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'?

6 Answers 6


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.


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.


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.


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.

  • 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
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 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. Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 19:53

For me, a key change that happens subtly is a key change that happens quickly. I feel that my ears love 1-5 relationships and any time a melody plays that interval, I will modulate. So in the key of C , if an F and C are played one after the other, I will switch to hearing that as a 1-5 scale degree as well i.e I will modulate. Even if I play a C, an F and another C at a higher octave, I will hear that as an F double stop chord. The other fast subtle modulation (as mentioned in previous posts) is between the relative major and minor, and just the sound of that modulation is something that one can easily recognize over time. Other modulations for me happen more boldly, and as long as I follow on what note the modulation occurred on, I know where I am. I still have to master the 2 note ear training series by Bruce Arnold, and that should help.


It is much different than scale degrees and diatonic chords (and even secondaries) because your ear cant remain in the same tonal system. My suggestion would be to make a chart with all modulation possibilities and then search for pieces with those modulations (hopefully multiple examples for each separate case). Then through listening you might gradually begin to hear what it sounds/feels like to modulate to the dominant or subdominant, etc. Something like this:

Modulation type --- Piece --- technique used/// I to V --- many binary forms --- pivot chord, etc/// I to III --- Waldstein --- chromaticism to new V/// I to IV --- Hey Jude --- V of new key/// I to bVI --- insert Beethoven --- borrowed chord/unprepared shift/// I to vi --- etc/// i to x/// etc

You might also look to jazz harmony to help with this as well, either for examples or additional listening practice.

  • Thanks Bill, this makes a lot of sense, but also takes a lot of dedication. It also suggests that there are no shortcuts and one must learn what each modulation sounds like the way they learned what each interval or degree or chord sounds like. A realistic goal for me would be to learn the more common ones that way.
    – Anthony
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 17:09

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