Budding songwriters and composers, listen up! Some of the most powerful moments in music occur when the song or piece shifts from one key to another, or modulates. A modulation usually takes the melody higher, and the trip to the new key can be as brief or extended as the composer chooses. It is a tricky technique that will take a lot of practice to master. To get started, follow this guide.
The first step is to decide which key to modulate to. The most common options are to modulate to the dominant (the key a fifth above the original key) or to the parallel major or minor (the key with the same key signature, but the opposite tonality). Use the chart below for easy reference; then see if you can make a similar chart starting with minor keys.
Original Key, Dominant Key, Parallel Key
C Major, G Major, A minor
G Major, D Major, E minor
D Major, A Major, B minor
A Major, E Major, F# minor
E Major, B Major, C# minor
B Major, F# Major, G# minor
F# Major, C# Major, Eb minor
C# Major, G# Major, A# minor
G# Major, D# Major, F minor
Eb Major, Bb Major, C minor
Bb Major, F Major, G minor
F Major, C Major, D minor
These options work well because the keys are closely related—they have many notes in common. You may modulate to any key you wish, but keep in mind that the more notes and chords in common between the two keys, the smoother the transition will be.
For a seamless transition, use a “pivot chord” as a bridge to the new key. The pivot chord should be one that is shared by both the original key and the key you are modulating to. For example, in C major, an A minor chord is “vi” (built on the sixth scale degree), and in G major, an A minor chord is “ii” (built on the second scale degree). The chord is common to both keys and can therefore be used to ease from C major in G major, as shown below. With the appearance of a D major seventh chord, which includes an F#, it is clear that the phrase has moved solidly into G major.
You may, however, want the key change to be noticeable, and in this case, no pivot chord is necessary. Applying the new key signature with no transition is called “direct modulation” and is a more bold approach. Use whichever type of modulation best matches the feeling you’re going for in your song or piece.
Understanding modulations is equally important to performers. For example, when preparing your set list, pay attention to the keys of the songs that are performed right next to each other. If the keys are not closely related, you may want to play a few intermediary chords between songs in order to “modulate” to the new key and readjust your audience’s ears.