SONGWRITING: Modulation Up a Half-Step...

The majority of today's hit songs heard on radio, television and online will remain in their primary key for the entire piece - never leaving their original key signature. However, jump back to the 50's, 60's and 70's and many of the top hits would modulate up a step or two, or three...

Modulation is a very cool idea that really creates an impact within a song. When a piece modulates into a new key signature the song has an emotional effect upon the listener of almost starting again, with a new fresh take.

The modulation process is fairly straight forward and it can happen quickly in a very direct manner. Or, modulation can occur slower using pivoting chords and extensions upon the songs rhythmic structure.

In this weeks Guitar Lesson Blog I'll be discussing one of the most popular modulations found in popular music. It is the idea of modulating a piece up a half-step from it's original key signature.

The example I have begins in the key of "A Minor." It's a fairly straight-forward chord progression that begins upon the root chord of "Am" and heads up to the IV chord of "Dm." The next harmonic movement takes up to the VI chord of "Fma7." And, our turnaround applies the ever so common V7 chord of the key "E7."

NOTE: Technically, the "E7" is a borrowed chord from the parallel running harmony of the "A Harmonic Minor" scale. The V chord found in the Natural Minor Harmony is an "Em."

Take a practice run through the chord changes listed below. Listen to the audio file to get a good idea for the feel of how the progression operates.


As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of different ways to modulate from one chord to another. However, for our example and in our discussion here we'll use a unique and interesting concept. The example I have would be a popular approach used by many of the Motown artists. This approach (applied to a Minor key), alters the previous progression (often the Verse) which precedes the modulation in the piece.

What happens within this principle is a push within the harmony to another alternate "Dominant Family" chord type. For our example, we'll choose the "VII" chord of this key, which is, "G Major."

Then, after the appearance of the VII chord of our key, we will move directly up into the "VII" chord of the new key that we will be modulating into. Keep in mind that our new key is a "half-Step" above the key we started out in for the piece.

In example two below, I've created a demonstration of how something like this would play out. Pay particular attention to the way I extended the length of the progression to create more build-up and emotion prior to entering into the new key signature.


Now that we've established how the initial chord progression can be re-arranged (both rhythmically and harmonically) in order to promote the arrival of our new key, the final step is to get a handle on the arrival of the new key. What I mean in particular, is that the musician needs to become accustom as to how the new key will both sound and how it will feel to perform. It won't take much more than a few passes to become comfortable with. But, since the impact of arriving into a new key is fairly dramatic, rehearsal is generally required to build a comfort level for the movement and arrival to the new key.

In example three, I've demonstrated the new chord progression in the new key, now operating up a half-step from the original key signature. Run through the chord changes of the new key a few times. Then, practice the movement of how the chord progression from example two would proceed into the chord changes of example three in a smooth and flowing manner.


Modulation is a very cool sound that offers songwriters an opportunity to change keys  during a song - either temporarily, (often done with a guitar solo section), or permanently, (often executed at the 3/4 mark of a piece and continuing until the end). It's a shame we hardly ever hear this effect used in today's songs. Perhaps, songwriters in the near future will once again bring back the many interesting effects of modulation.

Check out the Marvin Gaye song "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." At the 01:37 mark the piece shifts up a half-step in much the same manner as we discussed in our lesson.


  1. One great example of modulation in a song - to me - was the song made famous by cat Stevens called 'Morning Has Broken'. It modulates one full step up then turns back to the original key with a very clever chord progression.