I was playing 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' and noticed it modulates from B minor to a fifth above, F-sharp major.

I looked on wikipedia and found it says:

"After being stated, the main theme is then very slightly modified with a few different ascending notes, but transposed up a perfect fifth (to the key of F-sharp major, the dominant key, but with flattened sixth) and played on different instruments."

So it got me wondering when one should say modulate versus the word transpose? I thought transposition implied all notes are shifted by the same pitch. But in Hall of Mountain King they're not the same melody, they're also different in that one is minor and one is major.

  • 1
    Thank you for at last asking a question about something you've observed in a real piece of music!
    – Laurence
    Mar 7, 2019 at 23:23
  • Based on the answers, I'm starting to get the hunch that transposition can result in a mere tonicization instead of a full-blown modulation.
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 8, 2019 at 0:50
  • Maybe not even that. Does the 'Mountain King' tune repeat starting ON the dominant, or IN the dominant key? (But don't expect a definitive answer :-)
    – Laurence
    Mar 8, 2019 at 13:34
  • The proper musical terminology for a modulation from B Major to F# Major would be that the passage has modulated to the dominant.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 23, 2021 at 11:25

5 Answers 5


It's almost like the square and rectangle issue.

When music modulates, it just moves into a new key. Music can modulate using prior melodic material, or it can modulate with material that is completely new.

But transposition implies a copying and pasting of earlier material from one key into another key.

In other words, music that is transposed from one key to another also results in a modulation from the first key to the second. However, not every modulation is a transposition, because the music could have modulated without the use of any prior material.

(In other words, a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn't always a square.)

There's one added wrinkle in this distinction, but I'm saving it until the end because not all musicians agree: to me, a modulation implies a cadence in the new key. So it's possible that a transposition is not a modulation if the original music being transposed itself never reaches a cadence in the new key. As such, there's no cadence in the new key, and thus not a modulation.

  • I thought a transposition meant 100% similar, where all the notes are shifted by the same pitch. but as long as they are similar (even 80% similar for example) you're saying it's considered a transposition.
    – user34288
    Mar 7, 2019 at 22:28
  • 1
    @foreyez I wonder if that comment is for Michael's answer? But to me, transposition is usually literal, although there can be some slight adjustments (often between what we call "real" and "diatonic" transposition).
    – Richard
    Mar 7, 2019 at 23:09
  • 1
    @Richard Umm.... I think a square is always a rectangle actually. You've got that bit the wrong way round haven't you?
    – JimM
    Mar 7, 2019 at 23:26
  • "music that is transposed from one key to another also results in a modulation from the first key to the second": not necessarily; "transposition" also refers to just taking some material and moving it to another key without modulation. The least controversial example of this is probably playing an entire piece in a different key, for example because it is being played by an instrument with a different range.
    – phoog
    Oct 23, 2021 at 10:17

Modulate means a change of key. Something needs to make clear the music is in a new key. Traditionally a cadence in a new key does the job. Importantly to the comparison of terms a modulation can be achieved with all new thematic material.

In transposition some musical material is repeated, but at a different position pitch-wise. There is both chromatic and diatonic transposing so the pitch shifting isn't necessarily by the exact same interval for each note. Either way the important thing is that some thematic material is repeated. Note the difference with modulation where repeating material isn't part of the definition.

Given that transposition can be diatonic, it won't necessarily result in a key change. (You may notice that a diatonic transposition is the same as a diatonic melodic sequence.)

If a thematic passage was chromatically transposed, it could result in a key change, but I suppose it really depends on how the passage moves, and also the length of the passage. Some might end up resulting in a sequence. This [V6/5 of IV|IV]|[V6/5 of V|V] is both a transposition of the material in brackets and a harmonic sequence. On the other hand in a simple sonata form the "second theme group" (the part of the exposition in the dominant key) can often be simply transposed down a fifth to the tonic during the recapitulation. (If that sonata stuff isn't familiar, try reading some reviews of sonata form and then look at L. Mozart's Nannerl Notebook which as many examples in small scale pieces.) Transposition in the recapitulation is a nice example where it has formal, structural meaning and a modulation, a key change, is the result.

So, there is some overlap in the meanings, but modulation doesn't really say anything about the handling of thematic material while transposition does tell specifically we are modifying thematic material.


'Modulation' is the process of getting to a different key. When we get there, we've 'modulated'.

A particular musical element, repeated literally at a different pitch, is 'transposed'.

It's not stretching the definition of 'transposed' too much to let it cover an ALMOST literal copy, and a different mode as well as a different pitch.

  • The modulation of the meaning of modulation is interesting in itself. Originally, "modulation" was used to describe the B and Bb usage in chant (600AD or so); this seems in agreement with the words as used in radio. In tonal music, a short secondary dominant was called a modulation (like in radio) but that left a key change without a name. Now the key change is a "modulation" while a secondary dominant is a "tonicization."
    – ttw
    Oct 22, 2021 at 22:19
  • @ttw B flat wasn't invented until 1000 AD or so.
    – phoog
    Oct 23, 2021 at 10:19

The word "modulation" isn't so much the problem (see my comment to another answer) as that there are degrees of tonal change. A simple II7-V7-I probably didn't really modulate to the dominant key. Tovey discusses the difference between cadencing "in" a key and cadencing "on" a note. A chord pattern like I-IV-I-I7-iv-II7-V followed by I-IV-V-I-V-I doesn't really modulate; it cadences "on" the V. A bigger change would be I-IV-I-I7-iv-II7-V followed by V-VI7-II7-V does seem a bit like a modulation "in" the dominant. Schoenberg suggests that one must "neutralize" the original key to be considered a modulation. "Neutralization" means (according to Schoenberg) emphasizing notes in the new key that differ from those in the old key. Modulating from C to G means emphasizing F# (especially where F would be used without modulation.)


Transposing is moving whole passages up a certain interval. The singer cannot sing the passage in E Major so you transpose it a diminished fifth up to the key of Bb. Transcribing is related to Transposing. Here you find a violin piece written in the treble clef, but you want to play it on your Viola, but you don't auctually want to change the pitches. So you see ah this crotchet is the E above middle C, you find the E above middle C on the alt clef and you write the note there. The music does not really change, you just transcribe it so that it makes sense on the viola.

Modulation is a harmonic device where there is movement between keys. You can modulate just about to any key imaginable but some are harder to make convincing than others, although I don't think any are impossible.

You start in C Major, you move to a minor you end on C Major again. Music is all about movement, the moving between keys (modulation) is one of the ways you make music interesting.

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