[Smt-talk] Popular Songs with 3 or more modulations?

Mark Yeary mark+smt at yeary.net
Mon Jun 16 13:40:13 PDT 2014

Hello Devin and SMT-Listers,

I don’t know if I’d call this pop, or even popular, but it fits by some criteria: Pink Floyd’s “The Nile Song” (1969). Starting in A, it uses a I-bVII-I-bVII-V/II pattern (e.g., A-G-A-G-F# --> B...) to complete a 2-cycle of key areas—and it keeps going once it returns to A. If you haven’t heard “The Nile Song," it merits a listen—it’s not your typical Pink Floyd (if there is such a thing).

That said, what constitutes a modulation in popular music? By most listeners’ standards, each of the six key areas is there; the vocal is a simple extension of the chords, always singing either root or fifth, but the guitar solos afford enough tones to suggest that David Gilmour treated each key area as distinct. What might we consider to be the minimum criteria for a pop-music modulation? For example, I hear the “triple modulation” in Hall and Oates’s “She’s Gone” as a simple change from E to G with passing chords linking their dominants; for me, a single chord does not constitute a key area, but others might hear keys more radically—or more conservatively—in this and other examples.


Mark Yeary, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
School of Music, University of Louisville

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