Modulation Station: Simple Steps to Making Smooth Key Changes

One of the most noticeable techniques that keep people wanting for more in your songs is a key change, and it's something you'll need to learn if you want to go somewhere with music.

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Modulation Station: Simple Steps to Making Smooth Key Changes
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Have you ever thought of why some songs just aren't interesting? One of the most noticeable techniques that keep people wanting for more in your songs is a key change, and it's something you'll need to learn if you want to go somewhere with music.

(If you're not sure what I am talking about, it's okay - everything will be explained in the short video below).

Of all the concepts in music theory, it seems that modulation (the theory behind key changes) tends to be one of the most confusing for new students. Part of the reason for that is comes down to guides making students memorize different changes that work, rather than showing them how to find out their own.

Any teacher can mention to you this list of technically correct method to modulate - but the list alone is useless:

Simply move to another key without setting it up. But this one doesn't usually have a great effect, generally sounding choppy.

Move up or down a cadence in the key you're playing. It's usually done by playing the fifth chord in the new key, followed by the first chord (examples can be found in the video).

Bridge to a new key by finding a chord that belongs to both keys.

Is that a bit easier to understand? I guess not! If it doesn't make sense, it's all good - you're not the one to blame. In fact, it's not really possible to learn modulations "in theory".

The best way to learn is to hear modulation in action. This is why I'm keeping this one short and not using charts, diagrams, or theoretical "rules" for you to memorize; instead, I made a quick video. Watch it below to hear a number of examples.

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Was there any one of these examples that stood out to you? Try incorporating them into your own songs!

About the Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Jimjambanx
    Learning the circle of fifths and how to use dominants and secondary dominants is the ultimate gateway to truly understanding modulation. 
    tommaso.zillio
    If you want to modulate through a dominant chord, yes. That's not the only way, though. What if you don't want a dominant sound in the modulation?
    Jimjambanx
    Common chord sub, again circle of fifths. The circle of fifths shows us the relationship between different keys, if you want to modulate, chances are the circle of fifths has an answer. Either that or forgo functional harmony and just use purely voice leading ie glide progressions.
    jamstation
    In fact, it's not really possible to learn modulations "in theory".
    Actually, it is. There are entire books on modulation.
    tommaso.zillio
    Just because they exists, does not mean they work. Now, you and me are music theory nerds (I own a dozen books on modulations alone), but for 99% of musicians out there a book on theory is the wrong answer.
    motor881
    To start off you want to modulate to a key that only has 1 to 3 different notes in it. For example if I'm in the key of G, I could modulate to A minor. The only difference is the F#. You would also use the G# to lead up to the A. So when youre writing a riff or a chord progression you try to subtlety introduce the different notes in each scale or chord.
    Cheesepuff
    its all about leading tones my dudes
    tommaso.zillio
    Leading tones take you only so far (and they have  specific sound that you may or may not want to use). In the video I show an example without using leading tones.