Many pop tunes will modulate up a semitone near the end of the piece in order to gain energy or excitement. This is known as a Truck Driver's Gear Change, and some tunes will even do it multiple times for that extra kick. I've often wondered; are there any pop (or other) tunes which at regular intervals modulate DOWN?

It seems like a good way to put your listeners to sleep, but maybe it would work in the right musical genre. (I also think it could be very funny if done correctly; I wonder if PDQ Bach ever tried it.)


Here is a non-comprehensive list of such pieces: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TruckDriversGearChange

Under the "Subversions" sections you can find some pieces that modulate down.


Inverted in "Tonight" from West Side Story, which moves down a half-step with each successive chorus so the final one can end calmly and quietly.

  • Interesting. None of the pieces have what I'd call "Truck Drivers Gear Change Down"; although they do modulate down, the tune's inherent key changes are complex enough that the modulation isn't immediately obvious (as it is in, say, "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life"). – Daniel Griscom Jun 11 '15 at 16:20
  • Then look no further than Europe's subtlest and most cerebral band: youtube.com/watch?v=MSsTS6c8KOU I found this following the links on that page, and it does indeed modulate a whole step down in the first verse. – Some Dude On The Interwebs Jun 11 '15 at 16:58
  • Perhaps I'm not expressing myself well, but that tune has its central melody bracketed by intro/outro, both a minor third above the melody. It isn't an inversion of the Truck Driver Gear Change. (Entertaining tune, though: thanks.) – Daniel Griscom Jun 11 '15 at 20:28
  • Well, it is immediately obvious, though :P – Some Dude On The Interwebs Jun 12 '15 at 5:12

I can offer a few examples:

  • "Belle" from the musical "Notre-Dame de Paris" does exactly what you asked about – periodically modulates down. Unusually, it happens in the middle of each verse, not between them. Probably it reflects some kind of break each character undergoes. The song also modulates up quite conventionally between verses.
  • Queen's "The Show must go on" starts in Bm (verse plus chorus), then goes higher to C#m in the second verse, then unexpectedly modulates back down before the chorus.
  • The song "The Temple" from "Jesus Christ Superstar" suddenly modulates down for its instrumental coda.

There are also couple of Russian examples:

  • In the song "Я тебе конечно верю" there are many steps upward, with the last verse suddenly dropping back to the original key. Possibly it alludes how one gets back to the reality from daydreams.
  • In the song "Земля" near its end the tune briefly goes up 3 semitones, but then drops down by 2 semitones. This way the song lets you experience the "negative" feeling of downward modulation, but it's "compensated" with the "stronger" upward modulation just before it.

Mariah Carey's cover of I Want To Know What Love Is drops a semitone during the second chorus (the Foreigner original doesn't change key).


Two more: "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys, known for being a rather complex little number anyway, starts its choruses in G♭ major, then shifts up to A♭ major, then up to B♭ major. However, the final chorus starts in B♭ major, then starts descending back down to A♭, then G♭.

"Layla" by Eric Clapton periodically switches from C♯ minor to D minor with no preparation at all and back again between its verses and choruses.

I think looking at early rock (Beatles, Beach Boys, etc.) is a good idea, as they tend to have a lot of very interesting harmonies and modulations. Another complicated one by the Beach Boys is "God Only Knows", and The Beatles in particular are a veritable case study on modulations. I imagine musical theatre is another example of a genre where this could happen, because musical theatre in general isn't afraid to get complicated with music theory and harmony in general. A very recent example: "Lost in the Woods" from Frozen II (similar to musical theatre) modulates quite often - check it out!

Jazz might have some of these downward modulations, but in jazz-related styles, there's a very common modulation to the IV of the original key. Definitively stating whether this is up a fourth or down a fifth is a case-by-case endeavor (and often subjective), but it may fit the given criteria. Also, jazz music tends to modulate a lot, and when it modulates back and forth, often ends up going downwards at least once, à la "So What". Of course, arguably John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" could fit the criteria, but consider the relatively simple examples of the common Christmas carols "Let it Snow" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas".

  • If you listen to it just the right way, John Cage's "4:33" :) – user45266 Jan 14 at 1:12
  • "Giant Steps" just modulates in circles. I don't think merely returning to the origin counts. – Dekkadeci Jan 14 at 10:54
  • Also, neither "Let It Snow" nor "The Twelve Days of Christmas" modulate down and stay there. I don't think "The Twelve Days of Christmas" modulates at all--merely tonicizes the dominant at "5 golden rings". – Dekkadeci Jan 14 at 10:57
  • @Dekkadeci I guess it depends on what one is willing to call a modulation, and what "modulating down" really means. From what I can tell, there's a pretty wide range of opinions on that topic. – user45266 Jan 15 at 16:08

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