I hope you enjoyed the last discussion on direct modulation. If you haven’t seen it you can check it out here.
Today we’re going to be taking a look at technique used by composers and songwriters from Beethoven to The Beatles: common chord modulation.
Common chord modulation is, in a word, subtle. This is a glaring contrast to the abrupt- (and sometimes cheesy-) sounding direct modulation that we explored in part 1. (No offense, direct modulation. Barry Manilow will always love you.)
To give an analogy…
Direct modulation is like jumping from the home key to the destination key.
Common chord modulation is like stepping one foot into the destination key before the other.
Common chord modulation is a great method of moving from one key to another, without drawing much attention. Unlike direct modulation, it can often go unnoticed by the untrained ear. This allows the composer to make drastic changes through subtle nuance.
There are two types of common chord modulation:
- Diatonic Common Chord Modulation
- Altered Common Chord Modulation
These terms can sound pretty intimidating in you’re unfamiliar. Unfortunately, when dealing with music theory many terms sound more scientific than musical. On the bright side, I can help you to make sense of them and show you how to apply these concepts to your own compositions.
Let’s take a look at each one in turn.
DIATONIC COMMON CHORD MODULATION
Key changes can be made to sound very fluid by using a common chord. That is, a chord that is shared by the home and destination keys. This chord acts as a pivot, which links the two keys and allows for a smooth transition between them.
Let’s say we want to use diatonic common chord modulation to move from C major to G major.
The first step is identifying the diatonic chords in each key.
Here is the harmonized C major scale:
Here is the harmonized G major scale:
Notice that these two keys have a few chords in common. The chords that appear in both C major and G major (C, G, Am, Em) are called “common chords”—creative name, eh?
Now that we have identified the common chords in these two keys, we will choose the chord(s) on which to pivot. This is going to be our point of transition into the new key.
To be clear:
Common chords are merely the chords that two keys have in common.
Pivot chords are the chords that we’ve actually chosen to use in our modulation.
Here’s an example of a pivot chord modulation from C major to G major.
Notice there are two pivot chords here: Em and Am. Because C major and G major are closely related keys (and thus, have several chords in common), we are at liberty to use more than one. As a result, the modulation is seamless.
Now that we’ve laid the foundation, let’s see how the pros do it.
THE BEATLES – “HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE”
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the title, “Here, There, Everywhere,” was alluding to the tonal center of this song. This late-Beatles classic is rife with key changes. Some of the modulations are so fluid that it’s hard to determine the tonality without transcription and analysis. (That’s where I come in.)
Let’s take a look at just one (okay, maybe two) of the modulations present in this song.
The song begins in G major. The tonal center is confirmed with a I – ii7 – iii – IV progression beginning at 0:11.
After a single repetition of the diatonic progression, the tonality becomes a bit ambiguous. While F#ø7 functions as vii of G, the B7 seems a bit out of place. Bm is iii in the key of G, but B7?
By looking ahead to the next measure, we can see that the F#ø7 and B7 function as iiø7 and V7 in E minor, respectively.
Now let’s connect the whole thing.
After connecting the previous excerpts, you can see that the pivot actually began on C and extended through F#ø7, providing a smooth transition from G major to the relative key o E minor.
And the modulations don’t end there!
Have a look at the harmonic outline below.
The tonality immediately begins to shift back in the direction of the home key. The final Em, as seen in the previous example, is used as a diatonic pivot chord (iv in G major), leading to a cadence that confirms the home key once again.
You may notice that A7 does not fit into either E minor or G major. We’ll talk about that in the next section.
Here is what it looks and sounds like once the preceding excerpts are connected:
Diatonic common chord modulation is an extremely useful tool. It works very well to create a smooth transition between closely related keys and it can be accomplished in a single step.
On the downside, it leaves something to be desired when modulating to a distantly related key. This is where altered common chord modulation becomes quite helpful.
ALTERED COMMON CHORD MODULATION
If you’ve decided to modulate to a distantly related key, but don’t want the abrupt sound of direct modulation, altered common chord modulation is a great solution.
Let’s say we wanted to modulate from the key of C major to the key of F minor.
