Performing Modulation

Once you’re really comfortable creating your map of key, it’s time to start making it more flexible by rearranging it at will!

This skill can be useful anytime you’re performing music and there’s a change of key. In later study, we’ll apply this skill to the domains of improvisation and sight reading. Here, we simply work on the foundational skill of changing your internally-set-up key.

Remember that key typically has two components: collection and tonic. When you’re seeking to transition to a new key, these are still the important aspects to focus on.

Of course, the most reliable way to change keys would probably be to stop the music and repeat the methods from the previous “setting up a key” section. But in most situations, this isn’t appropriate—the music needs to keep going! And while stopping and re-starting in this way may help us set up each key accurately in and of itself, it makes it difficult for us to feel the connections between the keys—an important element of a lot of music. It would be really useful to have quicker, “short-cut” methods that help us make a quick change—and such methods will be our focus here. Just note that they may not be reliable at first until the skills developed earlier in the chapter are more solid.

The primary method we’ll introduce is simply to focus on changing the half/whole-step context of the melody at the moment of modulation. Often, music works in such a way as to facilitate this: the melody comes to a certain scale degree in the first key, and then the melody continues from this same note, reinterpreted in a new key. Perhaps that note had a whole step above it in the first key but a half step above it in the second key: if so, then especially if we’ve really internalized the patterns in the “Setting Up a Key” section, we may be able to quickly visualize/hear that changed interval as we perform that note, helping us to lock in to the new key. Note that this method focuses on changing the collection, leaving the tonic implicit. If the “Setting Up a Key” methods are well-internalized, we can often still intuit the tonic from this change of collection; if not, we may need to strengthen those methods first.

Where this method doesn’t work (say, there’s no shared melody note across the two keys, or there’s a transitional section where neither key is clearly primary) or we just want to use a different method, we may need to rely on moment-to-moment strategies until the new key is established. We have all internalized a certain number of short, key-independent musical models, such as important intervals or triads or the ability to imagine playing something on our primary instrument. Whatever they are, we will need to apply them until the new key becomes clearly apparent. As we do so, we simply need to focus on how these models contribute to our sense of collection and tonic.

Activity: Shifting triads

Goal: Get used to intentionally changing key context.

Before you Start: This works well as a group or pair activity, with one student choosing from the lists in step 1 and another student or other students doing the resulting exercise.


  1. Choose one item from each of the following lists. List 1: root, third, fifth. List 2: root, third, fifth. List 3: major, minor.
  2. Set up whatever key you like however you wish, then sing its tonic triad.
  3. Sing the note of that triad indicated by your choice from List 1. Then reinterpret that note as the note indicated by your choice from List 2 in the type of triad indicated by your choice from List 3, and set up the key of that new triad’s root vocally. For example, if you started in C major and chose third, fifth, major, you’d sing the note E (the third of the triad), then reinterpret E as the fifth of a major triad and set up the key of A major.
  4. As you get more confident, see if you can sing the new triad without setting up the new key vocally. For example, you might try to hear the key-establishing progression in your head, or even leap right into singing the new triad without preparation.


Activity: Establish a new key

Goal: Learn to establish new key contexts in as little time as possible.


  1. Choose a starting key and an ending key. You could base this on the keys written in an excerpt you wish to sight read, keys you want to establish in an improvisation, or however you would like.
  2. Decide where you will need to change your key context. For example, if you’re reading a notated excerpt, determine where changing your context to a new key will help you read it more easily. If you’re improvising, decide on a method to modulate: for example, perhaps you will come to a rest on a note shared between the keys and modulate there.
  3. Perform the music, making the modulation in a manner appropriate to your level of comfort. At first, you may need to stop the music and set up the new key at some length. As you get more comfortable, see if you can simply sing or imagine a single new note of the key or two to “lock in.”



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

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