Modulation (music)

From New World Encyclopedia

In music, modulation is usually the act or process of changing from one key to another. This may or may not be accompanied by a change in key signature. Modulation became an important aspect in creating the structure or form of works in the post-Baroque era. While modulation normally refers to a change in key, it at call refer to changes in tempo, timbre, and other musical parameters.

As tonality emerged as the prevalent syntax of Western music, this "key-centered" music exhibited new and highly evocative expressive dimensions. Composers sought ways through which they could achieve greater freedom and emotional expression in their works. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, the practice of pitch modification—called temperament—was an important development in the evolution of the tonal syntax. The practice of temperament in turn allowed for such compositional devices as modulation to occur within changing harmonic contexts.

The technique of changing key centers is part of a give and take action within music which can lead towards a variation in tone, pitch, and/or inflection to alter the characteristics in melody or harmony. This change in key or tonal center means a change in the central note, scale, and chord within a piece, creating a psychological change within the listener.

Types of modulation

There are several types of modulation. A change of key may occur over time via a sequence of chord changes (a modulating sequence) or be very abrupt through a single "pivot chord." It is usually smoother to modulate to more closely related keys than to keys further away. "Closeness" is determined by the number of notes in common between keys, which provides more possible "pivot" chords. A modulation is often completed by a cadence in the new key, which helps to establish it. Brief modulations are often considered tonicizations.

Common chord modulation

Common chord modulation moves from the original key to the destination key by way of a chord both keys share. For example, the keys of G major and D major share four chords in common: G Major, B minor, D Major, E minor. This can be easily determined by a chart similar to the one below, which compares chord qualities. The I chord in G Major—a G major chord—is also the IV chord in D major, so I in G major and IV in D major are aligned on the chart.

GM: I ii iii IV V vi vii°
DM: IV V vi vii° I ii iii

Any chord with the same root note and chord quality (major/minor) can be used as the "pivot chord." However, chords that are not generally found in the style of the piece (for example, major VII chords in a Bach-style chorale) are also not likely to be chosen as the pivot chord. The most common pivot chords are the predominant chords (ii and IV) in the new key. In analysis of a piece that uses this style of modulation, the common chord is labeled with its function in both the original and the destination keys, as it can be seen either way.

Enharmonic modulation

An enharmonic modulation occurs when one treats a chord as if it were spelled enharmonically as a functional chord in the destination key, and then proceeds in the destination key. There are two main types of enharmonic modulations: dominant seventh/augmented sixth, and diminished seventh. By "respelling" the notes, any dominant seventh can be reinterpreted as a German or Italian sixth (depending on whether or not the fifth is present), and any diminished seventh chord can be respelled in multiple other ways to form other diminished seventh chords. By combining the diminished seventh with a dominant seventh and/or augmented sixth, changing only one pivot note at a time, it is possible to modulate quite smoothly from any key to any other in at most three chords, no matter how distant the starting and ending keys; however, the effect is easily overworked.

(Examples: C-E-G-B flat, a dominant 7th, becomes C-E-G-A sharp, a German sixth. C sharp-E-G-B flat, a C sharp diminished seventh, can also be spelled as E-G-B flat-D flat, an E diminished seventh, G-B flat-D flat-F flat, a G diminished seventh, and B flat-D flat-F flat-A double flat, a B flat diminished seventh. Combining the diminished 7th with the dominant 7th/aug.6th: starting again from C# diminished seventh, the progression C#-E-G-B flat, C sharp-E-G-A (dom.7th), D-F sharp-A takes us to the key of D major; C sharp-E-G-B flat, C-E-G-B flat (dom.7th), C-F-A, to F major; but the exact same progression enharmonically C sharp-E-G-B flat, C-E-G-B flat (dom.7th)=C-E-G-A sharp (aug.6th), B-D sharp-F sharp-B takes us somewhat unexpectedly to B major; C sharp-E-G-B flat, C sharp-E flat-G-B flat = D flat-E flat-G-B flat (dom.7th), C-E flat-A flat to A flat major; etc. )

This type of modulation is particularly common in Romantic music, in which chromaticism rose to prominence.

Common-tone modulation

Common-tone modulation uses a sustained or repeated pitch from the old key as a bridge between it and the new key. Usually, this pitch will be held alone before the music continues in the new key. For example, a held F from a section in B flat major could be used to transition to F major. This is used, for example, in Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.

Chromatic modulation

A chromatic modulation is so named because a secondary dominant or other chromatically altered chord is used to lead one voice chromatically up or down on the way to the new key. (In standard four-part chorale-style writing, this chromatic line will be in one voice.) For example, a chromatic modulation from C major to d minor:

CM: IV V/ii ii
Dm: i (...)

In this case, the IV chord (FM) would be spelled F-A-C, the V/ii chord (AM) spelled A-C sharp-E, and the ii chord (dm), D-F-A. Thus the chromaticism, C-C sharp-D, along the three chords; this could easily be part-written so those notes all occurred in one voice.

