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Update 3

I have started to break down this broad question to specific, smaller questions.

1) Classical music example for seamless transition from one section to other with changing keys

Say, I have a song revolving around a theme in E minor. Can I somehow convincingly build it up to change to a theme in, for example, A minor?

An example: you want to express the feeling when someone is buried in deep, moody thoughts for a while, then recollects herself/himself, and finds a solution. So the first part is in a slow, moody theme in E minor, and you want to fluidly arrive in an uptempo A minor theme and then end the song in that theme.

The question is not as easy as it seems (at least for me). One jazzist friend said, that "It's simple! Just throw in a II-V-I chord progression in the new key!".

Unfortunately it does not work when it does not fit the logic and patterns of the song, as we unconsciously understand those larger patterns. So in a jazz song, where chords are flying in at high speed, this solution can work, but when you have a repeated (though varied) theme, you just can't throw in some chords from nowhere.

When I tried to create such transition, I succeeded in that the change felt OK, but you had a feeling that the song would revert to its original key => it was not a convincing change.

Probably these can participate in the answer, but I'm not sure:

  • Should I go "up" to new key (i.e. bass of the first theme is E3 and I move it up to A4) or "down" (bass from E3 to A2)? Which one feels more like an "arriving" to the new theme?
  • Should I "end" the first theme and "start" the new one, or try to make a seamless transition from one theme to other (like writing a transition section with parts and bits from both sections)?

If you answer, please provide convincing examples from real world songs. Thanks!


For me, the chords/scales part is only about 10% of the problem. Let's narrow the question to more rigid styles, with clear, well-defined sections (exclude jazz, because it's too playful in this manner): say pop, or pre-modern classical era, even rock, even cosmic black metal! Or just one singer, without any instruments.

Say, you play one theme for a minute.

  • How long should be the transition between the two clear themes? (Exclude the obvious sudden version). It must be proportional to how many bars was the first theme. Or not?
  • What's your strategy if the rhythm of the dominant melodies of the two sections differ?

Update 2

Narrowing down again, I'm interested in a bunch of ideas for a "seamless" transition, like "X did that in this composition [link], and he is seamlessly changing from A section to B, and that's what X did for that.".

Also an idea for anyone else, struggling with this issue:

  • Try to temporarily transpose section B to the key of section A. If you can't make a logical, convincing transition without changing key, I don't believe it is possible with it.
share|improve this question
The most effective approach will likely be based on which genre you are writing within. A Jazz modulation certainly occurs in a different way than a Classical one, though they may be similar. A lot of Rock music is Modal in nature and modulating within a Modal texture will have different methods than Tonal music. If you can let us know a genre and/or if it is Modal or Tonal, you will probably get an answer that better suits your needs. – Basstickler Jan 15 '14 at 21:25
Isn't the question "How do I go from a scale to another one without sounding that I play random chords? "? – Shevliaskovic Jan 15 '14 at 21:38
The question is about "How can I define a new section in my song in a different key that sounds like a logical transition, from A to B". – atoth Jan 15 '14 at 23:02
What you're asking might be way too broad. I don't think there's any 'rule' that determines how many bars should be between the two themes. I could wait 2 bars,you could wait 4 bars, some other guy could wait 10 bars etc.It depends on the composer. Also, the 'strategy' part, would also depend on the composer. For instance, I would gradually build up to the different rhythm – Shevliaskovic Jan 16 '14 at 0:23
Also, note that a theme can belong to two different scales. – Shevliaskovic Jan 16 '14 at 8:39

What you seek is called Modulation.

The II-V-I your jazz friend told you about is pretty easy. It's really common in jazz. First you need to establish that you are in E minor, so you'll need to play something like II - V - I in E minor and then II - V - I in A minor. That's that. As you can see here for the song Nostalgia in Times Square by Charles Mingus. On bars 9,10,11 he changes keys just by playing the II - V - I of the new key (on the first two II- V -I he is omitting the I).

But if you want to make it sound better you could try two ways:

1) Find a common chord. The chords of E minor are:

IV:Amin V:Bmin
VI:Cmaj VII:Dmaj

The chords of A minor are:

I:Amin II:Bdim
IV:Dmin V:Emin VI:Fmaj VIIGmaj

As you can see, the IV of E minor is a A minor, which the I of A minor.

So what you could do is:

Eminor:I- IV-V - I (so that you establish that you are in E minor) and then I - IV (here, as I said, the IV,which is A minor, can be used as the I of theA minor scale).

-- The italic progressions are on the A minor scale

So we have I - IV - V - I - IV (I) IV V I

And the chords would be: Em, Am, Bm, Em, Am, Dm, Em, Am.

And you could do the same to go back to Eminor scale or whichever other scale has a common chord with the scale you currently play.

2) You could change the scales chromatically. Which means you play a chord and then you change some notes chromatically and it becomes a different chord. For instance:

The VII of E minor scale is Dmaj and the IV of A minor scale is Dmin. So you could play:

I - IV- V -I - IV - VII and then on the VII lower the third (F#) chromatically and you get F natural. And the chord would be Dminor, which is the IV of A minor. So you'll have:

I - IV- V -I - IV - VII - IV - V - I

The second one might not sound really good at you at first. The chords I chose might not be the best example, but both of the above methods I mentioned are acceptable

Τhere is also another way where you find harmonic chords. Like when you play G# major you could say it's Ab major and then continue to play like you are on Ab major. But I'm not 100% how to explain that, I'll just confuse you further.

should I go "up" to new key (i.e. bass of the first theme is E3 and I move it up to A4) or "down" (bass from E3 to A2)? Which one feels more like an "arriving" to the new theme?

Τhat would depend on the player (in my opinion). I would say that if the melody becomes more intense, you should go up and if the melody slows down and becomes more dramatic, you should go down -- but that is just my opinion. Some other musician could say the exact opposite and it would be acceptable.

share|improve this answer
I'll update the question, as this is really the smallest and easiest part of it. – atoth Jan 15 '14 at 21:18
I updated my answer a bit. I'm not sure what you mean with 'should I "end" the first theme and "start" the new one, or try to make a seamless transition from one theme to other (like writing a transition section with parts and bits from both sections)?' – Shevliaskovic Jan 15 '14 at 21:23
I like to think of it rather simply, although it is not, as a process of assembling chords in a sequence where the total deviation between dominant tones in two subsequent chords is kept to a minimum, allowing the final chord to end up in a completely different tonality from the original. There are a lot of ways to arrange the sequence but if you have a melody in mind, you can use that as a secondary constraint which will leave you with surprisingly little choice of what chords to use. – Darren Ringer Nov 6 '14 at 18:16

For an example of what I think you're looking for ,check out 'Unforgettable' (sung by Nat King Cole) which is in G maj. Starts on G, but ends in C maj. Somewhere in the middle there is a key change/ modulation, but for the life of me, I haven't found where, yet. But it goes round like that quite happily.

Your whole question will need to be split to make the answers easier to come by.

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