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Modulation in Music Theory: Examples & Explanation

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  • 0:02 Definition of Modulation
  • 1:29 Types of Modulation
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cathy Neff

Cathy has taught college courses and has a master's degree in music.

You can connect two thoughts with a conjunction, and you can connect two musical thoughts with a modulation. Learn how to move from one key to another using common chord, parallel, chromatic, enharmonic, common tone, and direct modulation.

Definition of Modulation

A conjunction in English is a device used to move smoothly from one thought to another without starting a new sentence. In music, there's a similar device called a modulation that lets you transition from one key to another; this can add variety and energy to musical pieces, keeping listeners' interest throughout. There are many different types of modulations; some of the major types are discussed in this lesson.

Let's look at some words and symbols we will use to discuss modulation. Here's a key that will help with the symbols:

key

All of the chords in a key are represented by Roman numerals. Capital letters refer to major chords, and small letters refer to minor chords. The chords have a function, and the most common are the tonic, which is a chord built on the first note of a scale (I or i); the subdominant, which is a chord built on the fourth note of a scale (IV or iv); and the dominant, which is a chord built on the fifth note of the scale (V or v).

When any three-note chord is in what's called root position, it looks like a snowman stacked neatly with a bottom, middle, and top, like the 'F' chord in the key above. Even if the snowman is mixed up, like the 'C' chord above, that's okay. It's the same chord.

Now we are ready to look at some different types of modulations.

Common Chord Modulation

The smoothest way to get from one key to another is to pivot on a chord that is common to both keys. Imagine a basketball player pivoting on one foot, looking for a shot. The method of using a pivot chord to modulate to a new key is called common chord modulation.

This example begins in the key of C major, and the G chord is the dominant chord (V). In the new key of D major, the G chord is the subdominant chord (IV); both keys have this chord in common. This example uses the G chord to pivot from the key of C major to the key of D major.

common chord modulation

Parallel Modulation

In a parallel modulation, the music moves from major to minor or vice versa without changing the tonic; so, for example, it modulates from C major to C minor, or F minor to F major, etc. These transitions are smooth because the tonic hasn't changed, but the shift from the bright tonal quality of the major key to the darker minor key and vice versa can be very dramatic.

Here is a parallel modulation from C major to C minor. Even though this modulation uses a common chord in both keys (G major chord), it is called a parallel modulation because the two keys share the same tonic.

parallel modulation

Chromatic Modulation

A chromatic note in music is the note that has been changed from the key it's in by an accidental, such as a sharp, a flat, or a natural. When a note is altered chromatically in the first key and it becomes part of the new key, it is called a chromatic modulation. Let's look at an example.

This example begins in the key of C major, but notice the top note in measures 3 and 4; it goes C - C# - D, and C# is not in the key of C major. There is no pivot chord; the C is altered, and we have modulated to D major.

chromatic modulation

Enharmonic Modulation

Every note in music can be called by different names, or 'spelled' differently, but it sounds exactly the same no matter how you spell it. For example, the note C sharp sounds exactly the same as D flat; it is just spelled differently. Two notes that sound the same but are spelled differently are called enharmonics. Chords can be enharmonics, too, such as a C sharp major chord and a D flat major chord: they 'sound' exactly the same, they are just spelled differently. When an enharmonic chord is used to move to a new key, it is called an enharmonic modulation.

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