Fortunately, I'm not lactose intolerant, because that last modulation was pure cheese.
March 9, 2010 7:15 PM   Subscribe

CheesyModulationFilter? How can I explain the concept of a "cheesy modulation" to a non-musician?

I sing in my church's choir, and am one of the few trained musicians in the group. Many of the choir members do not read music. Today's rehearsal introduced what I (perhaps snootily) regarded as a VERY cheesy choral arrangement. The coup de grâce was a half-step up modulation for the last verse.

I turned to my friend next to me and tried to explain why I was chuckling, but he didn't understand what was so funny about the key change.

My googling this evening has let me stumble over the TV Tropes page about The Truck Driver's Gear Change which is great for examples of this type of modulation, but not so great in explaining to non-musicians why it's, well...cheesy. (I have never heard the "Truck Driver" description before, and have no idea how accepted or common it really is.)

So, Hive Mind musicians (and non-musicians), how could I have explained why the half-step up modulation for the last verse was so...cheesy?
posted by QuantumMeruit to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Cheese is in the eye of the beholder... I don't think you can explain it. But I would have chuckled with you. Can they relate to Barry Manilow arrangements at all?
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:34 PM on March 9, 2010

The famous TDGC site -- extremely detailed! -- has a great FAQ that might help. You can browse through a huge number of analyzed songs, complete with mp3 clips. Amusingly enough, given your specific experience, some people call this the Christian Key Change.
Someone called Doug says that for many years he has referred to the phenomenon as the Christian Key Change. He explains: "This was after doing some gigs in holy-roller churches. Every freaking tune was full of these ridiculous ascending half-step modulations. You'll catch it in lots of 'Contemporary Christian' music and almost every tune in any Easter or Christmas pageant at a 'progressive' church or whatever they call themselves."
I also like this explanation at Crooked Timber:
You must have noticed a particularly irritating rock’n’pop tactic to which certain songwriters resort when forced into a desperate compositional corner: having flogged every last bit of life from their tune but being unable think of any natural way of killing the damn thing off, a last-ditch decision is made to shift everything up a semi-tone and just keep going, in the hope (i) that this will provide the dirge with an extra dose of energy, and (ii) that the listener won’t notice the awful jarring effect as the musical gears screech protestingly.
posted by maudlin at 7:35 PM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's the sign of being out of ideas. It's going for big emotion but delivering only a extra repetition. It's tacky, it's cornball. It's swinging for the fences with an inflatable bat. It's Bedazzling your wedding dress to make it more classy. It's tired old acts headlining in Vegas. It's 9/11 in a speech, it's the Nazi in the debate, it's Stairway in the guitar store, it's a Chinese tattoo. It's lame dressed up as awesome.
posted by fleacircus at 7:36 PM on March 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

I don't know if this helps in this context, but I've heard this cheesy modulation described as "churchy," and I instantly knew what they meant despite having never attended church.

Why is it cheesy? Because every church choir full of non-singers does it.
posted by cmoj at 7:39 PM on March 9, 2010

Stereotypically, anyway.
posted by cmoj at 7:39 PM on March 9, 2010

I'd say it's cheesy if it's cliche, and it's cliche if the only apparent reason for the keychange is to force a dramatic change into an otherwise unexciting arrangement.

I'd probably also say that if you have to be a musician to understand the cheese, then maybe it's like a super-stinky French cheese that you wouldn't necessarily want to try and force someone with a palate for cheddar and American to appreciate.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:44 PM on March 9, 2010

I have a pretty rough grasp of music, but when I recognize a musical cliche I'm usually instantly reminded of any number of obviously-cheesy songs that feature the same thing, and singing them drives the point home. Have you seen the Pachelbel Rant? That's a pretty good example of what I'm talking about. Most people won't understand when you're talking in musical terms, but they'll often understand totally-sounds-like comparisons.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:09 PM on March 9, 2010

I was just pointing this out the other day in Cheap Trick's Surrender, which does it in a very strange way. With the intro/pre-verse riff modulating when the verse doesn't. The third verse has a very strong TDGC though.
posted by Brainy at 8:09 PM on March 9, 2010

Best answer: It's lame because it's lazy. It's like ending a story with "it was all just a dream." It's an easy, unfulfilling way out. It's tasteless. There are lots of interesting, clever ways for a composer to change keys or introduce a variation into a piece of music, and this sort of thing ignores all of those possibilities and goes for the cheapest score. It's goofy because it's very inelegant, very obvious, very attention-calling.

But really, if they don't hear it that way, I'm not sure how helpful your explanations can be.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:07 PM on March 9, 2010

It's lame because it lacks voice leading. It just smashes it up a semi-tone. If it were a voice-led progression to a semi-tone modulation, you would hear it differently -- because of context.

As for explaining it, why? It will just set up apart as the snotty musician who has "taste" (in a pejorative sense). Unless that is the image you wish to cultivate. If they like it, then good for them and enjoy your chuckles.
posted by sundri at 11:49 PM on March 9, 2010

My brother often referred to it as a "thumb up the ass key change".
posted by plinth at 3:01 AM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

- This is often called a "producer's key change" because the producer can do it at the end of a song without calling for the songwriters to change anything else but the key.

- It's used to sort of spice up the song if the producer or arranger thinks the chorus isn't strong enough to carry the song to the end.

- In general (being very general) when constructing chords/scales you skip every-other-note. This key change is a shift by one note, which makes it out of key with the rest of the song, which makes it jarring.

We're working with a producer & he wanted us to try this & the singer couldn't wrap her head around it. She would have got it in time but thankfully we went with another, more sane arrangement. She couldn't "get" it even though it was a smalls shift and obviously within her range, because it was asking her to sing precisely out of key, and if you're proficient at singing in-key, singing out of key is very difficult to do.
posted by MesoFilter at 8:49 AM on March 10, 2010

MesoFilter, your last two paragraphs are a little off the mark. This has nothing to do with being out of key -- it's a modulation, or a key change. Everything changes key, so the singer would still be singing in the same key as the accompaniment, it's just that they've all changed keys compared to the beginning of the song.

Changing keys in and of itself is just fine and dandy. Modulating up a half-step isn't the problem either. For example, I wrote a song that modulates up a half-step in what I think is a pretty nifty way. The key change goes from E minor to F minor like this:

Em F#m7b5 B7 C C7 Fm

Or in Roman numerals:

Em: i ii V VI
_____Fm: V V7 i

It's a half-step modulation, but it's not so jarring and awkward because of the bolded chord, which is shared by both keys and so makes the transition smooth. This is called a pivot-chord modulation. An important feature of the truck driver's gear change is that there is no pivot chord -- it's a sudden unprepared modulation.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:22 AM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Y'all are awesome. Fleacircus, the notion of "swinging for the fences with an inflatable bat" is a great visual that I've resolved to try to use in the future.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 10:43 AM on March 10, 2010

The song "Title of the Song" from DaVinci's Notebook has a perfect moment where the lead singer's lyrics (at the end of a chorus) are "Modulation and I hold a high NOTE!......."

Seems like it'd be the perfect aural example.
posted by lauranesson at 12:25 PM on March 10, 2010

You can also find a meta reference to this kind of modulation in "The Song that Goes Like This" from Monty Python's Spamalot:
I'll sing it in your face
While we both embrace
And then
We change
The key

Now we're into E!
*hem* That's awfully high for me
But as everyone can see
We should have stayed in D
For this is our song that goes like this!
posted by plinth at 12:38 PM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

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