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I'm surprised this this question hasn't been asked before (or at least I couldn't find it). If you're listening to a piece, and it suddenly modulates, how can you tell? and how can you determine the interval between the two tonics?

Although I have a good enough ear for recognizing scale degrees, I often can't tell if a modulation has happened, let alone guess the new key. The only scenario where I succeed is when the same melody note is sustained throughout the key change. For example, the fifth is sustained, but later is starts to sound like the tonic, this way I can tell that the new tonic is the fifth of the previous key.

What is the recommended approach? Is there a method that doesn't rely too much on theory? For example, if you can identify secondary dominants or some common patterns used for modulation you may be able to figure it out, but you wouldn't be relying completely on your ears. Can it be done without 'doing the math'?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Adding to what tim's said, a key modulation can be made more or less subtle by what happens before the actual key change is made. Changing less notes at a time will make it less noticable, using Chords from the new key before the switch makes them less noticable later on when the switch happens.

Songs that are already very dissonant can be hard to pick up on in terms of key changes. You also have the concept of a transient key change, in which the key will change, but then change back, sort of like holding on to an interesting chord before going back to the tonic. Doing this once followed by another permanent key change can throw the ear off.

There's a piece I'm learning by Bach at the moment which seems to change key multiple times very subtly, but only for short periods called Invention Number 8, though perhaps someone else can clarify this for me.

Key point which I believe Tim has already said is that a key change usually doesn't just happen, there is a transition cadence that will usually happen right before it which will give you clues as to what's about to happen. I suggest learning how to modulate, and trying out a few chord progressions. They commonly have a very distinctive sound/pattern to them.

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When a tune modulates, it will often go into - * a fourth up. *a fifth up. *its relative minor/major. A key change could be considered as a big modulation.

With the first examples, there is only a change of one note from old into new.E.g.,from key Amaj to Dmaj., one sharp is lost.The overall sonority of the tune may remain very similar.

With a key change, there will be more than one note change .This becomes obvious to the ear. For a big change, the dominant of the new key is usually played to get the listener ready.This is sometimes preceded by that chord's dominant - the secondary dominant.To sound smooth with this transition, usually there's a common note between the original key chord and the dominant/sec. dom. of the new key. Bear in mind that sec. doms can be major or minor. Listening for this will give clues.

Playing an instrument along with such pieces will quickly give you more insight.

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I'm trying to teach exactly this for grade 8 aural tests for some of my piano students, and a useful resource (although pricey, and comes with other stuff you maybe don't want) is the ABRSM book and CD "Aural Training in Practice grade 6-8". Having the CD means you can practice hearing examples and test yourself. It is all classical, but the chords are the same whatever style you use.

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Well, the answers above are true, but I don't think they give the OP anything to work with. What you need to do is listen to a bunch of songs with someone who has a good ear, and every time there is a key modulation, that person alerts you and then explains a little of how they know there's a key modulation. The theoretical explanations aren't going to help you recognize it in practice. You have to train your ear.

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This makes sense, but what if I have no one to help me like you described? How can I train my ears alone? Look at sheet music to identify modulations, then listen to them? – Anthony Nov 8 '13 at 9:31
Listen to a bunch of songs that are in one key only. And then listen to the same songs that are reharmonized, and/or a different set of songs that modulate keys. If you are a musician, then play a bunch of tunes only in one key. And then do different tunes that modulate. – Michael Martinez Nov 8 '13 at 19:53

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