Deconstructing Metric Modulation in Blockbuster Soundtracks

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What is Metric Modulation?

Metric modulation is simply the process of speeding up or slowing down the tempo within a song.

However, instead of random tempo shifts, the tempo changes occur in direct relation to the previous tempo or note values, hence it is also called Temporal Modulation.

Because it’s connected to the previous tempo, this transition is reasonable and easily listenable, seamlessly easing into a new tempo. Fig. A provides a simple example of double-time metric modulation, where the eighth note becomes a quarter note value in the new tempo.

Metric Modulation
FIG. A Metric Modulation Example: Eighth Note(♪) becoming a new quarter note(♩) value

Metric modulation can help smoothly transition to a new tempo while maintaining coherence with the previous section of a song. This effect serves as a powerful composition technique, allowing for the creation of captivating rhythmic variations. Works by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Wayne Shorter (who just passed away recently), and Dream Theater, to name just a few, incorporate metric modulation and are worthy of examination.

In the following examples, we will explore how metric modulation was implemented in real-life scenarios, along with some of our own compositions. Enjoy!

Notes:

– Due to copyright issues, all audio and scores displayed on this page are alternative versions or recreations of the original content.

Metric Modulation in Film Scores and Pop Songs

EXAMPLE 1) John Powell, “This is Berk,” from How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

This is Berk
MM. 1-12
MM. 13-20

This example can be regarded as the simplest form of metric modulation. Although the rhythmic value and duration of an eighth note remain constant before and after the metric modulation at measure 15, the pulse and relative speed of the song change as the rhythmic subdivision transforms into three eighth-note figures after the modulation. In a broader context, this transition can be viewed as both a time signature change and metric modulation.

EXAMPLE 2) The Beatles, “We can work it out,” From the album Rubber Soul (1965) (Piano Arrangement)

We can work it out (Piano Arrangement) - Metric Modulation
WE CAN WORK IT OUT by The Beatles (Piano Arrangement)

This iconic song by The Beatles showcases a section where one quarter note triplet transforms into a new quarter note rhythmic value, and vice versa, through metric modulation. Consequently, the duration of three-quarter notes in measures 5–8 & 13–16 equals that of three-quarter note triplets in measure 4. After the modulation, the overall tempo increases by 1.5 times (3 against 2), as three-quarter notes now occupy the space previously filled by only two-quarter notes (see Fig. C BPM Conversion Chart for more details).

Tips)

Introducing new rhythms before the tempo transition can be beneficial. When a Metric Modulation occurs, it’s recommended to introduce the new rhythm to help listeners become accustomed to the transition. In Ex. 2, three-quarter note triplet figures are introduced in the 4th measure before the tempo change. In our next example Ex. 3, a quarter note triplet melody is played before transitioning to the new tempo, starting from measure 9. By foreshadowing the new tempo figure in relation to the original tempo, we can blur the boundary between the original and new tempos, providing a smoother transition for the song before shifting the rhythmic gears.

Example 3) John Williams, “Theme From Superman (Main Title),” From Superman (1978)

John Williams Superman Theme - Metric Modulation
John Williams Superman Theme - Metric Modulation
MM. 9 – 12

Metric modulation in Ex. 3 bears a striking resemblance to Ex. 2, with one notable difference: in Ex. 3, a triplet quarter (https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/oQG4znKecsTbrxe3l5ja_WFFLuC82XrBn9yRMlz9KV9HsZ4o5BJs6ZM__cdDK8uWl1LqpopkPpfxxbpuq5bx2uVAPKeobJRePPJanPBTo5x9TTHpuv_Yr-BLHxO4mzjp3oyDl8Yc) note transforms into a dotted quarter note (https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/20Ga-pAsm0f2v1GbFi0qgNjRy_HLXl_8WKwkDk7M2WRPmScAjkvgK-CMl6rhzl1croON7w-ogKVcmRrjCchlywy6mU_lFenY-Ndx8HPRNY2kp44d3pnk9nrYz0f9SkjjjzAeuIuJ) after the modulation. It’s worth noting that the melodic figure in measure 8, as displayed in the ossia staff, provides a subtle hint of the upcoming rhythmic subdivision shift starting from measure 9.

Example 4-A) Metric Modulation Example Composition 1

Metric Modulation Example
Metric Modulation Example #1

Example 4A provides a short demonstration of a metric modulation where a previously dotted 8th note figure (♪.) transforms into a quarter note value (♩) in the new tempo. This change occurs between measures 5 and 6.

Starting from the last upbeat of measure 3, there is a continuous series of dotted 8th note figures played tutti, creating a secure bridge between the old tempo and the new tempo. (Refer to Fig. B for notation of measures 3–4 of Example 4-A without the rests to show the full value of each dotted eighth note.)

Metric Modulation  - repetition
Fig. B

A two-measure percussion break is also included to give the listener a moment to rest before the new tempo is introduced in measure 7.

Since the duration of a dotted 8th note is only 3/4th that of a quarter note, the BPM rises from [♩=120] to [♩=160] before and after the modulation, resulting in a 25% increase in tempo. The BPM settings for the entire examples in this section can be found in Fig. C: BPM Conversion Chart.”

