A Modulating Holiday!

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Modulation – the process of changing key centre (key signature)

The other day I was talking with an intermediate student of mine who was debating how to go about changing key and what key should he move to. He was too concerned with the “preconceived expectation” according to a specific genre. This is a common point of angst.

My view is that we should not follow a certain protocol just because we assume other people expect it. I accept there are certain formulae in pop writing for example which enable the listener to  know when and where certain events will happen, even if they don’t know how they happen – this is nothing new, this internal coding was common throughout the baroque and classical periods. However, the way in which music has bulldozed through boundaries spawning new entities along the way, especially over the last century, should allow one to concentrate on stamping his or her authority and personality on the music regardless of supposed protocol. Music should be about fulfilling your own personal objectives – it should be partly selfish – you should be voicing your own sentiment and if the time is right to have a change of key centre, just because you want to, then so be it! Of course, one should still consider the balance within a musical structure, the unfolding of a story, the creation of mood etc, but ultimately, if the hat fits, then it fits!!!

There are so many ways of getting from A to B – literally. There is no “correct” way although some are more appropriate or sensitive to the mood that is being set than others. Putting it simply, there are essentially two modulation campsprepared and unprepared. I’ll discuss these later!!

So, back to the student……. I thought about his conundrum for a second, then for some inexplicable reason, the weird parallel of  planning a holiday jumped into my head. The off the wall reasoning that followed really seemed to hit home and help him with his dilemma, so I thought I would include my mad notion as a blog subject. And here it is…… read on if you dare!!

Holiday Time

As I was saying, modulating in music can be a bit like going on holiday except in this hypothetical scenario, we can avoid the problem of cost i.e. money. In this context we can go anywhere we want.url

The sort of planning, questions and travel considerations related to going on holiday are comparable to those relating to the shifting of key centre.

The raison d’être of modulation is to musically “leave home and go on a refreshing break” after which you can return home to resume normal duties!!

Holiday questions you should ask yourself

  1. Where are you going to?
  2. How far away is it?
  3. How long will it take to get there?
  4. How will you choose to get there?
  5. How long will you stay there?
  6. Will you come back via the same route? (or will you find an alternative one?)
  7. Will you like it so much, that you’ll choose to return again and again, or even emigrate for good?

tropical_island-t1As this holiday is going to equate to a musical journey, let’s then assume you are taking someone with you. After all, that is the whole point of music – you want to transport other people via a listening experience – and for them to enjoy it.

You are in control of their experience, because their experience is your experience!

How are you going to entertain them and keep them interested during the musical journey? One way of sustaining interest is through the introduction of new musical events. Modulation is most certainly a strong candidate for grabbing the attention!

Let’s revisit the two modulation camps

Prepared or Unprepared?

Prepared – planned scenic route with points of interest – passing through other counties/countries en route to the destination.

  • Musically this equates to passing through different key centres en route to the new key centre.

Unprepared – direct – because the journey bypasses everything in between – it is straight from point A to point B.

  • Musically this would equate to moving directly into the new key centre without any kind of voice leading i.e. melodic or harmonic preparation (guiding the ear smoothly from A to B)

The Journey

Long Journey = distant key centre

  • You might take a plane to make the journey as quick and straight forward as possible (direct modulation – high impact, strong contrast, abrupt),
  • or plan your route via car to elongate the travel experience visiting new places en route (different kinds of prepared modulation – smooth – mild contrast due to “layered” preparation)

Short journey = close related key centre PREP MAP

  • One can also go direct or take a planned route
  • Generally not as much preparation is required

Key centre relates to the notes of either a major scale or a minor scale.

  • When comparing the notes of two scales, the more notes in common there are, the closer their perceived relatedness – Less journey time (distance) between them!

Why do you go on holiday? – Why should you need to modulate?

  1. To change your mood – (to alter/enhance the emotion that has been set initially)
  2. To have some fun and discover something new – (introduction of new events in a new key)
  3. To get away from the routine of your normal life pattern – (to experience contrast)

Where are you going to? – What key centre are you moving to?

