Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to Beau Simpson. Beau is a film composer out here in Hollywood, and we’ve been talking for quite a while about having him join the Art of Composing team, which at this point, will make the team a total of three people, me, my wife (she does all the finances) and now Beau. So please give Beau a warm welcome, and enjoy the first in a new series of articles called The Art of Modulation.
I listened to a lot of music with my late father when I was growing up. He was a singer/songwriter who, like you and I, had a much deeper love and appreciation for music than your average listener.
Sure, he could appreciate music for it’s aesthetic value, but he could also identify exactly what it was that spurred an emotional reaction in him. What’s more, he could use these techniques in the creation of his own music—and so can you.
There are a few things I can remember my dad saying time and again as we bonded over our shared passion. Among them was the phrase, “I love that modulation.”
I didn’t know the definition of “modulation,” but I could always hear precisely what he was referring to within the music. Modulation—whatever it was—seemed to add power, drive, emotion, and breathed new life into a song. Just when I thought there was no place to go and the music was going to end, something shifted. It suddenly took on a new character and transformed into something even greater.
Although I was able to hear and correctly label the sound at an early age, I still desired a thorough explanation of this musical phenomenon. My dad described it to me in two words: “key change.”
It sounded simple enough, but without any background in music theory I had no idea what this meant.
The fact that the word, “key,” is a homonym didn’t serve to help my understanding. As a little kid, I pictured a person playing a key on a piano, then shifting his hand and playing a different key.
Looking back, I realize that the first step in understanding modulation is a firm grasp on the concept of key. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re already familiar. Otherwise, read on.
KEY (Not the Black and White Ones)
In tonal music, the key is the note (or chord) around which a composition is based.
Think of a key (aka “tonal center”), as your musical “home.” You begin and end your day at home, stopping by now and again between visits to other places around town.
When you compose in a particular key, the notes and chords that you write belong to the diatonic scale of the given key.
For example, if you are writing a melody in the key of C Major, then every note will belong to the C Major scale (for now). Diatonic means only involving notes that belong to the prevailing key without chromatic alteration.
Each note in the scale is numbered in terms of “scale degrees.”
As you can see in the diagram above, “degree” is often denoted with a caret just before a number—i.e. ^1 = “first degree” or “first note” in the scale.
The key note is always the “first degree” of the scale, no matter what tonal center you are applying. This is called the tonic.
You can play around with all the notes in a scale as you compose a melody, but eventually you will want to return to the key note—in this case, “C”.
Similarly, if you are writing a chord progression in the key of C Major, then all of the chords will be derived from the harmonized C Major scale (for now).
Each chord in the harmonized scale is assigned a Roman numeral, which denotes its function (or place within the scale) as well as its quality—uppercase for major, lowercase for minor.
Again, you can play around with all the chords in the harmonized scale, but you will want to return to the key chord—in this case, C Major.
Note that every major scale contains a relative minor scale. In order to find the relative minor of any major scale, simply begin on the sixth degree of the scale and move through all seven notes until you reach the sixth degree in the next octave.
For instance, if you played all the notes in the C Major scale, but began and ended on the note, “A,” then you would have created an A minor scale. Moreover, since A is your new key note, it would also be considered the “first degree” in the A minor scale.
Just like the C Major scale, the A minor scale can also be harmonized. This will create a series of chords in the key of A minor. Notice that the quality of each chord remains the same, but each of their functions have changed.
Since A minor and C Major contain the same notes, they are said to be relative to one another.
A minor is the relative minor of C Major.
C Major is the relative major of A minor.
Through the process of modulation, we can smoothly (and sometimes not so smoothly) transition to a new key, which will yield a new set of notes and chords.
Once again, consider the analogy of the key note/chord as “home.” The surrounding notes and chords within that key are like the places you frequent within your town. You start and end your day at home, occasionally stopping by between errands, and visiting other places during the course of your day.
You can stay in the same key for a whole song, just like you can live in the same town for your entire life. There’s nothing wrong with either of these if that’s what you choose to do.
On the other hand, wouldn’t it be interesting and add some contrast to your life if you took a vacation, moved to another city, or even lived abroad for some time? You would have a new home and with it new places that you would frequent. Of course, all the places that you now visit would be located in and around your new town.
You probably get where I’m going with this.
Modulating to a new key is like moving (musically) to a new location. If we modulate from the key of C Major to E Major, for example, then we’re going to have a new series of notes from which to draw our musical ideas. For a period of time, whether temporary or permanent, E is our new home. We’ll spend some time with the notes and chords within the key of E Major, often stopping back at E (the note and/or the chord), and at some point we’re going to return home to stay.