Example 4-B) Metric Modulation Example Composition 1

Metric Modulation Example #2, MM. 1-8
Metric Modulation Example - Funk
Metric Modulation Example #2, MM. 9-12

Example 4-B demonstrates the same Metric Modulation device used in Example 1 (John Powell, “This is Berk”). In this example, the entire groove of the song undergoes a metric modulation at measure 6, changing the rhythmic subdivision from a 16th note funk feel to a shuffle 8th notes feel. The duration of an eighth note remains consistent both before and after the transition.

Tips for Calculating Tempo and Setting Up DAW’s BPM for Time Changes:

Composers creating music with their DAWs may find it challenging to apply BPM transitions. Fig. C provides a comprehensive BPM conversion chart for all the examples in this section. It’s worth noting that as of 2023, many DAWs still only offer BPM counting based solely on a quarter note (♩) value. Therefore, we have included DAW tempo settings in quarter note values as well.

NO.Original Tempo & Time SignatureMetric Modulation TypeTempo ratio before and after(Quarter note based)New Tempo & Time Signature DAW Tempo(Quarter note based)
Ex.1♩=834/4https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/3NoWs7ZWyyvFerkgJ5yZ3MPHxfMaAUg69bO1P8MHWJHGam6Mp_bgpWOiqkpq3I1eamApk-4xR_x4Zx0ZXAwBfqP1mWYGtq4xRwJGpfMl8K1x9Q7Tb1cPyAt-Xik_GSE_Wurn6XAY1:1https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/knzQ8AycS6ymp9paII92e3siaT788qzoZW8on9Z3NqRavLHX1J0CqTWccFG-J9V8tOKnybuQfrFCu0bjqYHJkg2FWXCrhlMXCU9yYw9upyhKGa9WiIrEazRJ_36dLaacw2RLJ8Gt= 55.3
(The Same Speed)
6/8 ♩=83
Ex.2♩=1004/4https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-T-_PzF7fwWgcgzEz8F3fhH1n-aM7IjNPhPs2X940SQ2-8gyNOZCN60k6X-EEcf7nNPPHNAayEGUUxesnYkrfFHvhA7JCGfDG5cTVj404Uzgx5q1B0Jz027MMldIe2DSxt2_W83y2:3♩=150
(1.5x faster)
3/4♩=150
Ex.3♩=804/4https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/oO3Kp5hW_X003ieNRAsqhMlvRMi8hT6iOZcd9N5-jSzEHsmJ-YAAy1JZKSFGrTDMfS3Lw2tSUUGMYlV5NC8-M0JJZrpIin72qlQ9feB4S_VuCTg_HqgK8zvpMszzVlvTsvUWyR8u4:9https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/knzQ8AycS6ymp9paII92e3siaT788qzoZW8on9Z3NqRavLHX1J0CqTWccFG-J9V8tOKnybuQfrFCu0bjqYHJkg2FWXCrhlMXCU9yYw9upyhKGa9WiIrEazRJ_36dLaacw2RLJ8Gt= 120
(2.25x faster)
6/8♩=180
Ex.4-A ♩=1204/4https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/cVF4FbJTtWhbH_-QiLRHOoe9iGLp9eJWOYUruEGg1t1ZX9YnHnnthwhiTGrFV1oSANrYizuhBCmhU8Oo60fk_9GZ5envWmD9644aIxhCOxbOjhvq4ZdHsr4_w8f2mWnRt4iNNPJA3:4♩=160
(1.25x faster)
4/4♩=160
Ex.4-B ♩=1004/4https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/3NoWs7ZWyyvFerkgJ5yZ3MPHxfMaAUg69bO1P8MHWJHGam6Mp_bgpWOiqkpq3I1eamApk-4xR_x4Zx0ZXAwBfqP1mWYGtq4xRwJGpfMl8K1x9Q7Tb1cPyAt-Xik_GSE_Wurn6XAY1:1https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/Z7AJaPdCPSU_vhRQVPy-Syl63ra5t-4kUGMXbYFeKJZdE4Q6vQAQsCYEdnycjct4kBJQzwGwWCWSfvvsa7tWpWge9wgsxdr7Iz-o7opyuYOhI4SWuyWboMkifgbUzxWeXJPDnbjN=66.6
(The Same Speed)
6/8♩=100
Fig. C BPM Conversion Chart

That’s pretty much it. We hope this was helpful! If you have any suggestions or questions, we welcome your feedback. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at support@filmmusictheory.com. Your insights are invaluable to us, and we look forward to hearing from you.

Before we finish, we highly recommend the book ‘Advanced Rhythmic Concepts for Guitar (An in-depth study on Metric Modulation, Polyrhythms and Polymeters)’ to anyone seeking an in-depth study of Metric Modulation, Polyrhythms, and rhythm in general. Please note that the following link is an affiliate link. If you purchase something through one of the links, you won’t pay a penny more, but we’ll get a small commission, which helps keep the lights on, That said, we believe this is an excellent resource for improving and gaining further knowledge about rhythm.

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This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.