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I was asked to incorporate a modulation that goes one semitone up in a song initially written in G. So at some point it should go from G to G#.

I am having a lot of trouble finding a relatively nice sounding chords to transition smoothly from G to G#. Is there some known trick or commonly used chord(s) that makes this modulation flow nicely ?

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    The quickest way, and one of the most common ones is to do it chromatically. Simply take a chord from the G major scale and raise the notes a semitone higher. Or you can raise some of the notes and then the rest can follow. Really depends on what your piece is like. – Shevliaskovic Jun 28 '17 at 11:14
  • before receiving Tim's answer I tried a chromatic approach but wasn't satisfied, it sounded really rough and conflicting with the overall mood of the song. I also tried going through some minor keys for a short time but that felt like it killed the "uplifting" effect of going one semitone higher. – Joulin Nicolas Jun 28 '17 at 13:26
  • It may have a bearing on what the last 3 or 4 chords/harmonies are just before the change is supposed to come. What are they? – Tim Jun 28 '17 at 13:53
  • the chords usually goes I-IV-I-V. With your answer the last V chords is actually the V from the new key. – Joulin Nicolas Jun 28 '17 at 14:15
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Any readers may thank you more if the new key becomes Ab. Ab has only 4 flats in it, whereas G# has 8 sharps.

The simplest, which always works, pretty well whichever key you're changing into, is to use the dominant of the new key for a bar. Thus Eb or Eb7 will do the trick. I've done it hundreds of times with choirs and bands and soloists - some of whom were genuinely unaware that a key change had actually occurred! It works really well when going up a semitone, as there are common notes involved. Think G - G B D, and the V of Ab - Eb G Bb Db. O.k., just the one! but all the others are only a semitone from notes of G. Then Eb7 leads almost automatically to Ab.

Going to any other key, ii-V-I is a tried and tested move (in the new key!)

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    Some church hymns are traditionally sung a semitone higher for each verse. This method is the only one I ever use, since it takes only one beat and there isn't time for anything more between verses. – Kilian Foth Jun 28 '17 at 12:44
  • Okay, that sounds decent ! I am not versed in key signature hence my mistake when writing G# instead of Ab, I'll remember that. – Joulin Nicolas Jun 28 '17 at 13:04
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    @JoulinNicolas Just an added aspect to this trick: the V7 of Ab sounds exactly the same as a German Augmented Sixth chord in the original key of G (Eb–G–Bb–Db sounds the same as Eb–G–Bb–C#). So if you want to be extra sneaky, you can use the Ger+6 a couple of times during the G section, then suddenly use it as a V7 in the new Ab key. It's called an enharmonic modulation and can be kind of magical when used well. – Pat Muchmore Jun 29 '17 at 0:20
  • @PatMuchmore - good, but how do you know if that is a German Aug.6th or the V7 of the new key...? And if you did know, what made your mind up? I guess it's just that one woudn't use the V7 of the new key until the new key was imminent? – Tim Jun 29 '17 at 8:33
  • @Tim The point is that it's both. So long as you're in the key of G, you'd resolve it like a Ger+6 (or, in jazz terminology, like a tritone substitute for V/V) and go to D or D7. Once you want to change key to Ab, you resolve it like V7 by going straight to Ab. The behavior of the chord is how you "know." Of course, if you're notating every note, you can make it more obvious to the performer by using C# in the key of G and Db in the key of Ab, but in a lead sheet situation it would be best to call it Eb7 regardless of key. – Pat Muchmore Jun 29 '17 at 10:26
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Just jumping up the key up a semitone without a chord progression to lead into the modulation is a very common musical trope! Simply change the key signature in-between two major sections of a song, such as transitioning from a verse to the chorus - the already-present transition prevents the sudden modulation from sounding out of place or overly abrupt.

This is sometimes called the "truck driver's gear change" and shows up frequently in pop, rock, and dance music. When you abruptly modulate up a semitone, it immediately adds a lot of energy to a song. As a result, it's most frequently used at the start of the final chorus of a song to make the ending have more of a punch to it.

I Won't Let You Down by OK Go has an excellent example of this modulation near the end of the song. Run and Gun, an electronic dance track, starts with this modulation to gain some surprising energy coming out of the intro into the first drop.

The truck driver's gear change is somewhat cliche and, to my knowledge, rarely shows up in academic, classical, or neoclassical music, so it may not be an appropriate tool for the style of music you're writing.

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A little more advanced method is to look at the shared notes between the two scales you're trying to modulate between (using enharmonic spelling to keep things simple):

G maj: G A B C D E F#

G# maj: G# A# C C# D# F G

So the only shared notes are C and G. Now make lists of all the run-of-the-mill triads you can make using those two notes in each of your two keys:

G major: CDG (Csus2), CEG (Cmaj), CFG (Csus4)

G# major: CD#G(Cmin), CFG (Csus4)

Now look for any shared chords between the two keys. There's only one in this case: CFG (Csus4). That will be your most important one to modulate between the two keys, the 'pivot'.

From here, it's just a matter of playing around with those chords above until you find a progression you like. For example, I came up with this one that sounds nice after a bit of noodling that lands you in G#maj:

Csus2, Cmaj, Csus4, G#maj

Edit: Found these interesting plays on the I V vi IV progression that start in Gmaj and end in G#maj:

Gmaj, Dmaj, Emin, Fsus4, G#maj, D#maj, Fmin, C#maj

If you sub Fmin->Fmaj you get a very interesting chromatic cadence with some delicious harmonic ambiguity:

Gmaj, Dmaj, Emin, Fsus4, G#maj, D#maj, Fmaj, C#maj

  • Wow, that Csus4 sound really good ! The only drawback is that if I follow that G# with a C# it crumbles down a bit. Like if the Csus4 did not make a strong enough case that a modulation had occured. – Joulin Nicolas Jun 28 '17 at 16:39
  • Lose the Csus2 at the beginning. Also try different inversions of C#maj. This sounds nice to me: CEG, CFG, G#CD#, FG#C# – Eriek Jun 28 '17 at 16:53
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One option is to take a detour through F# major. We use a trick of borrowing the minor subdominant from F# to get us to the subdominant of Ab. Then you've got a nice sounding IV-V(7)-I and only one minor chord which can easily be paved over when voicing it out:

         G  Bm  C#/Db  Eb(7)  Ab
     G:  I  iii
    F#:     iv    V
    Ab:           IV    V(7)   I
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Perhaps not what you are looking for, but I recall "Sampo" (Stroll) from Joe Hisaishi (opening theme of "My neighbour Totoro") which in the reprise repeats the full song a semitone up. In this guitar arrangement of mine, you can see (and hear) the simple modulation: from the concluding chord (tonic) of A major, with higher note A, the chord is suddenly replaced by F7, (keeping the A high note) - this is the dominant of Bb, which turns to be the new tonic.

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With most modulation there is a balance of technique (harmonically) and dynamics. I won't pretend to know very many common harmonic sequences that will get you a half step up, but if you lack the technique, you can always set your audience up for a would be jarring transition by slowing down, and lowering to volume, then coming back to speed and volume after a simple chromatic step up.

The augmented fifth is always an interesting sound, and could be a nice hint for your listeners.

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