You can basically go anywhere you like (to any key from any other key) – as far away to a country on the other side of the world, or a close hop to a neighbouring country.

Much depends on the kind of holiday you want. (How much contrast do you want to create?)

A completely different climate, culture – a sense of real adventure! Transporting you away from the daily rigours of life – a complete change to what is the norm.Safari holiday

  • In music, this would relate to shifting to a distant key – an unrelated scale.
  • From C Major to Eb Minor for example (only two shared scale tones)

Or just a long weekend away to charge the batteries. This might even be in the same country (just a different county), or a neighbouring country.

  • A close key signature or related scale
  • From C Major to F Major (six shared scale tones)

The above scenarios in terms of holiday content would also identify with and relate to specific differences in rhythm and compositional complexity. The choice of rhythmical and tonal elements would suggest either action and adventure, or tranquillity and relaxation.

How far away is it? – How related is the new key centre to your home key?

How far away is the destination? This means you have to think about how you will get there and the amount of time it will take.

  • Moving to a closely related key centre doesn’t require much preparation.
  • Moving to an unrelated key centre incorporating a shift from major to minor, or the reverse, might require a lot of preparation if you don’t want a bumpy ride.

Preparation = planning your journey! (see “How will you choose to get there?)

How much transitional preparation will it require?

  • Do you want the ear to be led smoothly? Through sympathetic harmonic/melodic progression

Will it need a lot of preparation?

  • Will you need to cycle through a number of different key centres to prepare the ear for the change if it is to an unrelated key?

What will you need to take with you to make the transition pleasant and more agreeable?

  • How will you lead the ear? What types of chords, suspensions or motifs/gadgets could you use to help you?

Some people like familiarity even on holiday, no matter how far away they travel 

They choose to eat the same food, or follow a similar “home routine”. Or, they purposefully don’t travel too far from home because they want to enjoy a similar climate, social conditions and culture etc. or they require linguistical simplicity!

  • Musically this suggests that you could transport the same elements (or variations of them) relating to rhythm, melody or harmony to your destination key.

Some people like a complete change of scenery on holiday

  • This would suggest the exploration of completely new material in a new key.

How long will it take to get there? – How many key centres will you choose to pass through?

How long it will take depends on the kind of destination you have chosen and your preferred mode of transport!

Another consideration would be the length of your piece of music and does it allow a long or short modulation?

  • If you are writing a 3½ minute pop song, it is unlikely that you will incorporate a long modulation path for the bridge between the verse and the chorus – there isn’t the time……
  • If you are writing a classical piece, or an experimental arrangement that is more than 15 minutes long, you will have more scope and time to explore longer and more meandering paths of travel between keys.

Does the amount of time you will spend at your destination warrant a short or long journey?

  • If you only spend a short time (say a limited number of bars) at the destination key before returning home or moving on somewhere else, it may create a sense of imbalance to have a long modulation path.
  • One always has to retain balance – an organised structure (unless you are doing very free improvised music – the equivalent of taking a backpack and seeing where your feet take you!)

If it is a long journey, how will you make that journey more enjoyable?

  1. Take short breaks – food stops, brief visits of local villages (introduce new motifs, sounds or textures, or change the rhythmic elements that provide new forms of punctuation and surprise)
  2. Take some familiar things with you in case of boredom (i.e. motifs and recognisable elements/events, whether melodic, harmonic or recognisable rhythmic patterns from a previous section etc.)

How will you choose to get there? – What types of chords/harmonic path and transitional speed will you choose?

How you choose to get there also depends on the amount of adventure you want to build? Part of the excitement of going on holiday is the anticipation of it – the build up to actually going.


Taking a plane is the fastest and most direct means of arriving at your destination. However, you won’t see the journey. There is no experience other than getting from A to B.

E.g. you leave a cold wet and windy morning behind in London and step out of the plane on a hot and very sunny tropical island!! There was no graduated transition between the two – it was sudden – but very welcome.

