Ever wondered exactly what modulation is? Learn with this lesson and start applying it to your playing!

Ultimate Guitar
First off, I plan on making a series of lessons on music theory for this site. Yes, there is already an abundance of theory lessons but most of them are difficult to understand or use crude tabs (no offense, it's just that most of the tabs aren't explained well) to try to get the point across. Secondly, I'm starting this series with something that draws a lot of attention from musicians, especially from the likes of guitarists that want to learn to play better solos: Modulation. While this is going to be a fairly straightforward lesson, it is going to represent a couple of weeks of study in a music theory course crammed into something that shouldn't take any more than an hour to understand, although it may take several weeks to truly learn to apply it. That being said, if you don't know at least the very basics of music theory (at least how to read music and know what key signatures and relative minors are), then this lesson is not for you, at least, not yet. I'm a sophomore music major, and believe me, this stuff can get pretty hairy sometimes. So straight into it. What is modulation? Modulation is a process which results in a shift of tonal center. The term applies to those occasions in music when one established tonal center gives way to another. In easier to understand words: it means shifting the tonal center to a different note or key. Say you're in the key of C Major but playing a scale that is centered around E (this happens to be Phrygian, but more on this later), this is a shift in tonal center. Most modulations occur between closely related keys that differ by no more than one accidental in the key signature (this is where knowing key signatures and relative minors comes in). For example, if the original key is C Major, the closely related keys are G Major and F Major, and the relative minors of each of the three keys, A minor, E minor, and D minor. If you swap out and use A minor instead of C Major, the related keys are the same with the addition of C Major: E minor, D minor, C Major, G Major, and F Major. Remember, Major keys and their relative minor keys are in the same key signature as far accidentals go. If you notice, all of the related keys of C Major are diatonic to the key of C Major. In other words, the chords E minor, D minor, A minor, C Major, G Major, and F Major are all in the key of C Major. To be diatonic means in key. An easy way to understand modulation is to observe the ebb and flow of circle progressions (quick definition of circle progressions- a common chord progression that provides a structural basis for most tonal music, consisting of a series of chords with descending fifth root relationships). Now, on to actually modulating between keys.

Using Common Chords To Modulate

A common chord, meaning a chord that is common to each of two keys, offers a smooth introduction to the new key, since it is diatonic to both the old and the new key. This common chord is often called a pivot chord because it becomes a sort of middle ground between the two keys. An example of this would be to use an E minor chord to go from the key of C Major to the key of G Major (meaning that you're going from Ionian to Mixolydian). Here's a (very) basic example:
  C Major             Em G Major                     Em C Major

Phrase Modulation

Phrase modulation, also known as direct modulation, occurs between phrases, periods, or larger sections where a phrase cadences (climaxes) in one key, and the next phrase begins immediately in a different key (mode). Example (hold the last note of each progression for a moment before proceeding to the next, this way you can really feel the change in tone):
 C Major-------------------> E minor
You don't have to stop there. You can continue on through G Major, F Major, A minor, D minor, whatever you feel like playing, as long as it's diatonic to C Major. There is also Chromatic Modulation, which basically (to me anyway) involves using passing tones withing the modes. When modulating through chords it's a bit more complex but I'm sure you're mostly interested in scales and solos. There's really so much more to this subject than this simple little piece, but this is meant to be an introduction into modulating, a way for you to understand exactly what modulating is. If you already know the fingerings for the different modes then applying this should be a cinch. If you don't, I advise finding a lesson on here that describes each mode (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian) in particular and gives the positions for them. Once you learn the fingerings and which mode is which, it's very easy to apply them to each key. Anyway, I hope this helped somehow.

18 comments sorted by best / new / date

    yeah you go from C Ionian to G Ionian, not Mixolydian. Not sure why you said that.... please explain your reasoning.
    Jac the frog
    For those who do not have problems with reading the "Choral Gesange" by JS Bach is a fantastic tool for understanding the links between melody and chords.
    Jac the frog
    What determines a modulation is the affirmation of the new tonality with the V / I cadence of the new tonality. your example ( C major with E minor to G major ) is not a real modulation, in fact just /I /III/ V /III /I/ in Cmajor . For a real( little or "loan") modulation from C major to G major with the E minor as a pivot chord : C major( I of C Maj)/Em(III of Cmaj/ VI of GMaj)/ DMaj ( V of Gmaj)/ Gmaj (I of Gmaj).This example is not a beauty for the ears (VI/V/I ) and because Gmaj is also the V of CMaj the duration of the progression I/(III/VI)/V/I is too short to escape the "grip" of CMAJ... We should have a "walk" in the tonality of GMaj more time to forget that of CMAJ,and include other chords of the GMaj tonality (preferably outside the CMAJ key ) before confirming by the V / I in GMaj. There are lots of other ways to make modulations and those of the Baroque era are not made like those of the Romantic era for example, but the starting point is the V / I cadence (the equal tempered scale in fact and the modulation on the tonal tempered scale is dead since Arnold Schnberg )
    i completely agree with 'revtfunk' and 'farcry'..going from c maj to g maj is a complete shift of scale rather than a mode in the key of c there can be a g mixolydian however in the key of g the relative mode would be d mixolydian. .
    And saying diatonic to C major in your third last paragraph isn't right. G major is not diatonic to C major, at least not in the world I live in.
    I have to agree with titopuente... There are several statements in your lesson with which I cannot agree. Number 1: If you modulate from the key of C to the key of G you are NOT going from Ionian to Mixolydian. You simply modulated. Now, if a G7 chord is played during a song in the key of C the sound will become Mixolydian, but that is not a modulation. The key did not change. There will be an F natural, not an F#. The C major scale is C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C = 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 The G mixolydian scale is G,A,B,C,D,E,F,G = 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7,8 I see several online guitar sites with lessons suggesting that where your hand is determines the mode. THAT IS COMPLETELY INCORRECT! If the chord progression is ||:CM7 | FM7 :|| there is no place you can put your hand to sound mixolydian. The mixolydian sound is a by-product of a dominant chord.
    yo this is coompletly off topic but how is that c maj i thoght this was ----- -1----- ----- -2----- -3----- ----- some one help please im confused lol
    Great lesson. Travuhs - not an extreme amount of theory here, just more or less unfamiliar words . Brokenanthem, if you are going to do a series of lessons, Id absolutely love a great Melodic Phrasing lesson. Or even just Melodic Control as there isnt a lot to do with melody in these lessons. Cheers.
    That's not that much theory, I'm no theory whiz... but I think I've seen the worst of it, but this lesson helped, using common chords is something I never learned, I will apply this to my playing, much thanks.
    Some good information regarding modulation; I'm interested to see how this will progress. Just going from the article, though, it doesn't seem like you have a correct understanding of modes. C major isn't E phrygian; E phrygian isn't C major. The fingerings might be the same, but fingerings aren't modes. There should be more of an emphasis on harmony, rather than melody, in an article on modulation.
    Nick B
    the-leperchaun wrote: yo this is coompletly off topic but how is that c maj i thoght this was ----- -1----- ----- -2----- -3----- ----- some one help please im confused lol
    thats CMaj the chord. the lesson was referring to the key of C major (no accidentals, starts on C). you will probably have to learn a good chunk of theory before you can understand the lesson.
    [quote=the-leperchaun ]yo this is coompletly off topic but how is that c maj i thoght this was ----- -1----- ----- -2----- -3----- ----- some one help please im confused lol[/quote] Yes that is C-major
    cant you just take the dominant of the note you are modulating to and play it as a 7 chord and use that as a transition chord? so if you are modulating to the key of Cmaj, could you modulate using G7 as a transition chord?