Crude modulations vs. subtle and deft modulations

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by dead of night, Jan 19, 2015.

  1. dead of night

    dead of night Member

    Feb 26, 2007
    Hi, I'm watching a video about the music of The Beatles, linked on the Sound Hound forum in the "Chord Structures of the Beatles" thread, and the narrator speaks of the rich and subtle modulations found in the song, Penny Lane.

    He then plays the song, Danny Boy, which contains what he calls crude and awkward modulations.

    Barring what they call the "truck driver's modulation," what do you think is the difference between a skillful modulation and a less sophisticated modulation?

    Can you give harmonic examples of each, with special emphasis on how to make subtle, sophisticated modulations?
  2. kinmike

    kinmike Supporting Member

    Jan 9, 2008
    Not really answering your question but one of the finest modulations out and back is New Kid in town. Starts and ends in E but modulates to G for one verse. This is one of the best I ever heard. Another good one is Hungry Heart by Springsteen (maybe stolen from Kid by Pretenders) where it goes from C to E then back to C. They modulate back on the 5 (B chord) sliding a half step back to C. Very effective.
  3. JonR

    JonR Member

    Sep 24, 2007
    I think of two kinds of modulation:
    1. Abrupt - no preparation
    2. Smooth - prepared using transitional chords, and/or pivot chords.

    The first one can sound clumsy, but is more often surprising in a good way. It occurs in rock often. The Pretenders' Kid is an example, where it goes straight into E major in the guitar solo, following a stock sequence in C (C-Dm-F-G7). The lead guitar makes the most of it by soloing in E major pentatonic, to really highlight the change. (Unlike Hungry Heart, the song stays in E, so the verse is a major 3rd higher when it returns.)

    The second is the traditional method, and the commonest way is to introduce the V of the new key at some point, which sets up an expectation (prepares the ear) for the change. The ii or IV of the new key often appears before the V too.
    This is not necessarily "sophisticated", IMO, because it's so familar it can sound cheesy. Nor is it particularly "skilful", once you know the rules.
    But there are other smooth methods, using pivot chords or shared tones (between keys or neighbouring chords).

    One vintage example of the "V of new key" method - which also results in rise of a major 3rd, with the song playing out in the new key - is "Needles and Pins" by Jackie deShannon.
    It starts in C (the Searchers' cover was in A), the bridge plunges down from G to E major - so the same change, on the face of it, as "Kid" - but we hear it as maybe the V of the relative minor, Am (which is a common change in pop music). But then it descends in whole steps to D, then C (huh? back to C?), finishing on B major. That, in turn, now sounds like we're going to get a modulation to E minor (an E-D-C-B root movement being a stock "Andalusian cadence in E minor)). Instead, it goes in to E major, with the song playing out in the new key (as with "Kid").
    So it's definitely a prepared modulation, and it's "sophisticated", IMO, because of the ambiguous hints we get on the way (are we going to A minor? or maybe E minor?).
    The move up a major 3rd has the same effect as in "Kid", however - an enhanced brightening of mood, more passionate energy injected, because of course the singers have to move nearer the top of their range. (And in "Needles and Pins" it contrasts with the effect of that bridge, which seems - at the peak of intensity - to be dropping us down a dark hole as those chords descend - but then we emerge into the E major "sunlight" at the end.)

    The so-called "truck-driver's gear change", a rise of a half-step, has the same effect of injecting energy, but more like a rough kick in the ass, or a dig in the ribs (or, er, a truck driver's gear change I guess...); it always sounds as if the composer (or arranger) is worried the song is getting boring at that point, and "aagh help! OK let's shove it up a half-step".
    Once in while it is done effectively, even subtly. Eg, you get it towards the end of "I Been Loving You Too Long", where a sudden bVI (F in key of A) chord becomes V of the new key (Bb), and - probably because of the slow, impassioned ballad tempo, and Otis's subtle, nuanced vocal - it just turns up the anguish a useful notch. They tease us that they're about to do it again, with a bVI from the new key (Gb), but no, it just cycles the Bb and Gb to fade... not just a neat nod and wink from the composer, but also usefully underlining the theme: "I been loving you too long, I can't stop now" (dammit I can't (or won't) make this progression resolve, and we're just gonna have to let these two incompatible chords tussle it out forever, while the horns pile on the torment....;)).

    In comparison the TDGC was employed with sheer chutzpah in Bobby Darin's version of Mack The Knife, where the key moves up a half-step five times (every verse, after verse 2). I'm not sure you'd call the effect "sophisticated", but neither is it crass; it's like a gag.

