Changing Key Using A Common-Tone Modulation

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ModulationsChanging key (called modulation) in the middle of a song actually doesn’t happen very often in pop music genres, but there are several reasons why you might choose to do it. Usually keys change in an upward direction; modulating downward is tricky because it tends to sap song energy. Some types of modulation risk sounding trite because of their overuse in past eras: the half-step-upward modulation, for example. Nonetheless, key change is a great tool for generating a sense freshness and energy.

A common-tone modulation occurs when a note in the last chord of the “old key” also exists in the first chord of the “new key.” That common tone acts as a kind of glue that helps the ear make sense of the change.

Here are some examples of common-tone modulations. The modulation occurs between the two chords in bold:

  1. From A major to F major: A  D E  C ||F  Bb  C  F (The note ‘E’ from the E chord is the common tone between E and C)
  2. From A major to C# major: A  D  E  G#7 ||C#  F#  G#  C# (The note G# from the E chord is the common tone between E and G#7)
  3. From A major to G major: A  Bm  C#m  D7  ||G C  D  G (The note D from the D7 chord is the common tone between D7 and G)

Those are just three examples to show you how it works. As mentioned, the benefit of the common tone is that it helps to glue the old key to the new one.

Here are some bits of advice for common-tone modulations:

  1. Keeping the common tone in the melody line improves the smoothness of the modulation.
  2. Try one key for your verse, and a new key for your chorus if you need to give your song a shot of energy. Moving back to the verse key should be a simple matter of doing the modulation in reverse. (Example: Verse: C  Am  F  Dm  G  || Chorus: Eb  Ab  Fm  Bb  Cm  Ab  Bb  G  || [back to verse]
  3. Consider modulation as a solution for singing a duet, where the two voices can’t sing the song in the same key.
  4. As mentioned, be careful with downward-moving modulations. They can sap energy. At the same time, if your song is more complex than a standard garden-variety pop song, you may enjoy the uniqueness of non-standard modulations.
  5. Modulations can come across as trite and corny if they’re done too often, in too many songs. If you use a modulation as a way of injecting something interesting in a song, be careful that you don’t do it again for a while.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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