The combination of chromatic modulation with enharmonic modulation in late Romantic music led to extremely complex progressions in the music of such composers as César Franck, in which two or three key shifts may occur in the space of a single bar, each phrase ends in a key harmonically remote from its beginning, and great dramatic tension is built while all sense of underlying tonality is temporarily in abeyance. Good examples are to be found in the opening of his Symphony in D Minor, of which he himself said, "I dared much, but the next time, you will see, I will dare even more..."; and his Trois Chorals for organ, especially the first and third of these, which indeed fulfill that promise.[1]

Phrase modulation

Phrase (also called direct or abrupt) modulation is a modulation in which one phrase ends with a cadence in the original key, and begins the next phrase in the destination key without any transition material linking the two keys. This type of modulation is frequently done to a closely related key—particularly the dominant or the relative major/minor key.

On the other hand, a common device in popular music, the "truck driver's gear change" or "Star Search modulation," is an abrupt modulation, often to the key a semitone above, typically used to provide an "emotionally uplifting" finale to a song's final verse or chorus. Although only a half-tone above the previous key, the new key is not closely related to the old since they share no common notes.

Abrupt modulation is also frequently used in forms with sharply delineated sections, such as theme and variations and many dance forms.

Sequential modulation (rosalia)

It is also possible to modulate by way of a sequence. The sequential passage will begin in the home key, and may move either diatonically or chromatically; harmonic function is generally disregarded in a sequence, or, at least, it is far less important than the sequential motion. For this reason, a sequence may end at a point that suggests a different tonality than the home key, and the composition may continue naturally in that key.

A sequence does not have to modulate; a modulating sequence is known as a rosalia.

Common modulations

The most common modulations are to closely related keys. Modulation to the dominant or the subdominant is relatively simple as they are adjacent steps on the circle of fifths. Modulations to the relative major or minor are also simple, as these keys share all pitches in common. Modulation to distantly related keys is often done smoothly through using chords in successive related keys, such as through the circle of fifths, the entirety of which may be used in either direction:

C - G - D - A - E - B (C flat) - F sharp (G flat) - C sharp (D flat) - G sharp (A flat) - D sharp (E flat) - A sharp (B flat) - E sharp (F) - B sharp (C)

If a given key were in G Major, the following chart could be used:

C—' G '—D

From G (which is the given key), a musician would go P5 (a perfect fifth) above G (which is D) and also P5 below G (which is C).

From this, the musician would go to G Major's relative minor which is E minor, and potentially to C Major and D Major's related minor as well... a musician who does not know the related minor for C and D Major may also go BELOW or ABOVE E minor.

ㅣ ㅣ ㅣ
a e b

By using the relative minor keys one can find the specific new key into which the current key can modulate. Many musicians also use the circle of fifths to find these keys and make similar charts to help with the modulation.

Other types of modulation

Though modulation generally refers to changes of key, any musical parameter may be modulated, particularly in music of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Metric modulation (known also as tempo modulation) is the most common. For example a piece may be modulated from 3/4 time to 4/4 time, and back. Timbral modulation (gradual changes in tone color), and spatial modulation (changing the location from which sound occurs) are also used.

Modulation may also occur from a single tonality to a polytonality, often by beginning with a duplicated tonic chord and modulating the chords in contrary motion until the desired polytonality is reached.

Significance of modulation

In certain classical music forms, a modulation can have structural significance. In sonata form, for example, a modulation separates the first subject from the second subject. Frequent changes of key characterize the development section of sonatas. Moving to the subdominant is a standard practice in the trio section of a march in a major key, while a minor march will typically move to the relative major. From that relative major key and go up five steps or go down five steps will be the easiest way to find a new key.

Changes of key may also represent changes in mood; many composers associate certain keys with specific emotional content but, in very general terms, major keys are cheerful or heroic, while minors are sad and solemn. Moving from a lower key to a higher often indicates an increase in energy.

Change of key is not possible in the full chromatic or the twelve tone technique, as the modulatory space is completely filled; i.e., if every pitch is equal and ubiquitous there is nowhere else to go. Thus other differentiating methods are used, most importantly ordering and permutation. However, certain pitch formations may be used as a "tonic" or home area.


  1. Retrieved May 22, 2008,

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Murphy, Howard Ansley and Edwin John Stringham. Creative harmony and musicianship: an introduction to the structure of music. NY: Prentice-Hall, 1951. OCLC 485050
  • Persichetti, Vincent. Twentieth-Century Harmony. W.W. Norton and Company, 1961. ISBN 0-393-09539-8
  • Piston, Walter and Mark DeVoto. Harmony. NY: Norton, 1987. ISBN 0-393-95480-3
  • Reger, Max. On the theory of modulation. NY: E.F. Kalmus, 1948. OCLC 1689993

External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.