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CIRCLE OF FIFTHS DEMYSTIFIED!

    • 604 posts
    August 30, 2016 12:26 PM CDT

     

    Sunday, August 28, 2016

    Welcome to my first blog! I'm planning to post some musical tidbit once or twice a month that will help bump your playing to the next level. It will be a song, or a lick or musical technique for guitar, uke, banjo, mandolin, Dobro or lap steel. 

    I thought it would be fun to start with something that's useful to any player in any genre (rock, blues, jazz, country, etc.): the CIRCLE OF FIFTHS. You've heard of it, you've been totally confused by explanations of it...so I'm going to try to demystify it for you, because it's really helpful once you understand it.

    I've created a circle of fifths fake tattoo and a vinyl cling-on circle as well (a static cling, no glue to mess up your instrument's finish), both pictured here:

     
      

    FIRST, SOME MUSIC BASICS

    The Numbers System

    The language of music is often expressed with numbers rather than letters. Musicians say, “Go to the 4 chord,” or “Go to the 2 minor.” The numbers refer to the major scale. Since C is the first note in the C major scale, a C chord is the 1 chord in the key of C. D, or D7 or Dm is the 2 chord; E is the 3 chord, and so on. In the key of D, E is the 2 chord.
    No matter which key you’re in, going from the 1 chord to the 5 chord has a certain sound. So does going from 1 to 4. It’s the spaces between chords — the intervals — that give a chord progression its unique sound. Once you can recognize the sounds of the various intervals (1 to 4, 2– to 5)*, you understand how music works, and you can play a song in any key. You’re not just memorizing letter names; you’re feeling the song’s structure.* In the numbers system, “two minor” is written “2–“.

    The 1-4-5 Chord Family

    Regardless of a song’s key, the 1, 4 and 5 chords are the “usual suspects” — the chords that are most likely to occur. Millions of folk, country, blues, bluegrass and classic rock songs consist of just those three chords. They can be in any order imaginable. It’s helpful to have the chord families memorized: 1, 4 and 5 in the key of C = C, F and G, for example.

    Relative Minors

    Every major chord has a relative minor, a closely related chord that is a sixth higher. For example, D is the sixth note in the F major scale, so Dm is the relative minor of F. If you play an F chord and a Dm chord on the guitar or uke (the easy, first-position chords), you’ll see how similar they are. If you strum the F and the Dm over and over in a rhythm, you’ll recognize the familiar sound of the relative minor in context.If a tune has more than just the immediate chord family (1, 4 and 5), the next chords most likely to occur are the relative minors of 1, 4 or 5. In the key of C, for example, C, F and G are the immediate chord family, and their relative minors, Am, Dm and Em make an extended chord family. A song in the key of C is likely to include any one, two or all three of these minor chords.
    HOW TO USE THE CIRCLE
    THE CIRCLE OF FIFTHS GROUPS CHORDS IN CHORD FAMILIES
    Look at the C at the top of the circle. F (the note or the chord), a fourth above C, is one step counterclockwise. G a fifth above C, is one step clockwise. The same applies in any key. The chart says that if you’re in the key of E, the 4 chord is A (one step counter-clockwise) and the 5 chord is B (one step clockwise). The chords inside the circle are relative minors, so the chart enables you to view any extended chord family at a glance. For example, looking at the key of G: G is the 1 chord, and Em is its relative minor; C (one step counter-clockwise) is the 4 chord, and Am is its relative minor; D (one step clockwise) is the 5 chord, and its relative minor is Bm.THE CIRCLE OF FIFTHS HELPS YOU UNDERSTAND CHORD PROGRESSIONSMany chord progressions consist of (or include) circle-of-fifths motion. That means you leave the chord family and return to the 1 chord by going up by 4ths. This happens, for example, in these typical first eight bars of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” and many other songs:C  |  E7  |  A7  |  A7  |  D7  |  G7 |  C  |  C  |The key here is C. You leave the C chord family when you go to E7. Then you go up a 4th to A7 (A is the 4th note in the E major scale), up a 4th to D7 (D is a 4th above A) and up another 4th to G7 (G is a 4th above D) and up still another 4th to C, finally resolving the progression (coming back to the home base).Look how this motion looks on the cirle: You jump from C to E7, then you go counter clockwise (up by 4ths) until you get back to C.As you ascend by 4ths, the chords along the way can be minors instead of sevenths. One of the most often-used circle-of-fifths progressions is the “Rhythm Changes,” named after Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” It’s 1, 6-, 2-, 5, or, in the key of C:C  Am  |  Dm  G7  |Countless pop songs include the “Rhythm Changes.” Some examples: “Blue Moon,” “Be My Baby,” “Heart And Soul,” “Please Mr. Postman” and “Stand By Me.” Sometimes the entire song is 1, 6-, 2-, 5, over and over again, as in “Stand By Me.” Once you become acquainted with these types of progressions, they’re mapped out on the circle for you; they become visual and easy to understand and remember.
    When you purchase the vinyl cling or tattoo from my website you'll get some more info on how to use the circle of fifths to transpose (change a song's key). The vinyl clings are $3 or two for $5, and the tattoos are $2 or three for $5 at my website: 
      
     http://www.sokolowmusic.com/instructional/general

    I hope this interests you and that you'll subscribe to this blog and get similar info on a regular basis! I won't share your email address. Also, feel free to leave a comment if you have a question or suggestion.

    Keep playing!
    Fred Sokolow
    sokolowmusic.com