Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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It’s quite common for songs to begin and end in the same key. However, you can generate excitement and interest by changing key (also called modulation.) It needs to be done with care, though, because if it’s done poorly, you can leave your audience feeling confused. A bit like telling a hitchhiker you’ll drop them off in New York, and then – surprise – leaving them in Kansas.
There are reasons for modulating that don’t specifically relate to the generating of song energy. For example, if you’ve written a tune that works well as a duet, where each singer sings their own verse, the key may work well for one and not the other. In that case, you’ll want to change key between verses. (Check out “Islands in the Stream,” sung by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton for an example of this.)
Be aware that no matter what your reasons are for changing key, it will effect the overall energy of your song. Generally speaking, anything that occurs unexpectedly in a song will have that effect.
So here are the most common ways to modulate, with a couple of sample progressions for each:
1) Common Chord Modulation
To use this type, you begin by choosing an original key for your song, then a new key, and then find a chord that occurs in both. You use that chord as a “pivot” between the two keys:
Old key: C major
New key: Eb major
C C/E Fm Bb7 Eb
The Fm is what’s called a modal mixture chord in C major. But in this case it is redefined as a ii-chord in the key of Eb major, and so the modulation occurs quite smoothly. Here’s a few more common chord samples, with the pivot chord in italics. The first chord of each represents the old key, and the final chord represents the new key:
C F Dm Am D7 G
C Am F G A7 D
C G/B Am C7 F
2) Common Tone Modulation
A common tone modulation uses a note (as opposed to a chord) from the old key, and carries it through to the new key. So you’ll use this device by considering your melody line. Here are some examples:
C F G C ||Ab Db Eb Ab (the note C is common between the C chord and the Ab chord, so use that note in your melody at the modulation point.)
C Am Dm C/E ||Eb Ab Bb Eb (the note G is common between the C chord and the Eb chord)
C F Gsus G ||Bb Eb F C (the note D is common between the G chord and the Bb chord)
3) Abrupt Modulation
An abrupt modulation, by definition, requires no particular “preparation” for the new key. So you simply need to use your ears and decide if you like what you hear. And yes, even abrupt modulations can be “smooth” if done properly. These progressions might also function as common tone modulations if there’s the possibility of a shared note at the modulation point:
C F Dm C/E F G C ||A A/C# D E D E A
C Am Dm G C ||Ab Db Fm Eb Ab
For abrupt modulations, you really need to consider the key you’re moving to. The more distant that new key is (i.e., the more different the two key signatures are), the less smooth the transition will be. As always, let your ears be your guide.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle contains HUNDREDS of chord progressions, along with a handy manual for learning how to properly harmonize your melodies. Download it today.