Here is the harmonized C major scale:
Here is the harmonized F minor scale:
Notice that these two distantly related keys don’t have a single chord in common. Therefore, diatonic pivot chord modulation would be impossible. By taking a chord whose root is common between the keys (i.e. C, F, G) and altering it, however, we can shape it to fit into the new key and use the resulting chord as a pivot.
Let’s use F as the root of our pivot chord.
Take the IV chord in C major (F), and alter it by lowering the 3rd. This would turn the F major chord into an F minor chord.
Here’s the technique in the context of a chord progression:
You can see that the common chord is not actually shared by both keys. This is why we call it an altered common chord. Taken literally, it’s more like common root modulation.
You may also notice that the penultimate chord, C7, isn’t diatonic to F minor. As a general rule, the minor v chord can be freely changed into a major V (or V7) chord in a minor key.
For example, this is perfectly acceptable:
Adding a 7th to the V creates an even stronger “pull” to the tonic chord than it would otherwise. This is a useful tool to have in your kit.
While we’re on the topic of altering the minor v chord into a V7, here’s another possibility for altered common chord modulation.
Let’s stay with our current home and destination keys: C major and F minor, respectively.
Since you can substitute a v for a V7 in minor, try altering the C (I in C major) by adding a seventh to the chord. This would make it a C7 chord, which happens to be V7 of F minor, our destination key.
Note: V7 of a different key (written as V7/x) is also known as a secondary dominant chord—a type of altered common chord.
Here’s what this would look like in the context of a chord progression:
While C7 is an altered chord in the key of C major, it also functions as V7 in the destination key of F minor. Because we are using an altered chord to pivot into a new key, we call this altered common chord modulation.
If you are interested in reading more about traditional harmony and the different minor scales (there are actually three of them) check out our article on diatonic harmony.
Let’s see how the master does it.
BEETHOVEN – PIANO SONATA IN G MAJOR, Op. 14, No. 2, Mvmt. I
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in G provides a great example of altered common chord modulation in the form of a secondary dominant. Our excerpt begins at 0:25 of this video.
Beethoven confirms the key of G major from the outset and begins a broken chord accompaniment at measure 8. (See below.)
Beethoven stays in the home key of G major, alternating between I – V chords until measure 14, where Am appears. Although Am functions as the ii chord of G major, A7 has no function in the home key.
Beethoven chromatically altered the Am by raising the 3rd and adding a 7th, thus creating an altered common chord, upon which he was able to pivot.
By using a secondary dominant (i.e. V7/x) you can smooth over the transition from your home key to any destination key. In addition, there’s no need to confirm the new key via cadence because the secondary dominant leading to the new tonic is the cadence!
As you can see in this example, altered common chord modulation is not limited to distantly related keys. Although this technique certainly works as a transition between closely related keys, it is often unnecessary due to the readily available common chords.
This article presented an overview of the two variations of common chord modulation, as well as explanations and examples of the technique. I hope to have provided enough knowledge to get you started using common chord modulation in your own compositions.
Before we go, I’d like to leave you with a few guidelines to planning and executing common chord modulations.
How to plan diatonic common chord modulation:
- Choose a home key and write out the harmonized scale.
- Choose a destination key (no more than three keys away on the circle of fifths) and write out the harmonized scale.
- Determine which chords are shared by the home and destination keys.
- Choose one (or two) of these common chords to use as your pivot into the destination key.
How to plan altered common chord modulation:
- Choose a home key and write out the harmonized scale.
- Choose a destination key and write out the harmonized scale.
- Determine a chord in the home key that shares a root with a chord in the destination key (ex. F major in the home key, F minor in the destination key).
- Alter the chord in the home key so that it fits into the destination key.
- Use this chord as your entrance into the destination key.
How to apply (diatonic or altered) common chord modulation:
- Establish a tonal center (home key) through a progression, cadence, or static harmony.
- When you are ready to modulate, use your diatonic/altered common chord to pivot into destination key.
- Confirm the new key with a cadence.
If you have any questions, leave a comment in the box below and I’ll get it answered for you.
Best of luck in your compositions!