We already learned in the topic “Modulation” the basics about this subject. Now that we have a solid theory base, it is time to go deep in this subject and to show you how to modulate, in other words, which resources and analysis we can explore in this subject.

We can start answering some questions:

Where can we modulate to?

We can modulate to any tone, independently from where we are; there is no restriction to this. But, the most common is modulating to closely related keys because our ear will adapt itself better to this kind of transition, due the fact that there is some affinity between these tonalities. In Pop music, in general, it is also used the modulation one tone above (increase the song one tone) or a half tone above.

What kind of resources can we use to modulate?

The most common is using cadences. We can make II – V – I progressions, or any other, to prepare better our ear to the tonality change. Cadences serve as “transition softeners”; they prepare the way. To the improviser, they also serve as indicator so that the musician sees where the song is going. In the article about cadences we showed one example of use of cadences in modulation. We will see here more examples in known songs.

But, before of this, it is worth to highlight that cadences are not the only way of soften a tonality transition. We can also make the “diatonic modulation”.

What is diatonic modulation?

It is when we change the harmonic function of a chord in the song; in other words, we take advantage of the fact that a same chord exists in different tonalities and we does the transition between these two tonalities by this chord.

See this example: Let’s say that the tonality of a song is in C major, until the moment where G major appears followed by D major and B minor. We can clearly see that tonality has changed to D major, but it is interesting that the chord G belongs even to the harmonic field of C major as D major. In the tonality of C, G is the fifth degree (dominant function), while in the tonality of D, G is the fourth degree (subdominant function).

Moral of the story: to make this modulation from C major to D major, we changed the function of G: it is no longer the fifth degree and became to be used as fourth degree. This is an interesting manner of modulating, because we confuse the listener making the same chord serves in another function. Many times, this technique when well used makes the modulation becomes almost imperceptible; the tonality changes and the unsuspecting listener doesn’t notice this!

Well, the definition that we showed until now is the only one possible to diatonic modulation. For example, in a song in C major, after G could come the C minor chord, and in this case we would be modulating to a parallel tone using G as dominant, in other words, it didn’t change its function, despite having taken the song to another tonality. Therefore, a broader definition to diatonic modulation would be using the present chord in the original harmonic field to take the song to another harmonic field. Many authors also call this kind of modulation as “modulation with pivot chords” or “modulation with common chords”.

If we would think in each possibility of modulation, we would stay here until tomorrow talking about how is possible to change the harmonic function of a chord (we could change a V7 in a secondary dominant; this one, on the other hand, could become a subV7, etc., etc.). It is not worth continuing discoursing about these innumerous cases, because it would be really boring. It is just to understand the concept, because the examples and ideas will come when we analyze the songs.

Besides this modulation, we still have the called “Chromatic Modulation”.

What is Chromatic Modulation?

It is when we does some chromatic change in one (or more) notes of a chord of the original harmonic field to be able to use it in another harmonic field, changing then, the tonality of the song. This sentence is really long, but an example can make it easy: Let’s say again that the song is in C major. Think about the following sequence: C – Am – A – D. The tonality here has changed to D major, and the idea was to take the Am chord and change chromatically its third, changing it in a major chord. This A (that before was minor and belonged to the harmonic field of C major) became a major chord, serving as fifth degree for D (A major belongs to the harmonic field of D minor), concluding the modulation.

Very well, now that we know the resources, let’s show one example of song that has several modulations, so you will see how composers work with this in practice.

The song below has 3 tonalities: D major (in yellow), G major (in green) and A# major (in orange). Check it:

how to modulate

In the first modulation, the tonality was in D major, and then A7(9) chord, that was supposed to be solved in D7M (expected resolution), served as dominant for the dominant (V7/V7), because the D chord appeared with seventh and was solved in G7M, characterizing the first modulation. This modulation can be classified as modulation by secondary dominant to the IV degree, which is a closely related key. From this moment, the tonality became G major.

The second modulation happened when the chord that was supposed to be G major appeared as G sharp minor (G#m7(11)). In this right moment, it would be hard to discover where the harmony is going to, but the next chords will give us a hint. Right after this G# minor, G7(#11) chord came, which is an altered dominant, and then F#7M chord appeared. So, we can conclude that that G# minor served like second minor degree of F# major and G7 served like subV7, replacing the fifth degree V7 of F#, which would be C#7.

From that point, the tonality became F# major. Notice that this modulation went to one semitone below the previous tonality, which was G major.

The song still returns to the initial tonality of D major, through another modulation. In this case, the modulation happened through a dominant of the dominant (V7/V7), because E7 served as dominant to A, which in its time, served as dominant V7 to D. It is worth to highlight that, before this modulation, a modal borrowed chord of parallel tone appeared (A7M, highlighted in red; it belongs to the harmonic field of F#m, which is parallel to F# major).

There are other characteristics in this song that could be studied apart, like imperfect cadences, inverted chords, among others. But as our focus here in this topic was the subject “modulation”, we will let these complete approaches in the part of studied songs here in the website.

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