The Circle of Fifths: Never-Fail Chord Progressions

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Song energySuccessful hit songs are a balance of predictable and innovative musical ideas. New hit songs will be largely patterned on what the writers already know works. They tend to be mostly predictable, but at least some aspect of them needs to be unique and attention-getting. That predictable nature of new songs is necessary; songs that are too unique will feel like a musical journey where the destination is unknown, and for most of the listening public, that’s going to be too intimidating an experience.

But something needs to happen in a new song that says to that listening public, “You’ve never quite heard it like this before…” If you’re looking for an innovative approach to a song that you’re hoping has hit potential, it’s best to stay away from messing about with chord progressions.

The chord progression is that one area of songs that really needs to be somewhat predictable. And you need not fear that a predictable progression will cause a song to be boring. Most hit songs, even ones that are curiously creative (“Like a G6”, for example) use chords (implied or real) that are predictable and standard (Gm – Eb – D).

Songwriting formulas can produce boring songs, but chord progression formulas lay down a solid foundation upon which very creative songs can be written.

It’s why I caution songwriters against using songwriting formulas, but encourage the use of chord progression formulas.

The circle-of-fifths progression offers a predictable formula for creating progressions that never fail. A chord progression works well when one chord sounds like it’s begging for the chord that happens next, and that’s the winning effect of the circle-of-fifths progression.

In almost any genre of music, chord progressions that feature chords whose roots are a 4th or a 5th away from each other will be very strong and have a tremendously positive affect on the listener. Consider the following progression from the key of C major:

Em (iii)  Am (vi)  Dm (ii)  G (V)  C (I)

The root of each chord moves down by 5 notes to arrive at the next chord. That motion of the descending 5th (equivalent to moving up by 4 notes) is what the circle-of-fifths is all about.

To make the best use of this in a verse progression, try starting on a chord other than the I-chord, perhaps moving back and forth between two adjacent chords. Eventually, you’ll want to move toward the I-chord, maybe ending your verse on a V-chord.

Then for a chorus progression, start on the I-chord, leap backward in the list to any chord, and proceed in a steady fashion forward, chord-by-chord, to the I-chord.

By using the circle-of-fifths in this way, you can use it to help create somewhat fragile progressions in your verse, and more predictable ones in your chorus. Here’s an example:

VERSE: Em  Am  Em  Am  Dm  Am  Dm  G (repeat these chords, then..)

CHORUS: C  Am  Dm  G  C  Am  Dm  G  (repeat, then end on C)

In the verse sample, there was a fair bit of moving back and forth between two adjacent chords, but in the chorus, the stronger result of moving more predictably through the circle-of-fifths will suit the musical purpose of most choruses.

The circle-of-fifths is used far more in hit songs than you might imagine. Just as innovative buildings still need a solid, standard foundation, innovative music will usually benefit from the solid foundation the circle-of-fifths offers.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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