Using Abrupt Modulations to Generate Song Energy

Changing key quickly and with no warning adds a layer of excitement to your music.

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From the April 22, 2013 Songwriter’s Quick-Tips Newsletter:

PianistA modulation is the technical term for a change of key. Most songs will start and end in the same key. But occasionally the key will be changed, usually as a way of injecting a sense of excitement or variety. Modulations need to be carefully constructed so as to avoid being trite or confusing.

Many modulations make use of what is called a “pivot chord.” That’s a chord that can be “seen” to be in the old key, but also as a chord from the new key. Here’s an example, with the pivot chord underlined and in bold. This progression begins in C major and ends in D major:

C  F  Dm  G  A7  D

The G chord can be seen to be a member of both the old key of C major – as a V-chord -and as a member of the new key of D major – as a IV-chord.

The benefit of a pivot chord is that it helps to smooth out the transition from the old key to the new. But you can create an added layer of musical excitement by using an abrupt modulation.

An abrupt modulation, just as the name implies, is a key change that happens without prior notice or preparation. It just… happens suddenly, with no pivot chord that helps to connect the two keys. Here’s an example of a progression that starts in C major, and then modulates to Eb major:

C  F  C  F G  F  C |Eb  Ab  Eb  Ab  Bb  Ab Eb

You’ll notice a few things about this progression, and the modulation in the middle:

  1. The new key (Eb major) uses the same progression as the old one, simply transposed a minor-3rd higher.
  2. The progression is rather unadventurous, only using a combination of I-, IV- and V-chords.
  3. There is no “warning” in the original C-major part of the progression that a modulation is about to occur.

This, of course, is not the only way to use an abrupt modulation. There is no rule that states that the new key must feature the same progression. Neither is there any rule that states that in order for a modulation to work, the chords have to be simple and unadventurous.

But I use that progression to illustrate one of the important reasons we might use an abrupt modulation: to add excitement to an otherwise mundane progression. You could have written a song that features only three different chords – and many songs do. But by modulating, you create a new level of musical excitement.

So let’s say you’ve written a song where the verse progression consists of a simple set of chords (C F C G) played 4 times before moving on to the chorus. You might try moving the second and fourth phrase up a minor third:

C  F  C  G |Eb  Ab  Eb  Bb  |C  F  C  G  |Eb  Ab  Eb  Bb

What you’ve done is you’ve found a way to sing the same musical phrase 4 times, using a modulation to make it sound like each phrase is fresh and new.

In your experimenting with this technique, try abruptly modulating to other keys: Up a minor or major second, or up a perfect 4th.

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

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