Take advantage of the repetitious nature of the circle of fifths to create strong, memorable melodies.
A circle of fifths progression is one of the strongest types of progressions we use in music. There’s something about chords where the roots move by 5ths — it’s what we might call “pleasantly predictable.” You shouldn’t worry too much about chord progressions that are somewhat predictable. You may not notice that most of the songs that make it to the top of the charts use progressions that are simple and predictable. The circle of fifths gives you great opportunities to create fine songs.
To create a circle of fifths progression, follow these simple steps:
- Choose a key for your song. (Ex: G major)
- Identify the seven chords that naturally exist in that key. ( Ex: Key of G major: G Am Bm C D Em F#dim)
- Start your progression on any chord you wish. (Ex: Em)
- The next chord will be built on the note that’s 5 notes lower (or 4 notes higher (same thing)) (Ex: Em – Am)
- Keep going for as long as you like (Ex: Em Am D G C F#dim…)
- It’s good to end on the tonic chord (i.e, the home chord of your chosen key), but don’t consider that a rule. A good way to get back to G in our example is to either stop when you reach G, or insert a D – G cadence wherever you want to jump out of the circle of fifths pattern. (Ex: Em Am D G C F#dim Bm D7 G.)
That’s the general idea for how the circle of fifths works. And you can make modifications to this standard pattern if you wish. For example, you might want to replace the chord built on the 7th scale degree with a flat-VII, and so on.
Now to create a melody. You’ll notice as you play through the progression that there is a feeling of repetition. This is because you’ll get a sense of the first two chords acting as partners, then the next two, and so on.
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For that reason, melodies that exhibit a high degree of repetition work well with circle of fifths progressions. For a good example, listen to this melody (opens in a new window) built on the circle of fifths progression. You’ll notice that it keeps repeating upwards in pairs, and that works well with the circle of fifths.
Melodies can also repeat in a downward direction. James Pankow, trombonist for Chicago, wrote “Mongonucleosis” for their Chicago VII album. Start listening to this track at about 1’23”, and you’ll hear a circle of fifths progression where a two-bar melodic phrase is repeated several times, each time the repetition happening at a lower pitch.
So to create song melodies using the circle of fifths where the melodies make great use of repetition, follow these steps:
- Create a circle of fifths progression where the end of the progression connects nicely back to the beginning. (Ex: G C F#dim Bm Em Am A D…)
- Experiment with a starting note and a simple melodic phrase. For example, you might start on the note B while strumming the G chord. Now create a little melodic phrase such as this: Strum the G, sing the notes B-D-B-D, then end your melodic phrase on on an E while you strum the C.
- For the next phrase, start on the F#dim, and start the melodic phrase on an A. Sing the notes A-C-A-C, ending on a D while you strum a Bm. (You’ll notice that all you’ve done is repeat everything a scale-degree lower.)
- Repeat step 3 to give you a 3rd phrase.
- Create a 4th phrase that gives a nice sense of closure to this whole section. You’ve now got a melody that’s four short phrases long.
To hear this example, click here. There’s no rule that says a melody based on the circle of fifths must repeat a phrase 3 times this way. You can create any melody you wish, even one that doesn’t use repetition. But taking advantage of how easily repetition works with this kind of progression increases the memorability of a melody, and easily-remembered melodies is crucial in hit song writing.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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