Category Archives: Modulation

Modulation: An Introduction

math-compass-clipart-46820_compass_lgBasic definitions

Modulation – moving from one key to another – occurs in many forms of music. In classical music, it is often an important dramatic feature, and is a structural element in certain musical forms (especially sonata and rounded binary form). Like modulation, tonicization implies another key as a tonal center; the difference is that a modulation is confirmed through a cadence in the new key. A key or chord may be tonicized in the middle of a phrase, with no cadence to confirm it as a modulation.

There are two basic methods of modulation: pivot and direct.

  • A pivot modulation is found in the middle of a phrase when one harmony or a single pitch is “reinterpreted” to function in each of two keys.
  • A direct modulation tends to be found when a new phrase suddenly begins in a new key. There may be one or more turnaround chords (explained below) that soften the transition between keys. Turnarounds are not technically “pivot chords” since they do not occur in the middle of a phrase.

Continue reading Modulation: An Introduction

Key Modulation: Elgar’s “Moths and Butterflies”


Learning to follow key changes is not easy for many students, especially when they are asked to locate modulations themselves and distinguish between different methods of modulation. Here is a step-by-step guide that uses a charming example of Romantic music: Edward Elgar’s Moths and Butterflies from The Wand of Youth Second Suite. More practice is also available on this site in “Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.”

Step One: Get to know the music

Begin by hearing a recording [here’s one on YouTube] while reading the sheet music [it’s on — Moths and Butterflies is the third movement]. Please note that this piano reduction has two mistakes! The right hand chord on beat 1 of bar 3 should have a D♯, not a C♯. In that same bar, the left hand should return to bass clef; its two notes are both E, and the bass clef continues until treble is restored in bar 5 as shown.

Continue reading Key Modulation: Elgar’s “Moths and Butterflies”

Decoding the “Love On Top” Modulations

For the last few years, whenever I teach modulations, the song “Love On Top” (Beyoncé Knowles/Terius Nash/Shea Taylor) is brought up by students. It’s a modulating tour-de-force insomuch as it moves through five keys with surprising swiftness, and it doesn’t hurt that modulations like this are uncommon in R&B.

As impressive as it is, there’s just one trick used four times. Here’s how it goes.

Continue reading Decoding the “Love On Top” Modulations

Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

I find that students often feel “thrown into the pool” when confronted with analysis of modulations in a full piece of music. It is one thing to describe modulations in the context of a short passage (especially when it is in a simple chord-by-chord format, as it was for most of my undergraduate theory education), and another thing altogether when in the context of real, textured music.

To bridge this gap, I offer this “play-by-play” analysis using an example from the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Here’s a PDF of the sheet music, which is in a piano reduction by the composer Paul Dukas. We’ll be looking at bars 39-76, which begin in the fourth bar of the third system of page 3. Here it is as a jpg, too (click to enlarge).

Continue reading Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Modulation: Don’t Believe What You’ve Been Told!

I love teaching modulation, but I am not satisfied with the common approaches to teaching it. We used to use Kostka & Payne at WCU (my experience with this book stops at the fifth edition, which is what I quote below), which is the text I learned from as a student. They seem to represent the consensus, that there are two kinds of modulation-by-pivot techniques:

Pivot modulations

Modulation by common chord. This is always taught first, which reveals a bias toward classical practice. It gets lots of ink in the textbook because it is something that can be broken down into steps and explained ad nauseum. The technique is to find the first harmony that works for the new key (usually its dominant) and back up to find the pivot harmony that works equally well in both keys. Students hate this… they never can remember that a common chord is common to both tonalities. But who can blame them? To a listener, the modulation begins with a chromatic shift. Continue reading Modulation: Don’t Believe What You’ve Been Told!