May 22, 2023

Rocksmith Reference: What is modulation?

Music is a universal language that has the power to evoke emotions, make us relax, and even boost our cognitive abilities. Whether it's a catchy pop song or a classical symphony, every song has the ability to take us on a journey.

One of the techniques that composers and songwriters use to create this emotional journey is modulation, which is the process of changing keys or changing the tonal center of a piece of music during the song. Modulation involves moving between closely related keys, like the dominant chord or the relative minor based on the circle of fifths, to create depth.

Common chord modulations include moving from C major to D major via an E minor chord, or E major to F major via the B major chord. These are examples of modulation within a major key --- however, modulation can also take place in a minor key.

Imagine playing along with a song when the familiar chord progression suddenly switches gears, sending the song into a new key. As you scramble to follow the new chords, you realize that few if any of them are the same as the chord progression you'd played moments before.

Modulation is a fundamental aspect of music theory that's essential for all music lovers and students to learn about. In this article, we'll explore modulation, its different types, and its role in creating musical compositions that can move and inspire us.

What Is the Function of Modulation?

Modulation is a crucial and thrilling function in music, allowing composers and songwriters to create a sense of movement, variety, emotional depth, and satisfaction within a piece with one easy key change.

By transitioning a song from one given key to another, the songwriter uses modulation to create an emotionally satisfying moment in the piece. It can also be used to add contrast to different sections of a piece, creating a sense of interest and engagement for the listener. Modulation is an essential tool for composers and songwriters, allowing them to create works that are both dynamic and emotionally resonant.

What Types of Modulation Are There?

Modulation works by moving from one key to another one within the same song. More than simply borrowing a chord or two from another key, modulation is a change that lasts for a significant amount of musical time.

There are several types of modulation, each with its unique characteristics and techniques. Understanding the different types of modulation can give us a deeper appreciation of how music inspires us, whether you're learning the guitar or preparing to compose your first symphony. It's possible to modulate more than once in the same song, but each key change needs to last for at least a few measures.

While you can modulate from one key to the next in different ways, some are simpler than others. The simplest is a hard cut; one chord progression resolves in the old key; the next one picks up in the new key. Another straightforward way to modulate is to choose a chord that both keys have in common and pivot around that chord; doing so makes it possible to change keys in the middle of a phrase.

In this section, we will explore some of the most common types of modulation in music and examine how they are used to create different effects and moods.

Direct Modulation

Direct modulation is a type of modulation in music where the key of a song is changed abruptly without any transitional chords or sections. In other words, the music jumps directly from one key to another in this example of modulation.

This type of modulation can create a sense of surprise or intensity in the listener and is commonly used in pop and rock music to catch the listener off guard, which, according to studies, may be the most satisfying form of key change.

Direct modulation can also be used to create a feeling of closure or resolution in a song, especially when used toward the end of a piece. While direct modulation may seem abrupt, it can be an effective technique for creating a strong emotional impact in a piece of music.

Pivot Chord Modulation

Pivot modulation is a type of modulation in music where a chord or melodic note is used as a common point between two different keys. Essentially, the pivot chord or note bridges the two keys, allowing for a smooth transition between them.

Pivot modulation can be used to create excitement and build up in a song without the harsh, abrupt edge of direct modulation. It is a common technique in classical music and can also be found in jazz and pop music.

[RS+] News RSD - RS Reference 7 - Modulation - pivot chord

Pivot chords are a way to bridge between two related keys. Because a pivot chord has the same notes in two keys, it can be the chord that ends one chord progression while also being the chord that begins another. In the example above, A-minor is the pivot.

Common-Tone Modulation

Common-tone modulation is where a single note or chord is shared between two different keys, and it acts as a common point between the two keys and allows for a smooth and subtle transition between them.

Unlike pivot modulation, where a chord or note serves as a bridge between keys, common-tone modulation uses a note or chord as a point of connection between keys, allowing the song to bounce from one to the other more than once. Common-tone modulation can be used to create a sense of unity and coherence in a piece of music and provide a subtle change in tonality.

Chromatic Modulation

Chromatic modulation is a type of modulation in music where the change of key occurs through chromatic movement, meaning that one or more pitches in the melody or harmony move by a chromatic interval (like by half steps).

This technique can create a sense of tension, drama, or uncertainty in the listener and is often used in music to add color or emotion.

Chromatic modulation is commonly used in classical music, especially during the Romantic period, and can also be found in jazz and popular music. Using chromatic modulation, composers can create a sense of rise and change in a song, like an emotional breakthrough or energy shift.

How Is Modulation Used in Different Genres?

