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How To Use Modulations In Pop Songs

Modulations in pop songs…  Some people love ’em.  Some people can’t stand the sound of ’em.  I think that, well-used, they’re an incredibly powerful tool.

(I encourage you to listen to and play the examples below.  If you haven’t checked out these songs already, I guarantee you’ll add some cool songwriting tools to your kit.)

For the uninitiated, to modulate in a song is simply to change keys.

Here are the most common ways modulations occur –

1) Having a single key change (modulation) in a song (examples: ‘I Try’, ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’).  This is as much or more a part of arranging a song than of writing it.  It’s also the way that modulations are most misused, in a failed attempt to pump false excitement into a song that’s losing momentum.

2) Modulating when entering a new section of the song, and then modulating back when returning to the first section (‘Penny Lane’, ‘Layla’, ‘What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted’… this last one’s a bit more complex).

3) Having, within one section, a song change key briefly and then come back to its original key (‘Always’, ‘Rehab’).

4) Having the key center in constant motion (‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, many of the songs of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Walter Becker & Donald Fagen, aka Steely Dan).

5) There are also examples, very few, of songs that continue moving up in key with every new (repeated) section (I can think of ‘On Broadway’, ‘Mack The Knife’, ‘The Summer Wind’.  Also ‘My Generation’ by The Who does a version of this).  These are songs that have only one section, repeated over and over.  The constant modulations add movement and build to great songs that would probably be too static without the key changes.  These are the ‘exceptions that prove the rule’ (see above about ‘false excitement’).

Starting with #1 from above (one modulation per song), the well-known modulation into the last Chorus of ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ by Bon Jovi is extremely effective.  It makes a big jump – a minor 3rd –  that puts a final flourish to a song (and production) that’s already dynamic and exciting.

Macy Gray’s ‘I Try’ is more classic; it modulates up a half step.  The song is basically in ‘D’ (the Bridge moves around some) until the last Chorus, which is preceded by a big V chord (Bb) in the new key.  This takes us to a final blowout Chorus in Eb.

#2 involves putting each section of a song in a different key – for instance, the Verse in one key, the Chorus in another.  Examples include The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ – the Verse is in the key of ‘B’, the Chorus is in the key of ‘A’.  The sections go back and forth , each one ending with the V chord of the new key, but in such an organic way that it never feels like McCartney is setting up a key change… or even that there is a key change.  Very smooth.

‘Layla’ is unusual.  In the Derek and the Dominos version, the Chorus repeats |: Ebminor B | B Db :|.  That Db slips seamlessly into a ‘Dminor’ for the Verse (instead of the Chorus’s expected Ebminor – pretty wild).  Then when it goes back to the Chorus, the Ebminor is set up by a more conventional V chord.  But the way the song goes from Chorus to Verse, harmonically, is unique in my experience.

Thanks for reading this far!  We’ll continue this in coming weeks.

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13 responses to “How To Use Modulations In Pop Songs”

  • Steve Payne

    Pretty Ballerina also does this. Changes with the mood of the song. Several short tempo changes too.

  • Thanks for another well-written post full of useful information. How about “The Best Is Yet To Come”?

  • Another great post and topic Tony. Another really interesting song that incorporates modulation is “Heaven is a place on earth”, co-written by Ellen Shipley and Rick Nowels. Basically, the song modulates in the pre-chorus and then returns to the original verse key in the chorus. It really works nicely and gives the chorus a nice lift.

  • Wayne Somerville

    The use of modulation in “Don’t Worry Baby” is subtle but really gives a big lift to the chorus. It’s perfection!

  • […] « Older Post How To Use Modulations In Pop Songs (Part 1) […]

  • Joyce Rogers

    alot of homework on this one

  • adam

    how about the beach boys – god only knows? it’s quite interesting melodically and harmonically. what a great melody it is..

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