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The Circle of 5ths made easy

December 13, 2012

When we’re new at any endeavor, there’s a lonesome feeling.  The experienced people have had years to get comfortable with the lingo, protocol, and skills, but where does that leave the newby?

If you’ve heard people talk about the “circle of 5ths” and don’t know what they’re talking about, I gotta cure!  If it ‘ll make you feel any better about these “terminology snobs”, the circle of 5ths is really arguably, the circle of 4ths.  See there, they didn’t know what they were talking about in the first place.

There are 8 notes in the major scale.  Im sure you already know that.  We create each chord by starting from one of these 8 notes and create the chord by playing 3 notes.  These three notes are separated by a note, so the first chord is the first, third, and fifth note of the scale.  The second chord is created from the second, forth and sixth note of the scale and so on.  The circle of 5ths “as it is called” is a series of chords.  The reason its called a circle is because music repeats after the 8 note scale and starts over again with the same series (in the next octave).  CDEFGAB-CDEFGAB-CDEFGAB-C.   If we went up a “5th” we’d hit C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#, and D#.  You can see it starting to repeat already.  If you read that series of notes (actually chords), backwards, they aren’t 5ths they are 4ths.  Let me clarify.  C to G is the distance of a “5th.”  Moving on, G to D is the distance of a “5th” and so on.  But when you read it backward, its one step less.  In other words, A back to D is the distance of a “4th,” and D back to G is the distance of a “4th.”

In the song “Salty Dog Blues” (popularized by Flatt and Scruggs), the chord progression is G, E, A, D.  Starting from E, we have a “circle of 4ths.  In most popular music, you don’t see a chord progression that is a “circle of 5ths.”  Many musicians “refer” to a chord progression like the one in “Salty Dog” as the “circle of 5ths.”

You may already know that each new key adds another sharp.  In other words C has no sharps, G has one, D has 2, A has 3 and so on.  That is the circle of 5ths (technically).

One reason I’m telling you all of this is because when we play a song that contains the proverbial “circle of 5ths (or 4hts), a phenomenon occurs.  This series of chords causes us to play notes that aren’t in the scale.  You might say that we are playing notes that are “out of tune.”  In formal music notation, these chords in songs that are from the “circle of 4ths” are shown on the page as “accidentals.”

An accidental is a sharpened or flatted note which is different from the notes that are supposed to be sharp or flat in the given key you are playing.  The notation at the beginning of the song shows you how many sharps or flats are in the key.  You are trusting that there are no more sharps or flats, but somewhere on the page, you encounter a sharp that they didn’t warn you about.  So you feel duped.  Not only that, but you start to question if there’s some mistake in the sheet music.  Why did they write in this additional sharp that’s not in the key signature in the top left hand corner of your sheet music?  Is it because they wanted to violate the law of the key?

I have an excuse for them.  They aren’t putting in illegal notes: they are changing the key of the song.  For instance, anytime you have an A-major chord in the key of G, they have actually done a key change.  In the key of G, A is supposed to be A-minor.  When its changed to A-major, actually the song has changed keys.  You are now playing in the key of D.  A is the 5-chord in D.  D is the 5-chord in the key of G.  Therefore, when you play an A-major in the key of G, A is known as THE-5-OF-5.  In other words, it’s the 2-chord in G (which should be minor), but it’s the 5-chord in D, which is supposed to be major, so it’s legal.  Isn’t that confusing?  Sorry.

E-major isn’t supposed to be major in the key of G either.  “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is in the key of G and the E is minor in that song, as it is supposed to be.  Salty Dog is in G, but the E is major.  Why?  Because there has been 2 key changes in Salty Dog.  A is the 5-chord in the key of D, and E is the 5-chord in the key of A.  So there are 2 illegal chords in Salty Dog, E and A.  But they become legal and acceptable when we realize that we’re making a “ragtime” sound by changing keys twice in the song.

Again, A and E are normally supposed to be minor chords in the key of G.  So I refer to A as the 5-of-5.  I refer E as the 5-of-5-of-5.  Yes, there are lots of songs that contain a B-chord in the key of G.  One that comes to mind is Old Home Place by the Dillards.  Another is Blackberry Blossom.

Looking at the circle of 5ths can give you some insights into various chord progressions and why they work in music.  Why do you need to know this?  Because its one of the concepts in music that you need to be able to hear and recognize.  There are lots of songs that use these devices and it helps to be able to recognize them.  That way you don’t have to learn each new song from the start, because you already understand it from past songs that used the same concepts.  If you can hear it and recognize it, you are more likely to be able to keep up at the next jam session when a similar song comes along.  Reading about it can be confusing, so I created a DVD on the subject called: UNDERSTANDING THE FORMULA OF MUSIC MAKES IT SO EASY.  With the video examples, seeing and hearing it will help.


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