Comparing the modulation techniques across genres can provide insight into how composers and songwriters use modulation to create different effects and moods in their works. Classical music tends to use modulation for dramatic effect, while pop music often uses it for an uplifting moment.

Meanwhile, jazz music uses modulation to improvise and explore different harmonic possibilities.


In classical music, modulation is often used to provide contrast between different sections of a piece. Composers of the Classical and Romantic periods often used key changes to build tension and create a sense of drama, utilizing common-tone modulation, pivot modulation, and chromatic modulation.

An example of a piece that utilizes modulation in classical music is Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, which modulates from C minor to E-flat major in the third movement.


Modulation is often used to create excitement and interest within a pop song. Pop songs may modulate to a higher key for the chorus to create a sense of uplift or to provide a sense of resolution for the listener. Direct modulation and chromatic modulation are techniques commonly used in pop music.


In jazz, modulation is often used to create a sense of improvisation and spontaneity. Jazz musicians may use modulation to explore different harmonic possibilities and create new musical ideas. Sequential modulation is a technique often used in jazz music.

An example of a jazz song that uses modulation is "It Only Happens When I Dance With You," recorded by Frank Sinatra, which modulates between different keys throughout the song.

What Songs Have Modulation?

Modulation serves different functions in a song depending on context. It can differentiate between sections of a song like verse and chorus; it can add harmonic interest by presenting the same idea listeners heard earlier in a new key; it can heighten the emotional impact of a section by presenting it afresh.

In pop music the final chorus often modulates upward by either a half step or a whole step; either modulation intensifies the excitement of the song. In Beyoncé's "Love on Top," modulating upward multiple times not only propels the repeated final chorus forward; it also makes the most of Beyoncé's wide vocal range.

The ending of Beyoncé's "Love on Top" modulates upwards four times. Not only do these modulations raise excitement in the song; modulating upwards also allows Beyoncé to feature the highest notes she can sing.

You may have also heard modulation in rock radio staples like Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" and "Surrender" by Cheap Trick. In both songs, the modulation makes it feel like the music "kicks up a notch." You don't need modulation to write a successful song but understanding how it works is a powerful addition to your musical toolkit. If you are playing through a song and you suddenly find yourself playing entirely different chords than what's come before, the song may have modulated. Being able to move seamlessly between two keys while you're playing opens new opportunities to play more challenging music and serves as another way to add interest to songs that you write.

"Poison" by Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper's "Poison" is a well-written rock anthem that features a key modulation, which is not a particularly common technique in hair metal songs. The modulation occurs during the guitar solo, where the song shifts from the original key of G minor to the key of G# minor, a half-step up.

The key change in "Poison" serves several musical purposes. First, it creates a sense of excitement as the shift to a new key creates a sudden change in tonal color that captures the listener's attention. Second, it helps to build the song's overall structure and progression, as the modulation marks a significant moment in the song's development, leading into the climactic guitar solo.

The modulation in "Poison" also highlights the guitar solo itself. By moving up to a new key, the solo takes on a different musical character, and the listener goes on a journey to a new tonal center that heightens the emotional impact of the guitar playing.

"I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston's hit song "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" is a great example of musical modulation, as the song features a key change that takes the excitement and energy of the track to the next level.

The song starts in the key of G major, which sets a joyful and upbeat tone for the song. However, as the song approaches the chorus, it modulates up a step to the key of A major. This key change is particularly effective because it happens at a moment in the song where the energy is already building. The upbeat drums and pulsing bass create a sense of anticipation.

The key change in "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" adds a new level of excitement to a song that is undeniably infectious and exciting. As the shift to a higher key creates a sense of lift and elevation, it helps to build the song's structure and progression, as the modulation leads into the climactic chorus, where Whitney Houston's soaring vocals take center stage.

The Bottom Line

Modulation is a powerful technique used in music to create a sense of movement, contrast, and emotional depth. It is a versatile tool used across various genres, from classical to pop to jazz, and can be applied in many different ways. Modulation can be used to structure musical forms, provide contrast between different sections of a piece, create tension and release, and highlight the emotional content of lyrics.

Famous composers throughout history have used modulation, demonstrating its importance and value in music composition. Understanding the different types of modulation and their functions in various musical genres allows us to gain a deeper appreciation of how music can be used to evoke emotions, tell stories, and connect with audiences on a profound level.

Whether you are a composer, musician, or music lover, modulation is a technique worth exploring and studying to enhance your understanding and appreciation of the art of music.


Psychological Benefits of Music | Very Well Mind

Uncertainty and Surprise Jointly Predict Musical Pleasure and Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Auditory Cortex Activity | Cell

Introduction to the Romantic Period of Music | Artsphere

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