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Many pop songs in modern times will use a half step or a whole step modulation in the middle of a song in order to increase excitement. I would like to know when this strategy started, and if it is ever present in classical music, because I have never seen it in anywhere but modern pop songs.

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The modulation you describe is often mockingly called the "Truck Driver Gear Change". As you say, it is quite often used, to the point of being cliche. It has it's own page on TVTropes. At one time, there was even a "Hall of Shame" website (gearchange.org) devoted to it, although this seems to have disappeared. Here's a copy of the page from 2012 via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. It's also been parodied countless times, such as in "Title of the Song" [at 3:23], where the self-referential lyrics draw attention to the technique.

Googling for the origin of the truck driver modulation, I found this passage via Google Books from The Foundations of Rock: From "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", by Walter Everett. Speaking of modulations, he says (p.283):

The most commonly heard technique whereby the original tonic is forsaken for another tonal center is known as the "truck driver's modulation." Here, the tonic is replaced by a new center lying a minor or a major second above.

As for where it came from, he says (youtube links and timestamps are mine):

Whereas the ultimate origins of this technique have not been traced, immediate forebears to the pop-rock literature include the Mills Brothers' "The Glow Worm" (1952) [modulation after 1:50] and Patti Page's "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window" (1953) [modulation after 1:40; and again after 2:07]... The truck driver's modulation is ubiquitous through our period of study; during the 1960, the modulation rising by a major second gains in frequency.


As for whether the gesture is used in classical music, the quick and easy answer is "no" -- at least not that I can think of. The reasons for this has to do with the nature of modulations in classical music

  1. Modulations in classical music tend to come back "home" to the starting key at a later point, while the gear change usually leaves you "stranded" in the new key (unless there's yet another gear change later on that goes even higher).
  2. Modulations in classical music tend to be done gradually, over the course of a progression, and with the use of a "pivot" chord or common tone that can be interpreted in either key, while the gear change is immediate and abrupt (called a "direct modulation").
  3. Modulations in classical music tend to be done to closely related keys, while the shift up a minor or major second is a more distant relationship.

While exceptions can be found to each of these points individually (there are certainly plenty of direct modulations, and modulations by a second, especially in romantic music), finding all three at once would be a rare find; especially for point (1) which is almost always followed.

That said, I can think of at least one analogous technique that is rather common in Baroque music, where a phrase is first played, then abruptly repeated a step higher (possibly switching between major and minor in the process). The result ends up sounding quite similar to a gear change. Corelli uses this technique in his music a lot (I don't know if he originated it or merely popularized it), and so far as later Baroque composers (such as Vivaldi, Handel, etc...) were at least partly emulating his style in their own music, this technique gets copied around a lot.

Here's a double example from Corelli's Christmas Concerto [start at 9:55]. Corelli has started in G minor, but through the development, has ended up modulating to B♭. Normally this would be the relative major, which is a closely related key, and somewhat easy to return from. But Corelli does something more interesting instead. He goes to B♭ minor, and after a brief cadence there (F -> B♭m), the B♭ steps up a half step to B-natural, part of a G chord leading to a cadence in C minor. Then, he repeats the gesture, with the C becoming C♯, part of an A chord that leads to Dm. Thus you can see he abruptly stepped up twice: F->B♭m, G->Cm, A->Dm). This positions him on the D, which leads him right back to his tonic of G minor.

Sometimes, this type of progression is used to open the second half of a piece in binary form (the "B" section in a form like |:A:|:BA:|), where it's use signals a definite shift away from the tonic. Unlike modern pop songs though, the remainder of the piece will eventually modulate back to the original tonic before the end. As an example of this, here's Handel's Recorder Sonata in G minor, 4th movement (Presto) [The second half of the movement begins just after 6:28].

Update: In his description of Galant Schemata, Robert Gjerdingen follows the 18th century theorist Joseph Riepel in naming this gesture the Monte. I've also learned that Riepel had a second, less kind, term for this type of stock sequence: the Schusterfleck (Cobbler's Patch). “They are therefore called by many—spoken with all respect—a ‘Schusterfleck’ because they only from time to time serve a beginner who otherwise would not know how to formulate any melody” (1752). Indeed, Beethoven is said to have used this same term to dismiss an uninteresting waltz by Diabelli; a piece which would go on to serve as the theme for his 33 famous Diabelli Variations.

While this technique seems superficially similar to the gear change, I hesitate to say that it is the actual origin of the gear change for several reasons:

  • To my knowledge, this progression always occurs by a step, never a half step.
  • This progression is always accompanied by a return to the original tonality.
  • This progression often switches from major to minor (or vice versa) in order to maintain a similarity between the two keys.
  • At least in Corelli's case, this progression predates a thorough modern understanding of "keys", so this may not even have technically been viewed as a "modulation".
  • For that matter, this progression doesn't always spend much time establishing both keys, but may only briefly tonicize one or both of them. They are mere stepping stones in part of a larger progression.
  • Even by the mid-18th century, this progression was already viewed as something for beginners, and if the story about Beethoven is true, it was quite derided as unimaginative by his time.
  • I find it somewhat dubious that the modern emergence of this technique would have been specifically modeled after this Baroque gesture.

Instead, I see it as more likely that both techniques were created independently, as an easy (some might say "cheap") rhetorical device to increase intensity by increasing pitch.

Finally, one last early Romantic example of a very similar type of technique. There's a direct modulation up a half step then back down by Beethoven in the 4th movement of his 8th symphony. The piece is in F major, but the main melody has an out-of-place C♯ in it. Earlier in the piece, we heard the note then moved on in the original key without a second thought. But nearing the end of the piece [start about 5:00], when we reach this note [at 5:13] it gets repeated and elaborated on, and used to take us into F♯ minor -- a half step above the F major that we're trying to end on! After a few bars of this, Beethoven [at 5:27] very bluntly and directly "hammers" the pitch back down a half step (with brass and timpani) to get us to the final key.

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    I found a mention of "Sportsman's Hop" from 1945 modulating up a half step suddenly. It might have come out of jazz - specifically modal jazz or its precursors. – Todd Wilcox Oct 9 '15 at 15:38
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Although I already provided a lengthy answer for this question which got accepted, I've never quite been satisfied with how it addressed the origin of the technique. I merely quote a passage from a book that lists early examples of pop/rock songs (from the 50's) that use the technique without discussing its origin, then jump to similar but unrelated techniques in classical music. I'd like to try to do better.

A comment (by Todd Wilcox) on my previous answer mentions the possibility of the technique originating with Jazz. This seems likely to me, but I have very little knowledge of Jazz history. I do know that Jazz originated from ragtime (fused with blues), and that ragtime originated from military marches, so it is along this pedigree that I will search.

American Military Marches

The structure of the American Military March was formalized by John Philip Sousa. The book "Making the March King: John Philip Sousa's Washington Years, 1854-1893" by Patrick Warfield (or what I can see of it on Google Books), discusses how marches preceding Sousa, as well as his own early marches, used a European-influenced da capo structure: march-trio-march. Like the analogous minuet-trios of the classical era (which had their genesis in Baroque dance suites), the central trio was usually in a contrasting key, and the recapitulation would return to the initial key. This ternary structure can be seen for example, in Strauss' Radetzky March -- the trio (1:03 in the video) modulates to the dominant key, then the da capo (at 2:00) returns to the original key. As a side note: the term "Trio" is more of a structural term, and doesn't necessitate the use of only three instruments (see: What does a marking of Trio. mean on a score?).

Sousa's displeasure with the da capo structure is seen in the following remarkable quote:

As a child I was brought up on band music. As I grew, I noticed something about the marches of that day -- they did not climax. Speaking gastronomically, when they got through with the ice cream they went back to the roast beef. And the beef had no new sauce on it, no new flavor.

In order to build to a climax, Sousa struck upon the idea of taking the central trio -- normally a lighter strain from the rest of the march, and repeating it three or four times with a gradual build up. The basic structure that Sousa eventually standardized was:

Intro AABB C(C)DCDC

A and B are the first and second strains of the march, each repeated. C is the trio section, which still begins with a direct modulation to an alternate key -- typically the subdominant -- and each time it repeats, it is a fuller arrangement than previously. D is a contrasting section called the "breakstrain" or the "dogfight". This form can be seen clearly, for example, in Stars and Stripes Forever. The first trio gets a simple choral arrangement, when repeated, there is the famous piccolo solo, then on the final repeat (known as the grandiosso, or finale), the choir and piccolo are combined, and a trombone countermelody is added.

What is relatively unusual about this form (at least as far as classical music goes) is that it modulates away from the initial tonic, and it never returns home. This fact, coupled with the fact that the trio is now the central interest of the piece, has even led some to speculate that the key of the trio (and dogfight) is the piece's true key, while the first two strains should actually be considered to be in the dominant key. At any rate, here we have a musical structure that:

  • is organized into various repeating strains,
  • performs a direct modulation at the beginning of a new strain,
  • does not return to the original home key at the end,
  • straddles the line between classical music and popular music,
  • can be traced, via ragtime, into the beginnings of jazz.

