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Mirko's Musings
Lowering The Ladder:
or, how to use modulation in your songs to make them more powerful.
By Mirko Ruckels
1999 Mirko Ruckels. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission

Hey you! Yes, you! That's right, the rock guitarist with the big hair, and you...diminutive little person holding the flute, and you...songwriter/musician-person at PC or Mac, scrolling through the Muse's muse website in search of wisdom- here is my message: MODULATION is cool and you can use it in your songs.

Don't freak out- it's not horrible and complex and only for people with white powdered wigs (no, not high court judges stupido!), it only may seem that way, because your grade 7 music teacher had some power-stuggle issues, and enjoyed confusing and torturing students with overly complex examples of Bach.

First, I'm assuming that you've read my previous articles and sort of understand the concept of the harmonised scale. If you don't, you'll probably still understand most of this article, it's that simple. But make sure that you understand the concept of playing in one key (that is- just using the I,ii,iii,IV,V,vi and vii* chords if you're in major, or the i,ii*,III,iv,V,VI,vii* in minor), before you try to apply modulation in your songs.

Why do we need to modulate? Answer- to be really cool and make our songs sound like a million bucks, that's why. Some songs modulate, some songs don't, but it's a phenomenaly powerful tool to have at your fingertips. We looked at modal borrowing in the last article, and that is the start of modulatory procedures.

So tell me, why does 'we are the champions' by Queen sound so incredible and powerful? Because ladies and gentlemen, it uses modulation cleverly to highlight sections. Well, that's not the whole reason, it also has uses great lyrics (if somewhat bombastic!) great melodic phrasing, clever harmony and dynamics to get its message across, but modulation goes a long way to make a chorus JUMP out at you (and the A&R person listening to it).

What types of modulation are there?

There are three types.

1. Static modulation- this is the typical modulation you hear towards the end of some songs, when the chorus jumps up a notch- it's a pretty amateur technique, and can sound quite corny. It basically involves changing the key up or down at the start of a chorus to 'change gear'. It's effective for some songs, especially if you write country music.

2. Pivot chord modulation (or common-chord modulation)- this is what i will be focusing on. This is the really cool type of modulation that the classical composers used, not to mention the beatles, queen, U2, pink floyd, abba, even the spice girls! It involves finding two common chords in two different keys and using those chords to modulate through. (analogy- like lining up two different sized sheets of metal with holes in them in order to put a single screw through them both). Or another analogy is that of lowering a ladder from a higher place, allowing you to travel to it by the -link- it provides.

3. Chromatic modulation- this is a cool technique that involves altering a chord to turn it into another chord that belongs in another key- like using a modal borrowing, and then staying in the key from which you borrowed. An example is changing a ii chord of C (dm) to a II (D) by raising its third. It can then act as a new dominant (V), which would make it the dominant of G. This will lead you to the key of G.

Before we learn how to modulate, let's see where we can modulate to.

Remember the harmonised scale for C major?

C d e F G a bdim
I ii iii IV V vi vii*

Note to newbies- Once again, the upper case letters represent major chords, and the lower case ones are minor chords - get used to it folks. (the vii* is diminished- the * is usually a little circle- but i can't find a little circle on this keyboard!) Ok, this, ladies and gentlemen is the key of C. The dominant chords (V and vii*) have the strongest relationship with the tonic- so if you want to get back to C, most will go via the V.

Now, there are other keys that we can modulate to- "Which keys???? Heeelp me!!!" I hear you cry. Well, they're actually all in front of you already. You can modulate effectively to all the keys represented by the chords in the harmonised scale above. So, if you are in C, you can either go to d,e,F,G,a (but not bdim- it doesn't contain a perfect fifth, so it can't be a key).

Wow! That's a lot of keys...which one should i go to first?

The answer to that is- first, you shouldn't modulate too much- a good pop/rock song might have one modulation in it. Moduation to the dominant (V) or the subdominant (IV) or the relative minor (vi) if you're in a Major key are good places to visit. If you're in a minor key, modulation to the relative major (the III chord) or the dominant is effective.

Confused? That's ok. Read on-

Here's a progression.

C F em am dm G7 C
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Ok, play through it, and you'll notice it's purely in the key of C. It doesn't modulate.

Here's an example that modulates-

C F em am A7 D7 G
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Ok. the am chord is crucial in this modulation. It's called the pivot chord. It's where the pivot or connection to the next key begins (analogy-lining up the sheets of metal). You see, am is the vi chord in C major, but it's also the ii chord in G major (how do I know this? what's the letter after G in the musical alphabet?- it's a.

The key of Gmaj

G a b C D e fdim
I ii iii IV V vi vii*

Understand? Keys are seperate entities, organised in the same ways, and some have chords that are common between them.

Now that you've modulated to G, from C, you've got all those chords in the above diagram at your fingertips.

Read throught the entire article again if you don't understand. Don't worry if everything seems a little complex- you're learning a new language here- be patient, and give your brain time to soak it all up. Re-reading is the key.


Now if you understand all this to some extent, and you're ready, move on to the next example. It's a little more complicated than the last example.

Let's look at a real song this time- "We are the champions" by Queen. Queen (Freddy Mercury in particular) were heavily inspired by classical technique, and this example shows their strengths at modulation.

Let's clear somethings up first-
1.The verse is in dmin,
2. The chorus modulates to G Major.
OK, now let's look at how they do this.

The verse starts in d natural minor. Immediately, now that we know our harmonised scales, we can draw up the key of dmin.

d e F g A Bb c
i ii III iv v VI vii

(notice how the v is now minor instead of major? That's because we are using the natural minor scale, not the harmonic minor scale which we normally use)

Another note- Why is there a Bb instead of just a natural B? Because dmin (the relative minor or of F) has one flat in its key signature- so every B that we come across in the chords is flattened. Get used to it. Say out aloud- "The keys dmin and F have a Bb in the key signature" You're 1\12 of the way towards having memorised every single key in existence- congratulations.

Ok. The verse is a softly sung piano and voice passage. The progression is from dmin to amin (the dominant- but in a minor form- a modal borrowing from the natural minor scale)

dm(i) am(v) dm (i) am (v)

I've payed my dues          time after time

- the Eb is the III in the minor- so it's like you're fooling the ear by starting in major, and the playing a minor progression. The Ab goes well to the F, because it's a minor third apart and it mimics the minor third between the first two chords.


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