  • This would translate to a direct and unprepared modulation – the contrast between key centres appears very different – it has a high impact.

Taking a plane doesn’t necessarily involve long travel i.e. going to unrelated destination keys. You can take a plane from London to Manchester (translates to moving quickly between closely related keys).

  • Plane travel is about speed – arriving at the destination as quickly as possible.

Taking a train or coach would be longer in journey time but would allow the journey to be more interesting in terms of the things you will see as you travel between points A and B.

This also suggests that you are dictated to in terms of route choice. You are a passenger, not the driver. The coach company has chosen the route.

  • This might relate to using certain modulation tricks involving particular types of cadence or other transitional devices, relative and parallel keys,  the circle of fifths, chromatic and stepwise sequences etc………..
  • This may also involve influence i.e. someone else’s planning – so perhaps some kind of pastiche of a tried and tested harmonic progression towards the destination i.e. very recognisable patterns to create a sense of familiarity.
  • This is not direct and incorporates some form of preparation.
  • Speed is not the priority, so perhaps this mode of travel is a compromise between convenience, points of interest and speed.

Taking the car is the freest mode of transport.

You are driving, you choose the route and how many towns (or other countries) you pass through en route to your destination.

This is very prepared in terms of following a path, but the path is entirely devised by you.

  • You have chosen this path because you want the most interesting voyage possible. You are looking for originality! A unique experience that you couldn’t get via booking with a travel agent!!
  • You choose the path from chord to chord, the type of chord quality, inversion/voicing and the key centres that are visited along the way – not forgetting how many beats/bars you invest in each chord.
  • Is there a melodic “red line” guide marked on the map?
  • Every little deviance or embellishment is your responsibility.
  • You can create lots of little surprise visits on the way – create a new Michelin guide!!

How long will you stay there? – How many bars of new key centre material?

  1. What is your purpose for going on holiday in the first place? – (What type of contrast do you require?)
  2. What have you planned to do whilst you are there? – (How do you fulfil the desired contrast? What elements will you use?)
  3. How long before the holiday “feel good” factor wears off? – (Don’t overplay your hand! Don’t use novelty for novelty’s sake – make sure every detail serves a purpose and is not outstaying it’s welcome!! What is it’s true impact value?)

Remember, you don’t want the holiday to be over too quickly, neither do you want it to drag on for too long

  • This also relates to the overall duration of the piece and how you maintain a sense of balance and perspective relating to structural form.
  • Another important factor is the establishment of new material or the recycling of material used in a previous part i.e. a direct translation but in a new key(including any variation devices).

Will you come back via the same route? (or will you find an alternative one?)

  • Most people, if taking a plane, buy a return ticket and come back the same way from the same airport – directly
  • You might like to have a change – thinking about it, not many people want to return to the hum-drum working life that awaits them after their holiday, so any way to extend the holiday in terms of travelling back via a different route to make the journey sweeter might be welcome.
  • This aspect is time and mood reliant.

Will you like it so much, that you’ll choose to return again and again, or even emigrate for good?

Will your choice of holiday destination be so empowering and idyllic that you won’t want to return, or indeed need to return?

  • You can modulate as many times as necessary – either to different key centres, or you can keep returning to the same key centre. 
  • Modulation can be temporary or permanent.
  • If the energy created through transition needs to be retained, then remaining in the new key could be sufficient to sustain it. It depends on the level of intensity required – emotional intensity can be uplifting or dramatically sombre.
  • Many pieces of music start out in one key centre and finish in another. There is no prerequisite that demands you to return to the original key centre.
  • CONTRAST is not only achieved by modulating – modulating is just one of many ways in which contrast can be created.


As with anything in life, what we do and how we do it should be down to personal choice. We should never feel obliged to do something that we don’t want to do and this includes doing something musically that doesn’t fit our artistic vision?


I hope my light-hearted quirky view throws a “change of key” (ouch) on how you approach modulation…… AND REMEMBER, you DON’T have to go on holiday if you don’t want or need to……. 😉

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