Circle of Fifths

Joe has aked me:

I’ve just watched your lesson on the circle of fifths. I understand everything, but apart from allowing you to easily find the key of a piece of music, what else does it allow you to do and how is this helpful?

Here is my answer which was necessarily a bit too long to post on the ‘Questions’ section of the main site:

Great question! The circle of fifths is one of the clues to how songwriters put effective chord sequences together. A good example being the song Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix) which is an undiluted circle of fifths :

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Here’s the rhythm chart for Hey Joe:

4
4 C | G | D | A |

E | E | E | E ||

Notice that these chords are not all in the key of E (The key of E has the following basic chords: E F#m G#m A B(7) C#m D#dim) although the song quite clearly resolves to the E chord (your ears will tell you this if you play through the sequence).

So, how does this sequence work so neatly?

The answer is: by following the circle of fifths.

C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E
1
2  3 4  5 2 3 4  5 2 3  4 5 2 3  4 5

Each chord in the sequence is five major scale steps above the previous one. In effect this means that the sequence shifts its key centre as it goes along. Bars 1 and 2 are in the key of G, bars 2 and 3 are in the key of D, bars 3 and 4 are in the key of A , then from bar 4 to the end of the song we have arrived in the key of E.

The circle of fourths, which is arguably more commonly used outside of classical music, is a circle of fifths played backwards.

Take a circle of fifths progression like the one in ‘Hey Joe’ above and reverse it:

E A D G C and you have a circle of fourths:

E F G A B C D E F G A B C
1
2  3  4 2 3 4 2 3 4 2  3 4

This progression is used endlessly in Popular tunes and Jazz arrangements. The best example I can think of is Gloria Gaynor’s: ‘I will Survive’ :

4
4 Am7 | Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 |

Fmaj7 | Bm7b5 | Em7 | E7b9 E7 ||

Which is an almost perfect circle of fourths from beginning to end.
(The exception is the Bm7b5 chord used instead of a Bb rooted chord, to help steer the sequence back towards the home key of A minor)

There is a great deal more information about the uses of the circle of fifths available. A good place to start is Wikepedia, particularly the entry on modulation.

BUT this level of information will not make much sense to you unless you have already studied harmonisation of the major scale. This is really the next subject I need to produce lessons for on the Music Theory Course!

Please email me if you would like to see these lessons on the site.

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