More about modulations

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Many of you have written me emails about my last post where I sort of discouraged modulations and several of you had a similar theme.  Mods are good when upping the intensity such as the upward movement by a half step at the end of a song.  I get it and I agree.

I am more concerned about the fact that we go to that well too often rather than doing other things that might up the intensity.  After a while, it gets predictable and feels like a cliche.

Remember my favorite saying about cliche; it is not a cliche if you do it well.  And perhaps that is part of the problem.  When we do mods, we pianists need to find ways to do them more cleverly and less predictably.

I just recorded a DVD course on modulations a few weeks ago, so this is fresh on my mind.  The most common mod of course is to just play a V7 in the new key.  You can set up the V7 with a ii7 and other chords in front of that.  There is a real skill to making the mod sound like it belongs in the song even if you play the right chords.

The problem with that formula is that it does sound very predictable and cliche.  Some professionals jokingly call these mods “gear shift mods” because they have the feel of shifting to a higher gear.

One thing you can do is look for other pivot chords beyond the V7.  That is when things get clever.  Knowing how to do this requires knowledge of functional harmony, but the resulting mods are more interesting.

Here is a quick example.  A minor iv chord likes to resolve to the I or iii chord.  Let’s say you are in the key of C and play this progression in the song a few times:

C – Fmin6 – Emin

Then, let’s say you play C – Fmin6 again.  People will expect you to move back to Emin again.  But when you are on the Fmin6, treat it like the ii chord in the key of Eb.  A ii chord resolves to I, so move directly from Fmin6 to Eb.

That is how simple it is.  You are now in the key of Eb, and you did it without a gearshift mod.  In fact, when you play it, you may not think it sounds like a mod at all.

Great music written during the 20th Century does this kind of thing repeatedly.  You will see key changes within the song for just a few bars (without changing the key signature).  For example, a song I am currently working on typically starts in Eb.  When you get to the bridge, you play a few bars in G and then a few bars in Bb before returning to Eb.

If you know functional harmony, study that kind of music and you will start getting ideas.

As many people wrote me, mods can be a crutch for lazy pianists who can’t come up with interesting material, but they are great too.  I certainly would not say not to use them.  I would just say not to overuse them and try to find ways to use them more cleverly.

I will be working on that right with you.  My arrangements have typically been filled with too many gear shift mods.

By the way, in less than a month, you can buy that course on modulations and if functional harmony sounds like Greek to you, buy the course on reharmonization  as well.  I will announce when these are available.