Friday, February 23, 2007

Circle of Fifths demystified

I've often heard about the Circle of Fifths. I studied it many times but it's always been this abstract concept that I could never really grasp. Last week in a session with Ben Senterfit, the light bulb came on. In the last week I've developed scores of progression using it.

Here's the trick. Go to Ben's web site and print out his illustration of the Circle of Fifths. While your there check out his site and drop him a note to say thanks.

Step 1 - Go to the figure on the right for the key of C. Notice that the IV chord (F) is to the top left and the V chord (G) on the top right. Play a simple I IV I V progression ( C F C G). Go to the figure on the left and pick another note to start on. Play the same progression. You just played the same progression but in a different key.

Step 2 - On the right figure start on C, go to any of the chords on the bottom, then back to C. Try the same exercise, start on C, go to any of the bottom chords, then to the IV or V chord, and then back to C. All these chords are in the key of C so any combination should sound OK.

Step 3 - Apply the same steps above but flip the chart over by starting on the Am. For the I, IV, I, V the chords are Am, Dm, Am, Em. Your now playing in the relative minor of C.

Pretty fun. Now let's get a little more interesting.

Look at the chart on the left. We'll use the key of D for ease.

Step 1 - play D, G and repeat D, G (sounds good).
Step 2 - Play D, C, G (still sounds good, but you no longer feel in the key of D)
Step 3 - Play D, F, C, G ( little more dissident, "Old Man" by Neil Young)

The further you get away from the starting point, the more dissident it feels. Ben describes it as a rubber band, as you stretch it around the circle the more tension it adds, wanting to go back home.

I've had a lot of fun with this. My current favorite is G to Eb (way out there). I play,
G Eb/ G Eb/ G Eb D. Getting to the D, everything feels resolved.

Last step for tonight, changing keys. It's easiest to move between keys that are close to each other, like moving from the key of G to the key of C. Look first at the chords that are shared between the keys. Using the V chord for the transition is the most common way. For example:

John Prine in "Angels from Montgomery" moves from the key of G in the verses to the key of C in the chorus:
Verse G C G C/ G C D G// (the G is the V of C)
Chorus G F C G/// then back to G in the last line G C D G (The transition back to G happens in going to the D)

I've had a lot of fun moving between keys. My current favorite is moving from C to the key of Bb Starting in the key of C - go C, Am, Dm, F (the V of Bb) then to Bb by Gm, Bb, returning home by Bb F G (the V of C) then finally C. The progression I'm using looks like:

C Am Dm F // Gm Bb//F G C

This is lots of fun when you get it.

Let me know how you make out. If you have other ideas on how to use this, add a comment!

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At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is such great info...thanks so unexplainibly much for the great stuff! hope you do well.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Merlin said...

I have tried to figure out this circle of fifths for years, The one thing nobody has ever written about is "EXACTLY how do you count going around the circle?"
I read count clockwise or counter clock wise to the fourth or the fight and no matter what I do I can't get it to land on the one they say it's supposed to be, are you supposed to skip over spaces/notes/ and if so how do you know which ones?, And please write the answer/explanation assuming I know absolutely zero about music and music theory, it would help the millions of us out here lost in the dark.
This is probably the most frustrating thing I've ever crossed paths with anywhere.

At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A mistake I made learning the counting process is as follows

(assuming A# is the root or starting note)

A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
1 2 3 4 5 6

A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
x----x = Whole (or 1)

A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
x-x = Half (or 1\2)

A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
x------x = Whole and half
(or 1 & 1\2)... etc.

Moral of the story regular notes (notes without # or b) are not special! They are part of music like numbers are to a sequence thus 3 is no more important than 7. You wouldn't leave out odd numbers when you count just because you like the way even numbers look. Hope I helped you out Merlin.


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