The art of modulation or changing key is one that can be greatly enhanced by having a good visual representation of the harmony. If you can see where it is that you are trying to go, it makes it a lot easier to get there! Often key changes can sound unconvincing or contrived if they are not prepared properly, however, there are a few simple strategies that will make key changes sound fluid and natural. The golden rule for a standard modulation is that the new key should be preceded by its fifth. In a SeeChord chart, this simply means that the new key should be approached from above. Here is an example.
There are two “key changes” in this extract from “We are the Champions” by Queen. The first is a pretty normal looking modulation to Bb. This looks ideal as it is not only approached from above, but from two steps above. This is often referred to as a ii-V-I. The second modulation is far more unusual, mainly because it follows immediately from the first! Just as we feel we have arrived in Bb, we are whisked away to F. It would be far more conventional to start singing “We are the Champions” in Bb. However, convention never suits geniuses so another modulation is created. Notice that the second key change is also approached from above, thus giving us the perfect cadence or V-I that we need to make us feel we have arrived in the new key. If you have an instrument handy, you could try playing this passage without the C7 chord and hear how false the new key of F now sounds. Almost as important as approaching a key change from above is the use of the “Dominant 7th” chord. Let’s have a look at the extract from Queen again, this time noticing the use of the dominant 7th:
The dominant 7th chord always comes before the chord of the new key. To understand more about why this is so important, have a look at the chapter on cadences. If a perfect cadence is used in passing, as part of a sequence of chords, we may not be quite so convinced of the key change. Here is the excerpt from Autumn Leaves.
Here we have what looks like a modulation in the 2nd bar of the piece. Indeed it could be referred to as a temporary modulation. However it is not convincing precisely for that reason, that it occurs on a weak part of the phrase. Our ears are accustomed to hearing cadences and modulations at the ends of phrases, or joining the end of one phrase to the beginning of another as we saw in the extract from “We are the Champions”. If the same technique is used in the middle of a phrase, we do not attribute it the same importance. Of course, all this interpretation is happening subconsciously most of the time, which is why it is so crucial to get it right!
The second perfect cadence of this extract happens at the end of the phrase, and even though it is the first time in the piece we have heard that chord, we instantly know that it is the tonic or key of the piece.
It is therefore very important that significant key changes are both prepared by approching them “from above”, and that they are placed in the right place in the music.
Of course this is not the only way to do it… [seeChordViewer src=”/content/Application/Modulation/modulation6-viewer”]
This extract from Robbie Williams’ “Angels” shows the use of a plagal cadence to change key to Bmajor. In fact this entire sequence seems to go against the falling fifths theory of writing music. This chord sequence does not sound unusual, in fact it is a real heartstring puller. The sense of rising up the SeeChord chart reflects rising through the fifths, and can be a highly effective way of creating a fresh feel to a song.