When I am playing the music of J.S.Bach, my friends often mistake it to be a piece of pop music. However, they often realize they are wrong the instant the music modulates.

I haven't listened to much pop music, but I always feel that even if the composer uses a variety of chords, they rarely use modulation.

Note: I'll try to stick close to what is commonly referred to as "pop". Don't discuss other music such as jazz.


  1. Has pop music ever modulated at all?!
  2. Why does pop music rarely modulate?
  3. What is the difference between the chord sequences of pop music and J.S.Bach, that makes the former modulate less?

I know there are sudden distant key shifts without any subtle transition in pop music. However, What I am talking about now is NOT brutal key jump(e.g. to move up half step), BUT subtle and smooth transition following the theory of circular fifth and harmony theory.

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    I'm locking this question for a week while we iron out a few things on the meta. In the future if parts of the question are unclear, request for clarification or flag the question to be closed as unclear. Another thing is if you are making an assumption due to lack of clarification in the post , you can put that assumption in the answer so even after the edit for clarity is there, the answer still stands as is.
    – Dom
    Mar 12 '18 at 14:21
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    – Doktor Mayhem
    Mar 16 '18 at 10:08

I'll bet all of you—whether you know it or not—already like Johann Sebastian Bach!

—Glenn Holland

You approach the question from the flawed premise that "pop" music rarely modulates (which I'm taking to mean as changes key) much, and that it's abrupt when it does. The answers already posted have hopefully dispelled that notion, but I have a couple more thoughts to add.

Music educators like Mr. Holland have known for a long time that making connections between popular and classical music is a great way to introduce students to the concepts and practice of music theory. For instance, Repp writes convincingly and academically about how key changes in Beatles songs mirror classical techniques. In fact,

Modulation to closely related keys is evident in the songs “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Yesterday.”

Far from being abrupt, these songs demonstrate the "subtle and smooth" criteria you seek. I encourage you to read the article.

I also want to leave you with one of my favorite uses of the key change in popular music, Stevie Wonder's "Summer Soft". Indeed, the entire Songs in the Key of Life album is a study in harmonic concepts across different styles, and this song in particular modulates upwards a half step repeatedly and to great effect for nearly half of its running length (starting from about 2:10):

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    Modulation to closely related keys is evident in the songs “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Yesterday.” Good point. Not all bridge parts and switches between verse and refrain in pop are "abrupt and sudden".
    – Stinkfoot
    Mar 12 '18 at 4:18
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    Another example would be "You're gonna [sic] lose that girl", which transposes from E to G via a D chord (bVII in E, V in G) and returns via a deceptive cadence with F as the pivot chord. Mar 13 '18 at 10:30

(Parts of this answer were posted before the OP edited the question to exclude some of it - in particular, e.g. to move up half step and Don't discuss other music such as jazz. were added after this answer was posted.)

Has pop music ever modulated at all?!

Your terminology is rather imprecise: You seem to be drawing a hard line between Bach/Classical and everything else, which you refer to as "Pop". But what's not classical isn't necessarily "pop", which refers to a very particular genre. Rock, Jazz, Folk/World Music, various forms of "Art Music" are not classical, but they are by no means "Pop", and some of those genres make ample use of modulation. @topomorto in his excellent answer cites a great Paul Simon song, but that song is difficult to categorize as "pop" - it's a unique form of art music from a very talented and individualistic singer/song writer. AFAIK, that song was not a popular hit - it's a difficult song to perform well, and 'you can't dance to it'.

So your question is unclear, and perhaps a bit unfair as well: To divide music in the manner you have is IMO rather demeaning to every sort of music that doesn't meet your standard, which sounds like: JS Bach vs Everything Else!

I'll try to stick close to what is commonly referred to as "pop", which means music that tends to be commercially oriented, and strives to be "popular" with a broad range of "regular people", who are not necessarily musically sophisticated or literate.

A very popular technique is to move the key up in half steps (other appropriate intervals can also be used but half steps seem to be the most common) through a song to build excitement. Such devices are also common for the last verse of a pop song.

