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A circle of fifths progression is one in which adjacent chords have roots that are a 5th away from each other, like this one:
C F Bdim Em Am Dm G C
In that progression, we start on C, and then start a sequence of chords in which each new chord is built on a note that is a 5th lower than the previous one (ex: F is a 5th lower than C, B is a 5th lower than F, and so on).
Changing Simple Circle of Fifths Progressions
With that one progression, you have the opportunity to do simple but creative modifications. For example, you can experiment by changing some of the chords from major to minor, from minor to major, adding 7ths, or even lower some chord roots, and come up with something like this:
- C F Bb Eb Ab Ddim G7 C (I IV bVII bIII bVI iio V7 I)
- C Fm Bdim Em Am D7 G7 C (I iv vii° iii vi V7/V V7 I)
- C Fmaj7 Bdim Em7 Am7 Dm7 G7 C (I IV7 vii° iii7 vi7 ii7 V7 I)
As you can see, we were able to quickly create 3 chord progressions based on that first original one simply by making changes to the quality of the chord, and whether or not we chose to add 7ths.
Using the Circle as a Starting Point
With any circle of fifths progression, you have the option of jumping in, and then jumping out of, the sequence. For example, you could start with a circle of fifths, and then move on to other kinds of progressions. In the progressions below, the circle of fifths portions are shown in green.
- C F Bdim Em F Am G C (I IV vii° iii IV vi V I)
- C Fm Bb Eb Ab Fm G C (I iv bVII bIII bVI iv V I)
- C F Bdim E7 Am G/B C G (I IV vii° V7/vi vi V6 I V)
It’s also common to start with something creative, and then slide into a circle of fifths as a middle or ending point.
- C Dm C/E F Am Dm G C (I ii I6 IV vi ii V I)
- C Em Am Dm G C F G C (I iii vi ii V I IV V I)
- C G/B Am Am/G Dm/F G7/F C6 (I V6 vi v-4/2 ii6 V/4-2 I6)
Why the Circle of Fifths At All?
You’ve probably heard the term circle of fifths for ages, and have likely wondered why it’s such an important progression. The main reason is that chord progressions in the pop genres usually strongly target the tonic chord.
Not every progression that targets the tonic will be based on the circle of fifths, though. For example, in Lennon & McCartney’s “Let It Be”, the chord progression of the verse clearly points to C as the tonic chord, with essentially no ambiguity, but with minimal reference to a circle of fifths:
C G Am Fmaj7 C G F C
But the circle of fifths is an easy way to make the tonic chord sound like an important anchor for the harmony, and that’s why it’s so common. Once you’re in that circle, you can hear that things are moving in a direction back to the tonic.
You’d think that kind of predictability would be a liability in songwriting, but it isn’t. Though most of the time the notion of a songwriting formula results in something that’s unpleasantly predictable, predictable chord progressions are rarely a problem, and can act as a solid bit of structure when everything else (melodies and lyrics, especially) are unique.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Learn how to write great songs by starting with the chords, and then avoiding all the potential pitfalls of the chords-first songwriting process.