    The modulations in "Penny Lane" are actually fairly crude in terms of their transition chords - they just shove in the V of the next key in the final bar of each section.
    The "richness and subtlety" (IMO) comes in other effects, in particular the use of parallel minor - the B major of the verse slips into B minor after just 3 bars. And then the lazy, drunken-sounding chorus horn lick (with its G natural) makes us think we could be in D major, not the opening A major (the sequence being V-I-V-I, rather than I-IV-I-IV); the transitional F# at the end works as V of Bm, the natural vi chord in D major (or indeed ii in A major)- but of course takes us back to the B major of the verse.
    (And then at the end, when they repeat the chorus, they keep that final F# chord to lead into a chorus in B, a whole step higher. Again, that's not "sophisticated", it's very simple; but still a neat idea.)

    Two of my favourite key changes are "Rose of Cimarron" by Poco and "Captain of Her Heart" by Double.
    "Rose of Cimarron" plays with the idea of relative and parallel minor: begins in G major; slams straight into Bb major, but then quickly into an implication of G minor (relative minor), whose V chord (D) eventually takes back (smoothly) into G major (parallel major).
    G major section:
    |G - - - |Bm - - - |C - - - |G - - - | (x2)
    Bb major section (or is it G minor?)
    |Bb - - - |Gm - - - |D - - - | (x3)
    |Bb - - - |Gm - - - |A - - - |D - - - | (-> G)

    - and notice the neat feint of the A major chord, making us think for a second (Gm-A?) we might be going into D minor. But no, A is a secondary dominant: V of D (V of G minor or major).

    "Captain of Her Heart" contains a beautifully mysterious sounding modulation:
    Listen out for 1:00.... and then at 1:40.

    The intro is Db6 (Bbm7/Db), but slips into Bb minor (relative minor) for the verse vocal. Mostly aeolian, apart from the major IV from dorian at one point (Eb7, on "she felt it drifting away").
    Then at 1:00 - without warning - the Bbm7 chord goes into C major. So the keynote goes up, but the harmonic material (Bbm7 = Db6) suggests a half-step descent - while the tonal change is from minor to major, of course.
    Minor to major is a common "brightening" effect at the beginning of a chorus, but they add a whole load of subtle surprise by the change to an unrelated keynote.
    However, the other chords in the C major section, after the Am7, all come from C minor (Ab and Bb), which darkens the mood again. (IOW, while it's clearly "in C", they keep the major-minor distinction ambivalent.)

    What happens at 1:40 is clever (again), because the final chord of the C major section (Bb6) returns to the Bbm7/Db (Db6) of the intro. So a rise of a minor 3rd in the bass, with harmony suggesting a simple parallel major-minor change: Bb and F are shared tones, while D drops to Db and G rises to Ab. (Diatonically, a rise of a minor 3rd in the bass usually means a change from a minor to a major chord; this change kind of forces the reverse.)

    IOW, a possible tip for "how to make subtle, sophisticated modulations" is to think about:
    (a) parallel and relative major/minor relationships (eg C->Am->A major->F# minor etc, or C->C minor->Eb major->Ebm, etc);
    (b) shared tones between chords that seem, on the face of it, unrelated (from different keys).
    David Bowie and Radiohead have a few examples of this kind of thinking. Eg, Bbm and A major share a note (Db=C#); so maybe we can change from one to the other, holding that note across to make sense of it?
    Naturally, we would try out that kind of thing, check that (a) we like the sound of it, and (b) it's the right sound for the song we're writing. (Great songwriters always use effects that illustrate or enhance the theme or mood of the lyrics.)
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2015
  4. dead of night

    dead of night Member

    Feb 26, 2007
    Thank you very much, kinmike and Jon.
  5. stevel

    stevel Member

    Apr 6, 2008
    Hampton Roads, Virginia
    This is one of those things that, in an otherwise kind of, dare I say, forgettable song (from the verse at least), makes me remember it. I remember the chorus but I would have never remembered this song had you not posted it and I certainly would have never remembered the band name and if anyone asked me for Double's hit, I wouldn't get it.

    But this is the exact kind of thing that makes my ears prick up and take notice. And it's why I still like this song - or that part - today. It's why the Gesualdo and Strauss examples I posted in the other thread sound so, as you said, beautifully mysterious sounding. They're standard vocabulary, used in an interesting grammatical manner (like Yoda speak it might be).
  6. dewey decibel

    dewey decibel Supporting Member

    Apr 12, 2005
    we eat a lot of cheese and drink a lot of beer
    I feel what makes a modulation smooth or not has much to do with voice leading or a melody. Even that half step thing you guys are talking about can sound smooth if you lead into it right.

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