It's not a sudden key shift to a bridge part, but a gradual, controlled and contrived form of modulation in pop - hardly brutal - the band usually does play a transitional phrase or two - although not really much in the way of harmonic sophistication either:

Moves up half a step for the final refrain/fadeout - huge hit for Wilson Pickett, one of the greatest soul singers ever: (Perhaps this does fall into the category of sudden/brutal by your criteria, although the transition is quite smooth - not at all disruptive.)

Not sure if you're including jazz or not - jazz is by no means "Pop" - obviously jazz and jazz-rock (Steely Dan for example) have plenty. Here's a very famous recording, featuring modulation and the now ubiquitous Coltrane Changes:

In jazz harmony, the Coltrane changes (Coltrane Matrix or cycle, also known as chromatic third relations and multi-tonic changes) are a harmonic progression variation using substitute chords over common jazz chord progressions. These substitution patterns were first demonstrated by jazz musician John Coltrane on the albums Bags & Trane (on the track "Three Little Words") and Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago (on "Limehouse Blues"). Coltrane continued his explorations on the 1960 album Giant Steps, and expanded upon the substitution cycle in his compositions "Giant Steps" and "Countdown", the latter of which is a reharmonized version of Eddie Vinson's "Tune Up". The Coltrane changes are a standard advanced harmonic substitution used in jazz improvisation.

The changes serve as a pattern of chord substitutions for the ii–V–I progression (supertonic–dominant–tonic) and are noted for the tonally unusual root movement by major thirds (either up or down) by a major third interval as opposed to more typical minor or major second intervals, see steps and skips, thus "Giant Steps", creating an augmented triad.

Now that we've gotten to jazz, we can find the best examples of sophisticated modulation in pop music coming from Steely Dan - a revolutionary jazz/rock group (essentially comprised of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) who have recorded music that makes ample use of modulation in modern jazz fashion. This song was discussed here:

See: Recognizing modulation style / pattern in Steely Dan's "West of Hollywood"

Steely Dan was a "pop" band in the strictest sense and they had no qualms about being referred to as such - they enjoyed making popular music and they said so. They were a huge commercial success with a number of Top 40 hits - and they made ample use of modulation in many, if not all of them: Count the key changes in these songs:

Why pop music rarely modulates?

  1. It's not necessary, in fact it's often detrimental : Pop music is designed to be Popular: Pop artists want to make music that ordinary people can easily relate to - it should be pleasing and catchy so people can easily connect with it, sing along with it, relax with it, dance to it, etc. Sophisticated modulation along the lines you are speaking of doesn't do much for any of that - just makes it more difficult. How can you hum along with a song that keeps modulating through the circle of 5ths?
  2. Many pop artists don't have the formal training required to make the sort of sophisticated music you're talking about.

What is the difference between the chord sequence of pop music and J.S.Bach that makes the former modulates less?

Not sure this part of your question makes much sense: Nothing "makes" it modulate less, musically speaking. Pop music simply doesn't generally use such techniques, as explained. A pop artist who was well educated musically and wanted to use modulation could certainly use it, however if there was more than a very moderate amount, it would no longer be pop, but some form of "art music".

In a very broad sense, we could say that the more technically sophisticated and complex music tends to be, the further it strays from the "Pop" genre, by definition, as explained. Technically speaking, there is no reason why the Beatles "I Want Hold Your Hand" could not be played with Coltrane Changes, or any other sort of modulation, but what purpose would that serve? It would ruin the song!


Has pop music ever modulated at all?!

Absolutely yes:

Steely Dan's music shows indisputably that sophisticated, elegant modulation is used very successfully in "pop" music, even using the narrowest definition of that term. There are plenty of other examples as well, but AFAIK, none have done it was well, or had as much commercial-"pop" success as Steely Dan. IMO they were "a cut above".

Having said that, I'll stand by my contention that more often that not, complexity tends to denigrate the "popular" value of "pop", at least by the standards the post WW II, rapid/mass communication/hi-tech period. Pop music does not need modulation to be "good" or successful, any more than Bach needs a good lead guitarist.

