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Modulation…key changes within songs

December 13, 2012


You might think that Modulation is a pretty big word but, modulation is simply arranging a song to include a key change.  You might start the song in G, but change to A after the first verse.  If you feel like the word “modulation” is a little pretentious, you can just call it “key change.”

But why do we modulate?  Lots of reasons.  I’d suggest that the most “legitimate” reason is to introduce drama into the arrangement.  Ok, but why would we want to introduce drama?  Well, the plot might be starting to thicken in the second verse (for example).  It could be the verse where Johnny gets Pretty Polly down to the banks of the Ohio to see how long she can hold her breath underwater.  There’s a musical tension that we feel when the key suddenly jumps up a whole step from G to A, when Little Sadie is being stabbed or when Mary mysteriously evaporates in the back seat of the car.

But there can be practical reasons to modulate.  What if the guitar player knows a break in G and the sax player knows a break in Bb?  One well-known example is Hot Burrito breakdown.  This 30-year-old Country Gazette tune, changes from G to A and then back to G again.  Why?  Because the banjo and mandolin players had good solos worked up in G while the fiddle played it in A.  The sound of the “key change” wakes up the listener and keeps the arrangement alive.  It alerts the listeners that the next instrument is coming.

But how do we modulate?  Glad you asked.  This is where the creativity comes in.  You can change from one key to another simply by starting the next round in another key, or you can create a mini chord-progression that becomes a transition from the original key to the new key.  In Hot Burrito Breakdown, the transition from G to A was done by chromatically walking from G to A.  In other words: G, G#, A.  After the fiddle solo (in A) they simply reversed that idea by playing A, Ab, G.  If the key change goes from G to C (perfect 4th),  you could play G, G7, C.  Playing a G7 is a common transition when going from G to C, so why not use it when you’re modulating?”

How about Legend of the Rebel Soldier?  This Country Gentlemen Classic uses a different key for each of the three verses.  The sound of the musical pitch rising before each new verse enhances the drama of the story.  As a matter of fact, it’s the rhythm guitar of Charlie Waller that’s the beauty of this arrangement and the employment of Charlie’s rhythm guitar bass runs that tie the verses together.  Lets learn these two rhythm guitar bass runs from Legend of the Rebel Soldier.  The first verse is in G.  The bass run that takes the song from G to A is the following series of 8th notes starting on the 6th string: G, Gb, G, G#, A.  The second transition is from the 2nd verse (key of A), to the 3rd and final verse in the key of C.  The quarter note bass run starts on the open A-string, then B and C.  It’s simple and effective.

Another famous modulation that comes to mind is the Bob Wills classic San Antonio Rose” on the recording “Bob Wills for the Last Time.”  The twin fiddles played it in A (because that was the best key for the open strings of the fiddle), but the best key for the singer’s voice was Eb.  This created the musical problem, how do you transition from A to Eb?  I won’t tell you how they did it because I want you to figure that out yourself, but I will give you one hint.  (They devised a chord-progression of 4 chords). The result was a very appealing sound and everybody was happy.

So the next time your banjo player wants it in G, your singer wants it in A, and you (the guitar player) want it in C, don’t altercate…modulate.




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  1. tommy evans permalink

    I just finished arguing with a singer about 4 part harmony. He was musically correct in saying a man sings tenor barritone and bass. I have referred to 4 part harmony rarher it was a quartet quintet ensemble chior or chorus for 30 years and I have never had a problem with the point of understanding of sophrano, alto, tenor and bass until today. I was told I had to call it 1st tenor, 2nd tenor, barritone, and bass or I was musically incorrect. I refused to do that because I felt that this was unnecessary and stupid. He understood what I meant just like everyone else when I mention I want a man to sing sophrano or alto. It’s petty and stupid I think. Especially to not sing because of that. Plz expess you thoughts

    • in “legit” music, all those terms are referring to ranges. in “informal” music, those terms are referring to relationships. in other words: there are 2
      different definitions. in country, rock, bluegrass, folk, etc, baritone refers to the closest harmonizing tone below the melody. a C-chord is C, E, G. If the
      melody happens to be singing E, then the person sings C below it, is singing baritone. A person singing the G above the C, is singing the tenor. if the melody
      has 2 harmony parts above, first would be tenor, then above tenor would be high-baritone. if the melody has 2 parts below, the part directly below is the baritone,
      and the part below the baritone is the low-tenor. This is a very logical and useful terminology, but it is sharing a term. I have 6 harmony courses. Each have 2 CDs
      (or download). The courses have many example songs as well as theory discussions that teach you to figure out your own harmony parts. Your use of these courses will
      all you to fully understand the concepts and master the skill of harmony singing.

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