Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes – (or, Everything in Modulation)

This may be hard to believe, but we’ve actually had a little bit of a theme running through our last three columns. And yes, I know it’s kind of hard to keep track of something like that when the columns have been a bit spread out over the past couple of months. Sorry.

Be that as it may, let’s pick up that thread again. First we started out with transposing (Turning Notes Into Stone) and then the last time out we examined how chord progressions were formed in minor keys (Minor Progress). Today I want to introduce you to the subject of modulation. But first a word:

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of these songs. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Okay, then. Let’s read a bit from Walter Piston’s Harmony:

Part of our conception of tonality is the notion that a tonal piece is “in” a particular key, implying that the particular key defines just one tonic (root) for the piece. Nevertheless, composers in the common-practice era seem to have agreed that it was aesthetically undesirable for a piece of music to remain in only one key, unless it was quite short. Compositions of any substantial length invariably include tones from outside the underlying diatonic scale and at least one change of key, meaning the adoption of a different tonal center to which all the other tones are related. The process involved in changing from one tonal center to another is called modulation. Modulation represents the dynamic state of tonality. The word implies that there is a key in which a piece of music begins, a different key into which it progresses, and a process of getting there.

Whew! That’s a bit of information, huh? What’s it all mean? Well, put in simplest terms, it means that it used to be considered very boring if a song stayed in the same key. And before you go thinking, “Oh yeah, but that was only in classical music, you know, the big orchestra productions…” please realize that this was true of all sorts of “pop” music as well. If you look through songs from the 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s (even the “exercises” for students!) are rife with key changes within a song.

Modulation is a great song writing tool and, more importantly, a key subject to grasp if you want to know more about how music is put together. And, fortunately, there are lots of examples of modulation in recent pop/rock/whatever music as well, which we can use to explore this technique.

But before we go dissecting some songs, let’s do two quick things. First let’s ponder this bit of information, also from Piston’s Harmony:

There are three stages in the process of bringing about a modulation. First of all, a tonality must be already clear to the hearer. Second, the music at some point must change its tonal center. Third, the hearer is made aware of the change and the new tonal center is confirmed.

That wasn’t too difficult to understand, was it? Okay, now I’d also like you to review two columns I wrote last summer called Five To One and You Say You Want A Resolution… because we will be using a lot of things today that come from what we learned back then.

Bumping It Up A Step

The first time that most of us become aware that a song can indeed change key is when we’re hit over the head with it. Nothing subtle, just bang! and “Hey! Something’s changed the music Did they speed up the record or something?”

Moving a song up a half or a whole step can create a jarring, dramatic effect. Think about the Who’s song My Generation. The group is pounding away, there’s this terrific bass solo and just when you think that it can’t get any wilder, they go and move the whole thing up a step for the final verse! No warning or anything! Rick Neilsen does the same thing twice in Cheap Trick’s Surrender.

But an interesting thing to note is that the change of key does not have to last the duration of a song. Citing Pete Townsend once more, let’s look at Won’t Get Fooled Again. The song pretty much establishes itself in the key of A for the first two verses and choruses (stage one if you’re keeping score…) and then without warning it steps up to the key of B for the bridge:

Won't Get Fooled Again

And stays there for the guitar solo before coming back to the key of A again for the rest of the song. And bonus points to those of you who are thinking that the “BAE” progression is just the “AGD” progression transposed up a whole step. That’s why we go over these things! And repeating a progression in the transposed key is a sure fire way to achieve the third stage – letting the listener become aware that there is a new tonal center. Another song that does this is Bruce Springsteen’s I’m A Rocker. In the middle of the songs there is an organ solo and for whatever reason, the song changes keys up a whole step just for the duration of that solo. When the last verse comes “Ëśround again, everything is back where it was.

Changing keys like this can even be more mysterious when it is done without fanfare. That is, when is is a “normal’ part of the song in stead of a solo or a new section, like a bridge. The choruses of (Nothing But) Flowers by the Talking Heads go right from the key of G to the key of A and then right back again without you even having a moment to catch your breath:

(Nothing But) Flowers

Sometimes, though, songs can be a little sneakier about changing keys. This is often done through the use of what we call a “pivot chord.” Back to the book:

The second stage of the modulation involves the choice of a chord which will serve as a tonal vantage point for both keys. In other words, it will be a chord common to both keys, which we will call the pivot chord

In (Nothing But) Flowers the D at the end of the chorus (the one with the “***” after it) is our pivot chord. It serves as the IV in the key of A and also as the V in the key of G and gives us a smooth transition back to the original key. It’s much less jarring than the shift up to A in the first place, isn’t it?

