I'd like to know if the following description is accurate: "A composer modulates from one key to another by the use of the “punning” chord, the augmented sixth (punning because it is also a dominant seventh)". Also, does he mean "punning" as "having two different meanings"? A bit of context: the speaker is Anthony Burgess, the writer (who also was a musician and a composer).

2 Answers 2


Great question; this is a particularly clever part of music theory!

Here's a nice little example in F major; it's just a I--V7--I progression with a little cadential six-four thrown in there just because.

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Meanwhile, this next example is in E minor, and it's a little bit different. It actually starts with what we call a German augmented sixth, which then resolves to its own dominant and tonic.

enter image description here

I put a star above one chord in each example; it's above the V7 in the F example, and it's above the Ger+6 in the E example. You'll notice that they're actually the same chord! There are only three real differences:

  • It's spelled with a Bf in F major but with an A# in E.
  • The Bf in F resolves down while the A# in E resolves up.
  • The E in the F example resolves up, though it resolves down in the E example (and eventually returns back to itself).

This means that we can be moving along in F major, get to a V7 chord, and just conceptualize that Bf as actually being an A#, and we can just all of a sudden modulate down a half step! This is shown at the end of the second measure below:

enter image description here

So by a "punning" chord, you're exactly right: it's a musical pun because this starred chord, although it sounds the same, can function in two different ways. Others call it a "harmonic sleight of hand."

It's kind of like this joke:

Two fish are sitting in a tank, and one fish looks to the other and says, "Hey man, how do you drive this thing?!"

This works because "tank" has two meanings here; when we see it alongside the word "fish," we think it's a fish tank. Only later do we realize which version of "tank" is actually meant, and of course that's the joke.

It's the same thing here; When we first hear beat 4 of that last example, our brains assume it's just a V7 in F. Only when we hear what comes next do we realize what was actually going on!

Note that this is also sometimes called a "common chord modulation," so named because the same chord is "in common" between these two keys.

  • 5
    There has always been a paucity of levity on this site, so thanks for the punny joke. +1 for a clear answer, too.
    – Tim
    Aug 7, 2016 at 11:14
  • Thanks! I really loved that joke! But the "punning chord" metaphor isn't mine, I'm just translating an interview with Burgess and I need to check up every fact (or half-fiction) he mentions to translate these accurately.
    – Veta Veta
    Aug 10, 2016 at 4:29
  • @VetaVeta Can I ask what interview this is? I never knew that he was also a composer, I'd love to read more about it.
    – Richard
    Aug 10, 2016 at 11:48
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    @Richard He doesn't talk much abut his composing music here, yet he mentions some thing about music and literature Anthony Burgess, The Art of Fiction No. 48 Paris Review Interviewed by John Cullinan theparisreview.org/interviews/3994/…
    – Veta Veta
    Aug 11, 2016 at 16:01

When a chord contains the tritone - the augmented 4th that is the functional "engine" of a dominant 7th chord, we can exploit the symmetrical nature of this interval. "Punning" is a nice description of this!

Thinking in C major - the important part of G7, the dominant 7th chord of that key, is the tritone interval F - B, which tends to a resolution on E - C. But F - B may be respelled as E# - B, part of C#7, the dominant 7th of F# major!

When Beethoven explored methods of development through modulation, a favourite chord was the diminished 7th. C#, E, G, Bb. There are FOUR tritones in there, each one of which may resolve in two different directions! Oh joy!

It would not be a vast exaggeration to sum up all of Common Practice harmonic analysis as "hunt the tritone".

  • 2
    You can also use diminished 7ths to fool the listener into thinking you have modulated when really you haven't. This is Bach having a bit of fun with tritones, especially bars 14-15. Score: imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/344146 Audio: youtube.com/watch?v=fCWHiOgv6wE
    – user19146
    Aug 7, 2016 at 13:57
  • Thanks! "Hunt the tritione"... There a pun hidden in this, too.Triton is a myphological Greek god (also Triden), and the Russian for "newt" is "тритон" (pronounced "treeton"). But the most important thing for me is that your answer corroborates that the passage from Burgess interview is correct.
    – Veta Veta
    Aug 10, 2016 at 4:33

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