Category Archives: Harmony & Tonality

Modulation – key changes..a few approaches in composition

There are many ways to approach modulation in composition. In pop music the most common kind is direct or abrupt modulation. What this means is that you just move directly to the new key without in any way setting up the change of key with some carefully chosen chords to link the two keys.

The mighty Stevie Wonder is a great fan of direct modulation. If you go to about 3:50 in the video below you will hear the final chorus repeated, each time it goes up a semitone – this is direct modulation to a new key.

The NME has an excellent list of LIFE AFFIRMING KEY CHANGE SONGS here.

Modulation is a central aspect of most classical music where composer’s have used a range of techniques to move fluidly from one key to another. It is also a feature of many jazz standard songs which include extended harmony and modulation.

In both the above examples pivot chords are often used to help link from the original key to a new one.

This article provides a good introduction to how to apply several different modulation techniques.


Diatonic Harmony – Primary Triads

I know this fella drives some of you nuts..BUT he does explain the workings of music theory in the most thorough and complete fashion.

Here we are looking at Primary triads, these are chords I, IV & V. So if you were in C major that would be C MAJOprimary triadsR, F MAJOR & G MAJOR. Take a look at the chart for further explanation..

These chords are very common in all types of music, including our three strands: Western Classical Tradition, World Music and Popular Music. They are the building blocks of The Blues Rock’n’roll and are still commonly used in pop music today.

Note the use of ROMAN NUMERALS to identify chords. This system is used so that we can stop talking about “C, F and G” and discuss harmony without always relating to specific keys. If this system is new to you, have a look at this for explanation of the Roman Numerals in music.

Bass line task

Below is the chord chart for your bass line task. Bear in mind a couple of bassline guidelines:

    • ROOT NOTES – will always work to underpin a chord sequence
    • OCTAVES – above or below the root – for variety (common in disco/funk)
    • FIFTHS – can also work effectively, i.e. if the chord is Em (E minor), the chord tones are E G B, so using E and B can work well
    • SCALLIC RUNS – you can also use scallic runs leading up/down to the root note of the next chord
    • RHYTHM – always follow the inherent rhythm of your drum groove, if unsure one surefire approach is to keep the kick drum part and your bass line locked in together.

This document explains some of these ideas further with Garageband screenshots to demonstrate ideas.

Mr Bublé has a stylish arrangement of Van Morrison’s classic “Moondance”, he makes a great use of a typical jazz approach to the bass..

In Bob Marley’s classic “Stir It Up” there is a fine example of a bass line largely built on triads or chord tones.

Here is the notation for the main bass groove. You can see that the bass outlines the chords by playing:

  • A and C# from the A major chord (while adding a D which is the fourth degree of an A major scale so still diatonic – within the key), then
  • D, F#, A – D major chord
  • E, B, B – E major chord

Bob Stir bass

If you were using roman numerals what numbers would these chords be?

Chord progressions

How do the chords change in this fine and funky example?

A different approach..

The two chords used in the opening section  of Californication are A minor and F major, how are they chords expressed – block chords or broken chords?

Here Plan B use a funky repeated chord rhythm to great many chords are used in the opening to this song?

Here are two chord progressions, one in C major the other in A minor. Your job today is to create two contrasting chord progressions using the given chords (below). You must use:

  • rhythmic block chords for one chord progression
  • broken chords for the other chord progression
  • The chord progressions should flow into each other and feel like part of the same composition
  • You will probably want to create a rhythm track first – make sure you’re harmonic rhythm (the rhythm of the chords) fits the drum groove. You could create two drum grooves – one for each chord progression.

Exploring harmony 2 – Chord sequences

The above is an example of a highly effective simple chord sequence.

How many chords are used in the verse and chorus chord sequences?


Now we are going to explore harmony and how it is used in composing. To begin with we will look at using diatonic harmony (chords within the key). So the first thing we need to do is a brief reminder of how to read the notes in treble clef. The chart below might be a useful guide:
The simplest and most commonly used chords are called TRIADS because they contain THREE notes. Below is a very brief video introduction to triads and diatonic harmony: