Guitarist songwriter

What is a Circle of Fifths Chord Progression?

A circle of fifths progression is one where the roots of the chords are related to each other specifically by ascending 4ths or descending 5ths. Circle of fifths progressions are considered to be harmonically very strong, in the sense that they pull our ear toward one chord being the tonic, or key chord. In that sense, they’re very satisfying; you’ll probably see a great use for circle of fifths progressions in the choruses you write because they’re so strong and unambiguous.

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The best way to create circle of fifths progressions is to work backwards from your harmonic goal. In other words, start by writing the chord you want to end up on, and create a chord in front of that chord that is a 5th higher or a 4th lower.

You’ll need to start by knowing what the chords associated with any given key are. I’ve done lots of posts on this, but if you’re in C major, the chords at your disposal are: C Dm Em F G Am and Bdim.

So write C as your final chord. The chord in front of this will be G, i.e., a 4th lower. The chord in front of this one will be Dm – a 4th lower than G. And so on…

The circle of fifths works well because its patterns are predictable. And since songs (especially if you’re attempting to write hit songs) will often need a healthy dose of predictability, circle of fifths-based progressions are usually quite desirable.

“Heart and Soul” is based on a standard circle of fifths progression:

C Am Dm G

Because the circle of fifths require a repeating pattern of root movement, you’ll find that it’s relatively easy to create melodies that also use repeating shapes to partner with these progressions. (Click here to listen – opens in a new browser window):

Circle-of-fifths in Cmajor

I’ve explained how to create a circle of fifths progression backwards. All you need to do to create a circle of fifths progression in a forward direction is to start on the I-chord, leap to any chord you’d like, and start the process of following each chord with one whose root is a 4th higher or a 5th lower.

The chords for the sample above are: C  F  Bdim  Em  Am  Dm  G  C.

You can create progressions that are partly based on the circle of fifths, and partly based on other harmonic relationships:

C  Em  Am  F Dm  G  C

C  G/B  Am  Dm  G  Am  F  C

And try this one, which wanders a bit away from C major before coming back:

C  C/Bb  Am  F  Bb  Eb  G  C

Want more on chord progressions? Check out this video, “What Are Strong and Fragile Chord Progressions, and How Do I Use Them?” It will show you how chords change from one section to the next in many pop songs.


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  1. C C/Bb Am F Bb Eb G C

    What about here though?? you say it wanders off and comes back to C major; but as it wanders through Bb and Eb it does NOT return by way of fifths or fourth from Eb to G. As G is a flat 6th of G

    So how is that working?

    Thank you

    • Hi Ben:

      In this progression all that’s happening is an abrupt modulation back to the original key. We hear Bb being reinforced with F-Bb-Eb, and then its journey back to C major is short & quick: a jump from Eb to G which gets back to C. In most circle-of-fifths progressions, it’s not unusual to have a spot where the circle is abandoned in order to move in some other direction, and I think that’s what’s going on with that one.


  2. The opening line says “A circle of fifths progression is one where the roots of the chords are related to each other specifically by ascending 4ths or descending 5ths.”

    But then all of the examples given are of decending 4ths and ascending 5ths. I’m confused, which is it please?

    Possibly the confusion is in the first example where you say “and create a chord in front of that chord that is a 5th higher or a 4th lower.”

    • In the first example, the circle comes from the first two chord roots, C-F (a descending 5th), which is then repeated (Bdim-Em), and so on. So it’s a descending 5th, and then to continue with the circle, it jumps up a 4th. (In that regard, many theorists call it “the circle of 4ths and 5ths”). I hope that answers your question. I’ll look a little closer at the post… it’s one I wrote 7 years ago. 🙂


  3. Hola! I’ve been followіng yοur site for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and ɡive you a
    shout out from Huffman Texas! Just wanted tto mention keep up the ffantastic job!

    • Hi Filipe:

      Circle of fifths in a minor key is based on the same principle of moving the chord roots by 4ths or 5ths, and then using the chords that you’d normally find in that minor key. You could take the same progression I highlighted in this article and you’d get: Cm Fm Bb Eb Ab Ddim G (or Gm) Cm.


  4. Thank you for this course.
    I just wanna ask you a question.
    Can i use any chords as passing chords in a given key?
    i mean that if the key is C, can i use Gb, Ab, Db… as passing chord to any chord of the key? Or can i use out of scale chords as passings chords? if no, what’s a passing chord?
    Forgive for my english, in fact i’m ivorian and my own language is french.

    • The quick answer to your question is yes. First, to define a passing chord, we mean a chord that fits in between two diatonic chords, allowing for a smoother connection between those two diatonic chords. A passing chord is often from outside the key, called a chromatic passing chord. So for example, you might see this progression: C G Gb F G7 C, where the Gb chord “passes” from G to F, making that smooth connection.

      A passing chord might also be a chord that comes from the key you’re in, called a diatonic passing chord. For example, if you have the progression C C/E F, you might insert a diatonic passing chord right after the first chord, making a smoother transition between C and C/E. Here’s an example of that: C G/D C/E F.

      So the particular non-diatonic chords that you mention in your question (Gb, Ab and Db) can serve as passing chords, as long as they are inserted in between two diatonic chords.

      In that sense, passing chords are often added to progressions that already exist.

      Hope that helps,

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