Listening for Modulation

Daniel Stevens

So far, we have focused on strategies for identifying and internalizing the tonic pitch and the pitch collection. These elements provide the foundation for many of the musical relationships found in tonal music as well as how we perceive those relationships. As listeners, our expectation that scale degree 7/ti resolve to scale degree 1/do, that a melody will return to the tonic, or that harmonies within a key will be a particular quality every time they occur are all based on our perception of the tonic pitch and the pitch collection.

Given their foundational importance, it is always significant when the tonic note and pitch collection shift. Modulations are like musical earthquakes: they shift the tonal foundations established earlier in the piece, shaking every tonal relationship built upon them.

Modulations occur frequently in some genres and infrequently in others. No matter the context, modulations provide delightful challenges to listeners that invite them to explore the meaning of the music’s change.

Modulations occur when either the tonic or pitch collection changes. Modulations can occur only once in a long section, as is common in sonata-form expositions or operatic arias, or very frequently, as is typical of sonata developments and operatic recitatives. Knowing something about the genre can help you predict whether or not, and where, a modulation is likely to occur. Likewise, knowing where you are in the musical form can help you anticipate whether a modulation is likely to occur in the middle of a phrase or between phrases. As you listen, always be on the ready for both!

In this section, we will focus on developing the ability to hear that a modulation has occurred. In addition, we will learn some strategies for identifying the new (destination) key of a modulation.

As earth-shaking as modulations may be, they are surprisingly easy to miss when listening to pieces from the repertoire. In many cases, composers change only a single note to create a modulation, and modulations are common enough in certain styles that they may seem to blend in to the context. Keep all this in mind: when we listen for modulations, we have to know precisely what to focus on in the music to perceive that it has changed.

Let’s dive in! You may find that you have a decent intuition as to when the key changes. But if not, or to refine that intuition a bit, try simply extending your perception of tonic into the listening process. Early in this chapter, you developed some tools for finding the tonic. As you listen, try singing or audiating scale degree 1/do loudly in your voice and inner ear, and maintain an awareness of the collection of notes that surround scale degree 1/do. Also listen for those elements that reinforce scale degree 1/do, including the presence of do/1 in the bass, at the end of melodies, at many cadences, and as the stable note to which scale degreee 7/ti and scale degree 2/re resolve.  When a piece of music modulates, almost all of those elements will change, causing the pitch that used to be scale degree 1/do to feel like a different scale degree. Remember: the pitch that was scale degree 1/do may still feel quite “at home” in the new key, but its scale degree identity, and all the tonal relationships that surround it, will have suddenly changed.

Activity: Find the modulation

Goal: Develop a sensitivity to when sounding music modulates to a new key.

Instructions: Listen to songs from the playlist below. For each, identify the location (in minutes:seconds) at which you feel that the piece has modulated. As you start, you should aim to identify the modulation by ear within 15 seconds of its occurrence in the music. As you progress, aim to hear the modulation almost immediately, within 5 or fewer seconds. If you are having difficulty, once you’ve found the initial tonic, try humming it to see if you can detect when it no longer feels like “home.”


Suggest a song for this playlist!


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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