Jul 062020

Lately, I’ve been playing a song by a local (to Philadelphia) songwriter, Tim Bowen, now sadly deceased, that uses the trick of modulating repeatedly within the song, changing the key, seven times. Since that song is not available on-line. I give you this classic example:

The immediate inspiration to bring this up was hearing this song on the WFMU morning show:

I always loved how that trick works here to create a palpable sense of pandemonium in behind Gil Scott Heron‘s onslaught of images.

Can you think of any other examples? Is it cheesy or genius?


  13 Responses to “All About the Modulation”

  1. cherguevara

    It’s become a bit of a joke move in the genre of diva-power ballads (like here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVh0_DQtwyU ), but still effective if it has an element of surprise. The first song that comes to mind is Dizzy, by Tommy Roe, which I think works well because it keeps a simple 1-4–5 structure as it moves around the circle of 5ths and the lyrics describe the disorienting, constant modulation:

  2. I don’t think I understood modulation as a music listener. It wasn’t until I started to play music that I learned it wasn’t just chord changes happening, (which are normal for a song) but a complete key change which is a whole new bag. Wish I understood music theory better. The Gil Scott-Heron example is a great one of it being used well. It does keep you off-balance and engaged throughout all the changes.

    Che is right that you hear it in power ballads all the time. You hear it in Broadway show tunes frequently too. It can be a really cheap trick to create a sense of elevating the emotion or the upward exultation path of the song. The emotion is “raised” right along with the key going higher. That’s why it is usually in the cheesy corner.

    But it’s used so often because it works! I like when it is used to create as Geo says pandemonium rather than a feeling of bursting triumph. I love the tension the key changes create in You Really Got Me and My Generation. They don’t feel natural or expected.

  3. The two examples Geo gave were good to get me started, because I usually cringe at the modulation device. Those examples, like “Dizzy,” as cited by Cher, do add to the song itself.

    It’s funny, as much as I love the Kinks and Who examples that Chickenfrank cited, I don’t get an extra charge out of the modulation. By that point in each song, I’m already putty in the hands of the song, looking up at it with big puppy dog eyes. The modulation only stood out to me when I first learned how to play those songs. There’s nothing like barre chords to make modulations easy!

    I wish I knew more of the music theory that is possible to unlock by using this device. People often do whole step modulations, right? Can you modulate by greater leaps (or by only a half step up the neck, in guitarist terms) and get anything workable? Can you make a great leap in modulation and suddenly change the structure of the melody, so that the singer isn’t making a ridiculous stretch to hit new notes in their original structure?

  4. ladymisskirroyale

    If I’m understanding modulation correctly, I think that “Walkin’ After Midnight” is an example.

  5. Cheesy manipulative trick? You betcha, and I’m all in for it. Especially when done by someone you wouldn’t think would go for it, such as R.E.M. on “Shaking Through.”

    But a special shout out to stuff like “Penny Lane,” which modulates downward at the end—those tricksy lads bein’ all tricksy and whatnot.

  6. cherguevara

    Another way to modulate is to use an “applied dominant” or the “five of five.” For example, if you’re writing a tune in C major, G major would be the 5 chord (dominant). The 2 chord would normally be D minor. If you instead used a D major chord, that would be the 5 chord in G major. So you can use that as a way to modulate, ie say you play one bar each: C maj. F maj. D maj. G maj. This can be done to modulate, or to “tonicize,” which is to say, to move out of the key for a moment, then back. There are a bunch of different ways to do this, but this is one. Dizzy builds a few applied dominant chords on III instead, for example (a B7 chord in the key of G in the choruses and an A Major chord in the key of F in the verses). Or instead of a V chord you could apply a vii chord. My music theory is fuzzy, though, but there are plenty of place to look up this stuff.

  7. @cher: That’s cool stuff. I get that. Playing through those progressions you give as examples, I’m immediately familiar with their use in some well-known songs, and I realize I’ve done some of this in my own songwriting, intuitively Now that I see what the pattern or “game” is behind it, I will likely run rampant and see how often and creatively (at least for my own amusement) I can exploit it.

  8. The technique of going up, usually a whole step, to give a closing verse a kick is very common. But what I was thinking was songs that modulate repeatedly repeating a basic chord pattern in multiple keys.

    The Cash moves up a fourth, then up a fourth again, and then heads back down. There are two cool things about how he handles this. When he goes to the second verse, up a fourth from E to A, he takes the melody down a fifth, heading into his deepest register. Next verse he heads up to sing at the D above the A, then back down to the D, and finally in the last verse on the E an octave below where he did the first verse. Johnny can go down for the last verse because his low voice is his big payoff, unlike most mortals.

    The other thing that is cool is that the intro is like a summary of the whole tune, the intro chords are E-A-D-A-E, which is the basic modulations through the song.

    Dizzy is a really cool one. I love the way that moves around. You mention that that one moves in fourths. I think most of these songs that use repeated modulations use fourths, or maybe fifths, or three keys in a loop that are a I, a IV and a IV. The whole step ending modulation is usually just to give a repeat some kick. It doesn’t need to easily find its way back. Also, that was a great explanation by Cher. I know this stuff, but completely lack any facility with it, particularly since I don’t play a chord instrument.

  9. BigSteve

    I recently realized that Dave Edmunds sometimes does this thing where the guitar solo is in a different key than the main part of the song. The simplest example is Queen of Hearts — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pAFVUZHeoI. Most of the song in in the key of B, but for the guitar solo it shifts up to C#, then back down to B when the solo is over.

    A less simple version of this is Rockpile’s Teacher Teacher — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OKtuaWkmA0. The jangly guitar part that opens the song is in B flat, and they stay in that key for the first verse. Then the second verse shifts up to the key of C, where it stays for most of the rest of the song, except that in the middle they reprise the jangly guitar part in B flat, before going back to C for the rest of the song.

    This apparently a trick Dave Edmunds used at various times, and once you know to listen for it, it’s all over his recordings. (See also Girls Talk, where the guitar bit in the beginning and in the middle are in B, but the rest of the song is in C#.) I’m not sure this is really a modulation, because the keys he’s moving between are not harmonically related. (?) Anyway I just realized recently what he was doing, and I thought I’d share it here, even though it’s not an example of the multiple key changes geo wrote about in the original post.

  10. That is a weird trick that he seems to use a lot. The almost complete absence of set up makes you wonder if anything happened at all. Really funny when it changes key right after the Girls Talk intro.

  11. BigSteve

    Yeah, it’s sort of like it makes the song seem more harmonically complex than it really is.

  12. Lin-Manuel Miranda actually makes a self-referential joke in this song from Hamilton. The key modulation happens at 1:20 and is commented on at 1:30.

  13. Happiness Stan

    In his timeless and heartrending classic, Honey, Bobby Goldsboro changes key not once but twice to give the song added poignancy. The first is to announce the section on which he describes the small cold passing overhead crying down upon the flowerbed where Honey played, and, having taken the listener to what surely must be the end of the journey, ramps up the tension again for the reprise of the first verse, describing his surprise at the height of the tree, just before the fade.

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