I know of 2 very common modulations that classical music composers of all ages have done. Those 2 are relative modulation and parallel modulation respectively. I myself have done those and I see both of these types of major/minor shifts in Beethoven's music all the time. Even his fifth symphony which for the first movement mostly stays in C minor, has both the parallel and relative major in it. But there are some other modulations that I hear in Beethoven all the time that I likely would not hear in Chopin, Mozart, or even Schubert, at least not often. The Pathetique Sonata is a good example of one of them.

Here is the modulation sequence of the Pathetique Sonata up to the development section:

Cm -> Eb -> Gm -> Em

That last one, the only way I could really describe it besides a direct modulation is modulating to the relative minor of the parallel major. It has both a relative modulation and parallel modulation but they occur simultaneously. The reason I hear it this way primarily has to do with all the B naturals at the end of the G minor section.

But there is one Beethoven piece which tops that in terms of the number of direct modulations and is even more famous. That of course being his ninth symphony. Just in the first movement alone there are shifts back and forth between these 4 keys:

  • D minor
  • F major
  • Bb major
  • C minor

D minor to F is very common. D minor to Bb is much less common. Even less commonly I hear Bb modulating to C minor directly and there are several moments in the symphony where there is a direct modulation between Bb major and C minor. And of course, in other movements there is modulation to D major as well. That is at least 4 different modulations, only 2 of which are expected modulations(the relative and parallel respectively).

Now I think the reason he is able to make all those direct modulations in his ninth symphony is because he is dealing with a large orchestra and modulations in an orchestra tend to sound smooth, almost as if they are expected, even when they aren't. Conversely, if I were to modulate from D minor to C minor and have it sound smooth, this is probably what I would do for a piano solo work:

D minor -> G minor -> C minor

Or have the melody change key while the harmony stays the same until I reach C minor at which point, I have the harmonic change occur. I have done that melodic change before and it works as long as you aren't modulating to a key that has an altered version of the original tonic. So this would work equally well for going to F# minor or even to A major. But it wouldn't work for Ab major or E major unless I had a second harmonic change, at which point I have covered every key in the circle of fifths.

But why is Beethoven able to make these surprising direct modulations in his piano sonatas and other works besides his symphonies and have it all sound as though it was expected?

  • Have you figured out whether Beethoven uses pivot chords at these modulation points? (IMO, the Gm-to-Em shift in the 1st movement of the Pathetique Sonata is not expected but probably uses a pivot chord.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 11, 2019 at 6:59
  • I think Beethoven could have made what ever he liked ... after he is accepted as one of the greatest composers the audience had 200 years to get adapted to any of his caprioles :) Couldn't one answer be: we expect what we are used to expect what Beethoven will do? Feb 11, 2019 at 8:43
  • I haven't yet figured out if he uses pivot chords to make these sudden modulations. It would be easy to figure that out for the Pathetique Sonata though. But with all the staves of an orchestral work, it becomes much harder to see the harmony underlying those melodies and countermelodies, and thus harder to know how Beethoven.made all those modulations in his ninth symphony.
    – Caters
    Feb 11, 2019 at 15:01
  • for your latter concern there are four hand piano editions of Beethoven symphonies . Feb 11, 2019 at 15:30
  • 1
    I know. I have even seen and heard piano solo versions of those symphonies transcribed by Liszt. I have even tried learning the Liszt transcription of Beethoven's fifth symphony.
    – Caters
    Feb 11, 2019 at 15:34

3 Answers 3


D minor to F is very common. D minor to Bb is much less common. Even less commonly I hear Bb modulating to C minor directly and there are several moments in the symphony where there is a direct modulation between Bb major and C minor. And of course, in other movements there is modulation to D major as well.

All of those combinations differ only by one flat in the key signatures. By that measure they are closely related keys. Not sure about the change to D major, but from your description it would seem to be a parallel key change referring back to the D minor.

About the Pathetique and Gm to Em. Disregard the technical details of the harmony mm. 132-135 which takes us to the dominant of Em, and think about the expression markings. It goes from grave to allegro molto e con brio. The whole point is a dramatic change in expression! Moving to a distant key is part of creating the expressive effect.

The treatment of modulations whether smoothed out with pivot chords or direct, or whether to closely related or distant keys, is all a matter of how the composer wants the modulation to be felt. Beethoven and the Romantics that followed him wanted their music to have a different dramatic impact that the music of someone like Haydn and their modulations reflect that.


Beethoven's aim wasn't to be smooth, it was to be dramatic. He exploited the fact that music could go ANYWHERE! As @Divide1918 said, one of his favourite tools was the diminished 7th chord, which can act as a dominant leading to four different keys. Every note in a dim7 can act as a leading note.

Whole books have been written on the subject. Here's one. (You can click through to the download without signing up. They're not trying to fool you.)



In Pathetique sonata first movement bar 134, Beethoven wrote an F#dim7/C resolving to the first inversion of Gm. The next bar is almost identical, except the F#dim/C is spelled a little differently: The top note E flat is now notated as D sharp, which makes the chord, in some sense, the third inversion of D#dim7. Beethoven then "naturally" resolves this to Em, thus modulating into E minor.

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