  • Thank you very much. However, I just want to talk about pop music. J. S. Bach It's just an example to illustrate what I am going to say. I know other gneres such as jazz, but that's not what I want to talk about here.
    – Ma Joad
    Mar 11 '18 at 11:24
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    @MaJoad - you have in no way explained what you mean by "pop". See my revised answer.
    – Stinkfoot
    Mar 11 '18 at 11:35
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    Though (I think) I know what you mean, perhaps there's a danger in characterising pop music as not being generally so "technically sophisticated and complex". That's often true in terms of the amount of variation in harmony you get in a single piece (which of course is the context of this question!), but there are other dimensions where pop music can be much more sophisticated than Classical - exploration of timbre, for example.
    – topo morto
    Mar 11 '18 at 12:07
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    @topomorto - there's a danger... Certainly. That's why I said In a very broad sense broad sense and in bold. :) You said something similar in your answer, just not as up front about it. Agreed about timbre, etc - Hendrix went to places Beethoven never dreamed off! But question isn't in that direction. Be that is it may, the Dan turns it all upside down. Amazing musicians, those two - who has been able to pull off what they did? Many have tried, very few have succeeded - none to the degree that they did.
    – Stinkfoot
    Mar 11 '18 at 14:14
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    I agree that different definitions of pop exist. I think this post does a really nice job of answering the question using the most fundamental definition of pop: "designed to be popular." Spot on, +1
    – jdjazz
    Mar 11 '18 at 14:54

Have pop music ever modulated at all?

Yes, of course - an example I like is:

...and there are many more.

Why pop music rarely modulates?

I've mentioned a slower, more balladic piece, but think of the function of a typical dance-oriented pop piece - people want to be able to dance, to sing along, and to 'know where they are' in the music. These kinds of pop pieces are, therefore, studies in repetition. The art of the dance-pop composer is in maintaining interest within a harmonic and rhythmic framework that doesn't change too much. So in many cases, creating a slow, subtle modulation would be a poor choice considering the function of the music.

What is the difference between the chord sequence of pop music and J.S.Bach that makes the former modulates less?

As we already said, pop music is more oriented around repetition. Pop and rock music is also often not concerned with strongly establishing a 'key' - there are many pop and rock pieces with repeating chord progressions where those chords nevertheless aren't contained within one key. There isn't the assumption that you have to strongly establish a particular key.

Possibly part of the reason for this is the influence of blues music, where the scale used has a degree of flexibility in it such that it's sometimes not possible to characterise the music as minor or major - it's somewhere in between. So there is a departure from the idea of being in a 'key' in the classical sense, even though there may still be a strong tonal centre.

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    @Stinkfoot Paul Simon? Who knows. I've never been all that fussed about genre labels... but he was always in the 'Rock & Pop' section when I used to buy CDs. Pop is a strange genre as many examples can tend to flee as you attempt to label them 'pop'. "Here's some pop!" ; "Naaah, that's motown.". "What about this?"...." That's house, man". Etc. etc.
    – topo morto
    Mar 11 '18 at 20:14
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    Regarding Paul Simon, there's a very subtle modulation in the final verse of 'Still crazy after all these years'. Mar 12 '18 at 4:17
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    @No'amNewman - OK , Still crazy after all these years was a Top 40 hit, so it is Pop! :)
    – Stinkfoot
    Mar 12 '18 at 4:50
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    I disagree that use of borrowed chords and modal mixture common in pop and rock somehow takes away from the sense of an established key. At the very least, the melodies and harmonies used in pop almost always firmly establish a tonal center. The exact mode might be ambiguous changed during the song, or could be outside of one of the seven diatonic modes. Mar 12 '18 at 15:05
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    @ToddWilcox I think we're thinking along the same lines - the tonal centre is often well-defined, but a particular mode of the diatonic may not be settled on.
    – topo morto
    Mar 12 '18 at 15:19

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