Modulations with Motive

Whether you are looking to fill a little time, transitioning from the choir anthem to the doxology, or creating a larger form, one of the hallmarks of a good improvisation is the virtually constant presence of thematic material. By using recognizable material, your improvisation becomes more coherent, more competent and more convincing, thus improving your skills in three of the four C’s of improvisation.


One of the patterns I practiced when learning piano were standard I-IV-I-V-I cadential patterns. (If you need an explanation of Roman Numerals for music, there is a lesson available at I learned to play these in every major and minor key in multiple inversions. These cadences are basic building blocks to have in your ears and fingers, especially if you are looking to establish a new key center. I had to play them for the key of every piano piece I learned. If you need to practice them, you could play them for the key of every hymn or piece you plan to play this Sunday.


At the end of November here in the United States, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. While the story of the Pilgrims and Indians sharing food together is likely more fiction than fact, the idea of giving thanks for all that we have is something we should probably practice more than once a year. One of the hymns closely associated with the holiday, Nun danket alle Gott, also happens to open with a harmonic progression that requires only I, IV, and V chords of the cadential patterns mentioned above.

Thematic material can be melodic, but it can also be harmonic. Try playing the first phrase of Nun danket followed by a similar I-V-I-IV-IV-I pattern in a closely related key (D minor, C major, Bb major, or G minor)? Congratulations! You just made a modulation with motive!

As this phrase ends with a plagal cadence, you’ll probably wish to continue playing in your new key or keep moving to another closely related key if you haven’t arrived at your destination yet.


Another way to modulate while using ideas from a theme is to reharmonize the melody. Here’s the same opening phrase in A minor:


or C Major:

Same melody. New chords. And while C major might make it a little easier to get to G major, the reharmonization in A minor opens up the option of E major for us which would normally be considered a very distant key from our start in F major. How many other harmonizations can you find for this melody? Where will they free you to go?

Q and A

Often musical phrases are described as antecedent and consequent or question and answer. When making transitions, it is helpful to be able to answer the same question in many different ways. If the first four measures of Nun danket alle Gott is the question, can you find answers that get you to any other key at the end of four more measures? Which of the thematic material is most helpful when modulating to different keys? Can you keep the first three notes and chords the same before modulating? How does this exercise change when you use a different hymn tune as your theme?

I want thank those of you who have responded to my sign-up survey. It is helpful for me to know about my audience, and I was also alerted through the comments to two other improvisers that I’ll be adding to the website soon! Because the survey is anonymous, if you would like a response from me, please leave your contact info in the final response box or simply email me directly. If you are not yet a subscriber and would like to take the survey, please uses the boxes to the right to get your free lesson and a link for the survey.

Hoping your improvisations inspire people to thank you for your music!

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Newsletter Issue 27 – 2014 11 3
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Moving to a new center

Did you have any time to fill this week? Did you fill it with song? Did you kill time or follow a form?

The key to filling larger blocks of time or creating large scale forms is the ability to move to different key centers. While staying in the same key is acceptable for certain styles and forms, even a simple ABA form can benefit from modulation to a different key.

Ready? Go!

The quickest way to change keys is to simply change keys! No preparation or transition necessary. This works well in tonal schemes when moving to a closely related key: tonic to dominant, major to relative minor, major to parallel minor, or vice versa. From C major, that enables us to simply move to G major, F major, A minor and C minor. If you are using a richer tonal palette (like Messiaen’s Mode 2), movements by thirds can work as well. This would add Eb major, F# major, A major, E major, and Ab major as possible direct jumps.

One Chord Transitions

A very common practice in some traditions is to modulate up for the final verse of a hymn. Often the easiest and quickest way to do this is with a deceptive cadence at the end of the verse, concluding on major chord on the flatted sixth degree of the scale. This makes the old tonic the leading tone for the new key one half-step higher and enables everyone to jump back in to the next verse with no further segue needed.

A dominant seventh chord can actually serve as a pivot point for a transition to any other key. While you might need a little more time to lock in the new key after the shift, I’ve made a handout available here showing the resolution from a G7 chord to all 24 major and minor keys.

In his Cours Complet d’Improvisation à l’Orgue, Marcel Dupré suggests using symmetrical chords for modulation. The diminished seventh chord built of minor thirds functions very much like the dominant seventh chord above, so I won’t elaborate further on it. The other symmetrical chord Dupré uses for modulation is the augmented triad. Built of major thirds, this is an unstable sound because it lacks a perfect fifth. The lack of stability helps create the motion to a new key, and once again this chord can get you to any other key that you would like. (See the handout here.)

Smooth Transitions

Of course, if you are not looking to shock your listeners, you may wish to take a little more time and venture through several keys before arriving at your final destination. Exactly how much time you can take will depend upon the form you are aiming to follow and the expected duration of your improvisation. Composer Max Reger offers a guide on how to modulate from one key to another, even providing different progressions for enharmonic key relations! In his book Modulation, he offers 46 potential progressions from a major key and 54 progressions from a minor key. If you don’t know how to get from one key to another, this is the place to look. If your time is short, you can employ his progressions as they are. If you have more time, you can create a phrase in the key for each of the chords of his suggested progressions. The key to smooth transitions will be to use melodic thematic material whenever possible. Referencing familiar musical material will make it easier for the listener to accept and process the harmonic changes. By playing thematic material in different keys, you will also be practicing skills necessary for larger forms such as sonata allegro or fugue!

May your move from one place to another pass smoothly!


Recent additions to



Newsletter Issue 26 – 2014 10 27
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