ii. This happens to give a nice ii-V7-I in the new key.

But suppose you are modulating in the other direction. That is, you are modulating to a key with more sharps (or fewer flats)?

When modulating to a new with more sharps or fewer flats, use the IV or iv chord of the new key as the pivot chord.

Let's try C to E. C has no sharps. E has 4 sharps. What chords would you use? What would the pivot chord be? Since you are modulating to a key with more sharps, you would use the subdominant of E as the pivot chord.

Fill out the table below:

 
C
Key of C
Key of E
 

 

Check your answer below:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 
C
Am
B7
E
Key of C
I
vi
-
-
Key of E
 
iv
V
I

 

Half-step Up. Popular music sometimes jumps up to a key a half-step higher than the original key when repeating. This is done without any attempt at a smooth modulation. As a general rule, chord changes involving a half-step movement produce a good effect. (Other examples involving half-step changes are the Neopolitan, German, Italian and French 6th chords -- to be discussed in a future lesson.)

Suppose a tune in the key of E comes to the end of section. You want to repeat everything exactly but in a higher key for a brighter effect. You could suddenly switch to the key of ________ (fill in the blank)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

You could jump to the key of F.

Dramatic Modulations. You can often achieve a dramatic modulations by using an "usual" 6th chord as a pivot chord. Unusual 6th chords are the Neopolitan 6th, French 6th, German 6th and Italian 6th chords. I'll discuss these chords in a future lesson. To whet your appetite, here is an example:

To modulate from C to B major.

C - C/E - F# - B

NOTE: C/E means C chord with E in the bass part.

C/E is tonic in the key of C, but a Neopolitan 6th in the key of B Major.

This finishes this lesson on modulation. One last progress check Fill in each blank with either the word unity or variety. .

Modulation is one of the powerful techniques for adding _____ to music while still preserving _____.

- - - - - - - -

Answer: modulation gives variety while preserving unity.

Suggested activities: compose a tune that modulates in the middle section. Use pivot chords. Modulate back to the original key at the end of the piece. Find some pieces or songs that use modulation.Analyze the modulation and find out what chord is used as the pivot chord.

If you have questions or comments please visit my music theory webboard. Please let me know how you liked this lesson.

free music theoryy lessons, chords, secondary dominants, guitar, piano, keyboardDo you have questions?. Click here to discuss music theory on Phil Seyer's music wiki!
(A wiki is a group collaboration website.)


If you'd like to have a video that explains secondary dominants and goes on to teach other kinds of chromatic chords, you may want to order my instructional video called Chromatic Chords.

You may also find these resources useful:

Ear Trainer - an inexpensive program you can use to tune your musical ear.

What Makes Music Work -- a self teaching introduction to music theory.

Money Chords -- chord progressions for songwriters.

The Jazz Theory Book -- highly recommended

Chord Chemistry -- focuses on chords for guitar, but useful for other musicians as well.

100 Books on Music Theory

100 Books on Jazz

Thanks for your interest in Music Theory and Modulation in Music