While modulation is not absolutely necessary in three- or four-minute pop songs, it certainly helps to add new life and maintain the listener’s curiosity. In longer works such as symphonies, however, modulation is of the essence. Even the greatest composers would have a difficult time keeping things fresh and interesting without modulating to new keys.
There are various types of modulation. Each one employs a slightly different compositional technique, which in turn generates a distinct sound. Be that as it may, all forms of modulation share the same purpose: to change key.
Some are more complex than others, and each can be heard in certain genres more than others. We’ll explore a few different types of modulation to give you an idea. Today, however, we’re going to take a look at modulation in its most basic form.
Direct modulation (also referred to as phrase, static, or abrupt modulation) is by far the easiest type of modulation to construct. Theoretically speaking, direct modulation involves the transition between two keys without any harmonic or melodic preparation.
This type of modulation is widely used in pop music and has two main applications:
Suddenly shifting to a new key between sections of a song.
The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” beautifully illustrates this point.
The first two sections of the song, the intro and verse (0:00-0:31), are clearly in the key of A minor.
A sudden modulation (0:32) moves the music up a semitone, to the key of B-flat Major, for the pre-chorus.
After a drum fill, the chorus begins (0:50) in the key of G Major.
Repeating a section of a song in a higher key.
This has become a clichéd move in pop songs and there is nothing smooth about it. In fact, I’ve heard it referred to as the “truck driver’s gear change.” It can be powerful when used tastefully. However, as Voltaire once said –
With great power comes great responsibility.
(Sorry, Marvel fans. Peter Parker wasn’t the first to say it.) If you want to use this technique in your songs or compositions, just be sure to do so sparingly.
Case in point:
Stevie Wonder – “I Just Called to Say I Love You”
The chorus is in the key of C-sharp Major (1:15).
The music abruptly shifts up a semitone, where the chorus is played in the key of D Major (2:57).
The chorus is then shifted up another semitone and repeated in the key of E-flat Major (3:30).
You can hear that there is a fine line between effective and cheesy. (No offense, Stevie.) Then again, it was a Billboard chart-topper for three weeks. So what do I know?
I have to mention that Barry Manilow’s might have been a better example of truck driver modulation. However, I couldn’t decide on which song to use as an example because he employs the technique in about ninety percent of his hit songs!
Just for fun…
“Can’t Smile Without You”
“Ready to Take a Chance Again”
“The Old Songs”
“Looks Like We Made It”
“Never Gonna Give You Up”
“I Made It Through the Rain”
“Somewhere in the Night”
“I Write the Songs”
** Have to comment here. I think the gesture he makes at 3:04 is hilarious. It’s like he’s saying, “Yep. You know it. Here we go again.”
As you can probably tell, direct modulation seems to be a key ingredient in hit songs. Although direct modulation is very common in “pop” music, it is by no means limited to this genre. You can use this technique to modulate a phrase (hence, “phrase modulation”) in the Classical style.
Let’s take a look at how you can apply this technique to your own compositions.
HOW TO EMPLOY DIRECT MODULATION
Try this as an exercise:
1. Write a simple chord progression.
It can be a two-chord vamp (Ex. i-VII) or a longer progression (Ex. I-vi-IV-ii-V-i).
Here I’ve chosen a i-iio7-V7-i progression in the key of A minor.
2. Compose a simple melody to be played over the changes.
Try to include chord tones as well as passing tones to outline the harmony.
3. Transpose your melodic and harmonic ideas by the interval of your choice and repeat.
Here I’ve chosen to modulate up a major second.
Notice that I don’t maintain the same chord voicing in both keys. This helps to avoid the “speeding up the record player” effect and makes for a smoother overall sound. I also moved the F♯ bass note down an octave (V of Bm) for slight variation.
Note: This is not a composition, but simply an example of direct modulation. Moreover, the example is very brief for the sake of space. Modulation is much more emotionally powerful once the ear has thoroughly adjusted to a particular key center.
Try repeating your progression a few times in the first key, prior to modulating, and notice the heightened impact.
Direct modulation is a great go-to modulatory technique because it’s both simple and effective.
It works well for short progressions, lengthy passages, or entire sections of music.
You can play a progression once or several times before modulating.
Your choices are virtually endless, so experiment with them. At the end of the day, trust your ear. If it sounds good, then it works.
Let us know if you have any questions. Until then, see you soon for Part 2!