Based on these facts, I would speculate that Sousa's military march form might be an early precursor to the truck driver modulation. Or at least to the idea that a modulation can serve the rhetorical needs of the music without requiring a corresponding return to the tonic.

Ragtime to Early Jazz

The next step in the chain is Ragtime, which was based on march music. For example, the duple meter and left hand stride pattern are based on the oom-pah of the march bass, and the music is structured similarly, as a series of repeated contrasting strains. For our purposes, a crucial similarity to Sousa's marches is that rags typically include, as the third strain, a Trio section which is usually in the subdominant key -- although other keys can be used, and many rags (not all) return to the tonic, either by an additional strain, or by a repetition of the initial strain. Check out the archetypal The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag for examples that modulate to the subdominant in the trio section, then modulate back.

As mentioned earlier, Ragtime (along with Blues) influenced the creators of Jazz. To guide me in my excursion into the unfamiliar history of early Jazz, I found this excellent article discussing how the structure and tonality of Ragtime influenced early Jazz: Traces of Ragtime: An Analytical Survey by Jon Ozment (link to pdf). Below is a brief summary of some of the pieces I discovered in my research:

  • To start with, the direct subdominant modulations of Ragtime (and marches) show up even in the first-ever released jazz recording, Dixie Jazz Band One-Step by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1917), which moves from B♭ to E♭ to A♭ without ever returning to the home key.

  • While looking for modulations in rags, one charming and obsesively quirky little piece that I came across is Kee to Kee (Modulating Rag) Fox Trot by Platzmann & Eastwood 1918. You want abrupt modulations up by a half step? There are two of them within the first six measures of this piece (not counting the short intro with chromatically falling chords). This isn't typical, of course, but it shows the kind of things composers were experimenting with as Jazz was emerging.

  • Society Blues by Kid Ory (1922) incorporates a blues chord progression into the mix, and modulates abruptly up a step from F to G (the recording is a half step lower, but the modulation occurs at 1:19). Although it's a whole step up instead of a half step, it's already starting to sound somewhat like the modern technique.

  • Snake Rag by King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band (1923) is another example of an early Jazz piece based on Rag principles including a direct subdominant modulation (at 1:28) which doesn't return to the original tonic.

  • One extremely popular Jazz song that I discovered, which features a prominent modulation up a half step, is Body and Soul with music by Johnny Green (1930). This has a typical Jazz structure of AABA (aka thirty-two-bar form), and it is the B section (or bridge) which begins a half step higher than the preceding and following A sections. This modulation sounds rather modern to my ears, and it doesn't seem like a stretch to get from there to the truck driver's gear change.


TL;DR Certain pieces of classical music in ternary form (including marches) often included a direct modulation to a related key during the central trio section. Sousa popularized the use of the subdominant for this trio section, and killed the da capo, freeing the tonality from a need to return home. This subdominant trio was incorporated into Ragtime (which often did return to the initial key), and from there was picked up by Jazz. Jazz was also experimenting with other types of modulations including up a step and up a half-step. From these elements, the truck driver's gear change would eventually be born.

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Anton Bruckner uses the truck driver gear change all the time in his symphonies, particularly in the slow movements. Sometimes up a half step, sometimes up a whole step, sometimes a minor or major third.

  • Please could you give some examples? I don't know of a single movement from any Bruckner symphony which ends on a different tonic to the one it started on. And one essential property of the truck driver's gear change is that it changes the key permanently and there is no return -- but perhaps you are using the term differently? – Rosie F Nov 10 at 13:00
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One thing I would like to add to the (excellent and quite complete) answers above.

There is a fundamental difference between arranging a pop song, and writing classical music (which generally lasts a lot longer) in terms of what you are trying to achieve.

For most pop music, you are trying to get to the listener by a sequence of events:

  1. Hopefully the intro and first few lines of the sing are intriguing enough to keep them listening (and memorable enough that they will recognise the song again).

  2. Somewhere along the way you need to bring things to some form of climax.

  3. After 3 minutes, you are done. There's no guarantee that you didn't get faded out, so everything after 3:00 is non-essential padding.

So the half or whole step (or indeed minor third) modulation is one way to add that much needed excitement. And while it can be a trope - it can also be done in a pretty creative way. Check out the inestimable Mr Cole escorting his date (1951 - not sure who arranged this but - wow! Billy May? That was a very brave place to modulate, but Nat and a great studio orchestra handle it with aplomb. Right on the 2:00 mark.)

And another great example is of course "Rock With You" - there it was Rod Temperton. Happens at 2:40.

As others pointed out above - as a device it is probably as old as pop music (I wonder if there are any examples in European lieder). But it's not what you do - it's the way that you do it.

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