Kick it up a couple notches: That whole-step modulation

Songwriters know a cheap but effective trick to make their tune more interesting, more exciting: Suddenly jump the key up a whole step. There are countless examples.

The earliest one I’ve noted yet is “Telstar” (1962) by the Tornadoes. At the last reprise of the main theme, it suddenly jumps from B-flat up to C major.

“Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night has the bridge jump from D into E major, before returning to D for a reprise of the chorus.

“My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison moves from E to F-sharp major, but instead of jumping up, it modulates there by jumping to C-sharp (the dominant of F-sharp) before landing in F-sharp. George leaves the key kicked up for the rest of the song.

It’s practically always a whole step up, rather than a half-step or three half-steps. There’s something stalwart about that whole step that just works.

Songs almost never move the key down. A rare counter-example is “I’ve Seen All Good People” by Yes: the long fadeout keeps dropping the key down a whole step every four bars.

Very true - it’s the musical equivalent of an after-burner.

I would say that half-steps are fairly common. Abba used it in “Money, Money, Money” and “Dance While the Music Still Goes On”. DWTMSGO does the half-step trick twice.

You got me there; I don’t know any ABBA tunes.

There are a bunch of songs that go up a half step–Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” for one, and Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” for another.

Sure, he’s a no-talent assclown, but it works in that song. :slightly_smiling_face:

Almost every Barry Manilow song modulates up either a half step or a whole step at the end.

Man in the Mirror (Michael Jackson) is often cited among songs that modulate upwards, but in that case, just by a half step. Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You does the same thing twice.

The whole step change is easier to smooth out. And even an abrupt change will sound less abrupt since two of the three notes of the new chord will have been in the old key.

The term I’ve learned for this (and the half step variation) is the “truck driver modulation.” The idea is that you’re just suddenly shifting into a higher gear to increase excitement levels. It’s also often seen as a bit of a hack, though of course it can be done well.

This is my favorite “key change every verse” song. Reach for the Kleenex…

Me and Bobby McGee is a classic example of this.

The song starts in G, then halfway through jumps to A and never looks back. Listen for the part when Janis Joplin sings “From the Kentucky coal mines to the California sun…”; she and the band have immediately jumped to the new key without any modulation, which does the standard pump up of energy and interest for the duration of the song.

I must have listened to the song for decades admiring how the song and Joplin’s vocals gained energy for the finish without realizing compositionally what was going on.

Bobby Darin’s arrangement of Mack the Knife modulates from Bb to Eb a semitone at a time, for 5 key changes. The original had no key changes at all.

Bobby -

IIRC Bobby Hebb’s classic tune “Sunny” uses whole-step modulation a number of times, to good effect. The changes to that tune have become classic by now, used in any number of tunes, but I imagine it was fairly startling back in the day. I think the first iteration went from Dm, up to Em, then maybe up to Fm, so not strictly by whole steps.

For me, that tune defines the upwards modulation “trick,” just because of how often the tune is covered by jazz instrumentalists, as well as how well known the original recording is.

And then Aretha’s equally classic “Think” just goes up by half-steps from the initial Bb a few times. Don’t remember how far it goes up…maybe a handful of times and then IIRC settles back down to the original key. Obviously, Aretha was more than capable of handling the “difficult” key of B major for a bit, although I’m not sure it was her playing the acoustic piano part, mostly just vamping on the 1st and 5th degrees of the scale in the LH with a plagal cadence in the RH. Certainly could have been…but anybody could have played on that for reasons of microphone bleed-through or whatever with the vocals.

Chopin thought B major was the easiest key on piano because it fit the natural shape of the hand. He’d start beginning students in B major and save the C major scale for last, considering C to be the hardest key to play evenly. Strictly in terms of the sense of touch, like playing with eyes closed, forgetting how that big cluster of sharps on the page dazzles your mind like so many starbursts. I wonder if I could relearn piano from the beginning on that basis. (not likely)

For guitarists, when it comes to barré chords, they’re all the same fingering, regardless of key.

That’s correct, but then Chopin didn’t play blues! Even Johnnie Johnson (pianist and arguable composer or co-composer of many of Chuck Berry’s hits) didn’t like playing in B! And self-described himself as having difficulties in that key…therefore, Bb for Johnnie Johnson.

I think a great many keyboardists dislike the “model key of C” because of the lack of signposts in form of the black keys. It takes more effort to introduce interesting shapes in that key when improvising, IMHO. Finger effort and, just like in Bach, one ends up having many more accidentals in that key than is expected. For example, the C major fugue from Bach’s WTC I.

Close enough for blues, though. If it were me taking on a student from scratch, I’d start them off in Db, just playing gutbucket blues. Some key with true grit!

Sure. If one has reason to use full barre chords, in, say, a folk music setting. Or, a capo.

Speaking of Michael Bolton, Lloyd-Webber’s classic Love Changes Everything has a half-step up key change going into the final verse. I know some hate the song, but I quite like (singing and hearing) it. And yes, I know the definitive recording is by Michael Ball, who I consider more talented and more pleasant to listen to than Bolton, but the latter has recorded it too.

Bassists get it even easier: the strings are always tuned to 4ths, no matter if it’s a 4, 5, or 6 string bass. This means that the relative positions of notes in any pattern remains the same.

Playing a root in the middle of the instrument and want to go to the fifth? Easy peasy–two frets over, one string up. Or, same fret, one string down for the lower one. All of the patterns we memorize work everywhere on the fretboard, unlike guitar where that annoying odd interval from the G to the B string makes patterns change (a 6 string bass goes from G string to C string).

ETA: My wife, a classically trained pianist, prefers Eb. For a guy who is all thumbs at a piano, I just can’t figure why one would want to faff about with a mix of black and white keys, but I’m certain real pianists all would understand her love of Eb.

Dave Edmonds used to do this quite a lot. Though in fact he would often shift two semitones in the middle of a song for the solo and then shift back (his version of Girls Talk comes to mind).

Modulation? We don’t need no steenking modulation! Just jam it into the new key.
My band used to call this the “Edmonds Graunch”… :wink:

I just thought of another interesting Graunch: the solo in Stacy’s Mom actually drops two whole steps from the verse. And one more: same thing in the middle 8 of ‘I am the Beat’ by the Look (a cute one-hit wonder from the 1980).

The Manilow modulation aside, my favorite example of half-step modulations is “Sleigh Ride” by The Ronettes. They go up several half-steps during the course of the song and then, at the very end, modulate back to the original key in a way that’s very subtle so do listen out for it.

When I saw the title/OP, I immediately thought of “The Song That Goes Like This” from Spamalot, which is a hilarious sendoff of all the Broadway songs that… go… like this :smiley:

I feel like every gospel song on every Aretha Granklin album I own goes the full step up at the end.

Not whole steps, but TMBG’s “Birdhouse in Your Soul” has 18 key changes in 3:20, and they make them work.

It’s Only Make Believe (as recorded in 1958 by Conway Twitty) also does several half-step up changes.