What is a Circle of Fifths Chord Progression?

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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GuitarA 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

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10 Comments

  1. Hadassah Studios

     /  September 12, 2011

    This is an awesome lesson.Thank you

    Reply
  2. Eric Jean

     /  January 18, 2012

    In the example you use, the B doesn’t fit in though. It’s not even in the key of C.

    Reply
  3. henoc emile

     /  February 22, 2012

    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.

    Reply
    • 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,
      -Gary

      Reply
  4. Jimmy

     /  October 12, 2012

    You are doing good,and i love this site it really help alot.thanks

    Reply
  5. Filipe

     /  August 29, 2014

    Great Article mate! But what is the progression I want to write is in a minor key?

    Many thanks,
    Filipe

    Reply
    • 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.

      -Gary

      Reply
      • Filipe

         /  September 4, 2014

        Thank you Gary! Again great article very useful and very well explained.

  6. hi there i have a song that begins on B7 and then goes to Asus 4 im stuggling to work out the key and the other chords could you help me with this thank you
    Nayte

    Reply

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