Modulate the Key

This is part of The Writing Playground series, where we use TED Talks as a playground to learn how to make our writing (that’s right: writing!) more impactful. To make the most of this article, watch Graham Shaw’s TED Talk before reading on. Oh, and while you are at it, listen also to Beyoncé’s Love on Top.

I spent most of the 80s listening to music. I loved music. I still do, but it was practically my entire life back then. Besides school, of course. I didn’t play any musical instrument, but every free minute was dedicated to absorbing whatever music I could find. I listened to almost every genre I could come across, which, back then, wasn’t that trivial, if only because everything was much less accessible than it is today. Anyway, all this (mostly) passive experimentation didn’t make me one of those snobs who will listen exclusively to vinyl records and will never be caught listening to popular music. Quite the opposite, pop music was one of my favorite genres. It was simple but effective. It made me smile, and it made me cry. It moved me, and it made me move. It wasn’t sophisticated, and I won’t disagree with anyone saying most of it was based on a couple of mechanical formulas. And yet, it felt personal. It was fun. 

One of the iconic traits of pop music from that era is modulation. The idea is simple: Somewhere toward the last third of the song, something would change. In most cases, it was the key. It wasn’t a random change that would sound strange and break your listening flow. Instead, it was built on what came before it. Despite being so popular, it always had the effect of a surprise. The modulated part pumped new energy into the song; it was elevating. The modulation created an atmosphere you couldn’t have stayed indifferent to. It was part of the formula, and it worked.

If you turned on the radio in the 80s, there was no escape from it, but modulation wasn’t invented in pop songs of the 80s, and it is still used, albeit much less frequently today. One of the most prominent examples of the impact it creates is in Beyoncé’s 2011 song Love on Top, where she modulates the key no less than four(!) times in a row in less than 90 seconds. The impact is spectacular, giving us the feeling of taking love indefinitely higher and higher. The modulation in this song is as surprising and uplifting, even though it is predictable (in a good way) as it ever was. 

Modulation works because it is built on the intersection of two traits of the human mind: we are drawn to dynamic patterns, and we are drawn to surprises. 

Static things are less attractive. This is not a matter of taste — it is wired into our neurology. We are programmed to identify movement and favor it over still things, and, at the same time, our brains love patterns. When repeating the same note over and over again, we are bored. If we play a sequence of three chords in a loop, the pattern is much more appealing. And if the music gradually evolves, for example, by introducing a new sound bit every few repetitions, the pattern becomes more complex and, therefore, even more engaging. We love it when the music evolves, and it is even more rewarding when the evolution creates a predictable trajectory. It creates a sense of familiarity. 

Surprise is also a treat to our human mind. When something surprises us, we become fully attentive. We are energized. When we think of something surprising, we typically think of something completely unpredictable — something that appears random. Unexpected twists in movies, and stories in general, usually catch us unprepared. But in the context of music, it is hard to imagine that some random, totally unexpected twists in the composition or the arrangement will appeal to the general audience. They will simply not be pleasant to our ears, and that’s exactly where modulation comes into play. 

With modulation, pop songs like Love on Top create a surprise that is not totally unpredictable. It is not exactly the natural evolution of the tune, but it builds on whatever came before. It continues the evolution but takes us to a place we didn’t expect. It changes the trajectory without losing the overall sense of direction. It’s like a springboard that creates a boost in energy as well as a change in the dynamics. The effect is so strong that it doesn’t weaken even when you know it is coming after listening to the song dozens of times. 

I love this technique, and even when it seems to be part of a formula, I cannot escape its impact. But this is a newsletter about writing and communication, not pop music. So, it probably won’t surprise you that we can use modulation when creating textual content. And the impact of modulation in text does not fall short of its impact in the best pop songs of the 80s. 

From Evolution to Modulation in Writing 

Evolution is essential, not just in music. Any form of storytelling, be it films, literature, or poetry, wouldn’t be appealing without one or more degrees of evolution. This is how stories progress. What some find surprising is that nonfiction texts can also benefit greatly from using evolution. When we stick to describing something static, we are likely to lose our readers. The lack of movement numbs the audience. 

When we explored Brené Brown’s TED Talk, we realized just how vital evolution is not just for getting our audience’s attention and creating a stronger case but also for inviting our audience to play with our ideas. We shouldn’t just evolve our thesis and lead the audience from point A to point B — we should enable them to continue the trajectory created by the text and explore point C without our guidance. 

But as satisfactory as evolution is in textual content, an element of surprise can go even further. When the next step is predictable, the audience feels rewarded; however, when we surprise them, we create a memorable, resonating experience. Of course, we don’t want to be completely unexpected and break the reader’s chain of thought, just like Beyoncé didn’t just shift to a completely different sequence of chords. We want to build on whatever came before and use modulation as a springboard to change the trajectory without losing sight of our destination. And that’s what Graham Shaw managed to do in his TED talk

To understand the impact of modulation in this text, we have to first walk through how the text evolves before the modulation point. Most of us, the audience, start this talk believing we cannot draw. This is point A, as the title of the talk suggests, and Graham even asks us to acknowledge explicitly by asking us if we think we can draw or not. Then, after a minute, he shows us point B — where we are heading — by showing us the cartoons we are about to draw together. From this point and for the next ten minutes, Graham leads us step-by-step in creating our first cartoon and then the second and the third, gradually making us more confident in our ability even to create variations of our own. It is more than the evolution of an idea — using Graham’s guidance, we are experiencing an evolution of ourselves. 

By minute 9:00, we had already got to point B. We don’t just know in theory we can draw — we actually did it. At this point, Graham talks about applying our new capability in different scenarios. Again, this is part of the original trajectory, setting the ground for us to continue playing with the new idea presented in the text. We pretty much knew where the talk would lead us, as this is what Graham promised. But just as we think we have arrived at our destination, the text modulates and changes its trajectory. 

In the final part of the talk, just like a good old pop song from the 80s, Graham changes the trajectory of the text, using everything that came before as a springboard. As he describes his work with a group of people who suffered a stroke, we are caught unprepared. The text becomes emotional, and we experience something we hadn’t expected. However, it is not at all random: It is built on what we experienced when we practiced drawing together with Graham just minutes before. And because this modulation is built on what preceded, it makes perfect sense. We are surprised, but we totally get it. 

This modulation is much more than a change in tone or the text’s emotional impact. Graham also modulates the message. We are no longer in the playground of our drawing skills. The message is bigger and more impactful than that. The people Graham worked with gained back the confidence in their ability to communicate, not just draw. They were able to express their thoughts and share them with others — a much more profound change than just being able to draw a couple of cartoons for fun. 

The modulation that starts with an emotional twist and continues with a hopeful message is totally unexpected throughout most of the talk. When it appears, it is surprising and natural at the same time. And then, just before the end of the talk, Graham modulates the text one more time for a brief final note: 

“How many other beliefs and limiting thoughts do we all carry around with us every day? Beliefs that we could perhaps potentially challenge and think differently about. If we did challenge those beliefs and think differently about them, apart from drawing, what else would be possible for us all?”

It is not just a perfect ending to an impactful talk; Graham leaves us with a whole new idea to explore: a surprising idea that has everything to do with the 2000 words that preceded it but, nevertheless, manages to catch us off guard.

Every text should use evolution. Not every text can use modulation. When you manage to change the trajectory of your text, adding an element of surprise but one the audience can make sense of, your text becomes more impactful. The sudden change in trajectory is memorable — it makes your text resonate longer. And when everything leads up to it but doesn’t ruin the surprise, the effect is priceless.

share this page and help us inspire more people to communicate better

Scroll to Top