I'm currently writing a short piece of music for a university assessment, and there are a number of conditions in place as far as what it must contain. About half of them I'm confident I can implement, but these I'm a little confused by:

  • Tonicization by secondary dominant
  • Modulation by direct, pivot chord, dominant chord or transitional
  • Modal Interchange

I've started writing chords and melody in the key of D minor, any advice for me as far as adding in those techniques? Apologies if this is basic knowledge, theoretical songwriting is not at all my strong point - always been a by ear kind of musician.

  • Please do not hesitate to ask your instructor and/or TA. The particular assignment may have some specific things in mind that folks here might have trouble anticipating. Nov 5, 2015 at 3:39

2 Answers 2


Although I agree with JJM you should be comfortable with this if you are writing assignments on it. I will like to add some thoughts on point two.

Modulation by direct, pivot chord, dominant chord or transitional

This simply puts mean they want you to modulate to the dominant and the modulation has to be clear. You say you are in d minor so a modulation to the dominant would entail you going to a minor key.

The pivot chord is a chord that may belong to both the keys. I think a good pivot chord would in this case D/F/A It is the Tonic chord in the root key and the Sub dominant chord in the key you are modulating to.

So you can have a modulation to the Dominant by having lets say an interrupted cadence at the end of a phrase( V-vi) then in the first bar of the new phrase you can go to the pivot chord and then you can make your modulation clear by go to the dominant chord of the new key and making the modulation clear by using the leading tone of the key (G#).

You should also consider using the melodic minor form as this makes the modulation crystal clear.

  • Hi Neil, thank you so much for your advice - one question I have is why does the fact that I am in D minor to start off with mean modulating to a minor key - the impression I've been getting is that modulating to your keys relative major (F in this case) is the way to do it. I'm very confused though, so any explanation would help. I'm pouring over my textbook and websites but it's not changing a lot. Nov 4, 2015 at 1:24

These concepts are concepts that you should have learned in class. It's an assignment, so no one expects it to be genius stuff. Here's my advice:

1.) Talk to your professor - ask to meet and get some 1-on-1 clarification.

2.) If they are too busy, try to schedule a time with your TA/GA. Chances are likely that they are masters candidates in composition and shouldn't have any problems helping you.

3.) If they are both busy, talk to your classmates - your colleagues who are either very confident in theory or the composition majors, who will also obviously be confident in music theory.

4.) Study your textbook - it will have definitions for all of these things and will provide examples for how they are used. For the part where you need to use these things, just copy the gesture out of the textbook (of course transposing) and then fill in the rest of your "piece" with original material.

5.) I will clarify one thing for you, something which theory books are not always clear about. With tonicization, the tonal shift is very temporary (1-2 beats). With modulation, the tonal shift is more permanent, such as a new movement, a new section in the music, an "answer" in a fugue, or extended phrases / periods.

  • I am very shy, unfortunately I have never fared well in asking for teachers help and as such I have found myself in this predicament with a lot of poor marks and a lot of building blocks missing. I appreciate the advice though. I am reading up as much as I possibly can to try and understand this. Nov 4, 2015 at 1:20
  • At some point you're going to need to learn to ask someone for something; better learn to do it now before you get to a job and could be fired because you didn't do something correctly and never asked. A professor is not going to fail you for asking questions. Teaching college myself, I always wish students would stop by my office during office hours - especially the ones who need it. Nov 4, 2015 at 13:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.