A QUICK NOTE: Most of the examples that we have used up to this point have, for all intents and purposes, NOT used pivot chords to make their modulations. Oh yes, we could argue this point until doomsday if you wish, but I just don’t want you thinking that a pivot chord is something you HAVE to have. But, as you will see and hear, it does make for very intriguing possibilities.

Let’s look at this song by Roxy Music:

Dance Away

Here you see that the verse starts out the song in the key of C. It’s your standard I – VI – IV – V progression in fact. From there it shifts from IV to V (F to G) a couple of times. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. But then as the verse comes to a close and the chorus starts up and before you realize it you are back in your I – VI – IV – V progression but the key has changed! How did this happen? Were we sleeping?

The key here is the G chord. While it is the V in the key of C, it is also the IV in the key of D. In the last line of the verse (“you’re dressed to kill…”) the G chord gets a little more dynamic play which sets up the switch from C to D. Hence it is here at this particular moment that it becomes our pivot chord, which I have again designated with the “***” symbol.

Generals And Majors And (Relative) Minors

If you’ve taken the time to read (or reread) last summer’s articles, then you are already familiar with the examples posed by Comfortably Numb as well as One Headlight. Modulations between a major key and its relative minor (or vice versa) are quite common in all kinds of music and can help make a song much more interesting to its listeners. And it’s fairly easy to do since any major and its relative minor share all kinds of chords that can be used as pivots.

But because of something that we learned in our last column, Minor Progress, you can creat even more dramatic things happen through the use of pivots chords. Let’s take another look at this song, shall we?

Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad

Here is a very wild sounding, yet totally sensible change of key at the chorus brought on by the fact that the E chord is the V in both A minor and A major. Simplicity itself, no?

Sometimes a pivot chord does not have to be a part of the actual key of the song as long as it has been used and it has become “familiar” to the listener. The old Motown tune “Get Ready” uses a chord progression of D – G – F in its verses, firmly establishing itself in the key of D to our ears (part of this is owing to the repetition of G to A in the intro!). But then look what happens in the choruses:

Get Ready

This is why I mentioned earlier that you can’t live and die by pivot chords (or any other “rules” of music theory, for that matter). The key changes in this song sounds seamlessly beautiful and yes there are reasons why it works, but isn’t it enough that it does work?

Studying The Masters

In songwriting, as in virtually anything you want to get good at – be it guitar playing, painting, cooking or just being a decent human being – you can learn a lot from the past. You can go back into the Dark Ages if you like or even the Not-Quite-So-Dark-Ages of the recent past. Two gifted songwriters to study would be Ray Davies of the Kinks and John Lennon. The earliest Kinks songs, such as You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night take a simple guitar riff and transpose it all over the fretboard in order to come up with songs whose changes of key are breathtaking.

And I’d like to leave you this lesson with a gift from John Lennon. He truly had a talent for setting up your expectations of a song and then spinning it all topsy-turvy in the simplest of ways. Here is the first verse of Happy Christmas (War Is Over). Note how Lennon sets up a progression (I – II – V – I) first in the key of A and then repeats the progression but this time transposed to the key of D. This was (and is) a very standard thing for songwriters to do in that it mimics the structure of twelve bar blues. But then instead of going to E (which would be the fifth) or returning to A, he starts the chorus with a G chord making us wonder if we’re now in another key. But no, he’s decided to totally commit to the key of D, going so far as to set up a IV – V cadence right at the start of the chorus. Okay, John, D it is. We’ll even end the chorus in a plagal cadence (G to D) to cement things down. Or do we? Because he then simply tosses out (almost like an afterthought, really) an E chord after the D to set up IV – V – I in the key of A just in time for the verse again. It’s all so simple and disarming but I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?

Happy Christmas

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

It’s good to be back! Until next week…