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Thread: "Playing the circle of fifths"

  1. #1
    Registered User belbein's Avatar
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    Default "Playing the circle of fifths"

    I know what the circle of fifths is, and I thought I knew what it was "for." (To hang on my wall and make it look like I know some music theory, duh!) Today I was listening to a podcast that was NOT a music theory podcast, and a composer was explaining to a couple of dumb yutzes what the "circle of fifths" is. He kept referring to "playing the circle of fifths" or "identifying the circle of fifths" in various bits of music ("Fly Me to the Moon," "I Will Survive", etc.) I've never heard that construction with "the circle of fifths" as "a thing you play." I think he meant playing I IV V -- or the I IV V chord progression. But I've never heard this construction. Am I just ignorant? Is this a common usage?
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    Registered User mmuussiiccaall's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Start Looking at songs with multiple chords and look for snippets of this progression around the circle in fourths.
    B E A D G C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb

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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    You don't really "play" the circle of fifths, but many songs use part of the circle. Even I - IV - V uses a small section of the circle. But when people talk about "circle of fifth" progressions they mean a string of secondary dominants, which goes around a longer section of the circle. This is done by jumping away and then following the circle back to the tonic. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is a prime example: it jumps to the VI chord, then II to V to I to get home.

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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Mike Marshall covers this nicely in one of his Homespun DVDs. Salty Dog Blues is another classic example of “playing around the circle,” jumping from G (I) up to E (VI) and then backwards by fourths, to A (II), D (V), and back home to G. The E is the “5th of the 5th of the 5th of G.” I guess it’s like jumping up to a high level of musical tension and gradually stepping back down to full resolution. Hopefully someone can now correct all this, because I really don’t know what I’m talking about, but the musical effect sounds pretty cool.

  7. #5

    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    There are certainly songs that travel through a bit of it, although I am far from an expert on the matter.

    I do like to practice scales, arpeggios, licks etc and play the same thing through each key in the circle. I also like to do that up the neck in a closed position starting with the room on the low G string, good way to get used to playing all around on the neck.

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    Registered User Mike Romkey's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    There are common jazz chord progressions but I donít think they deal with the circle fifths. Not my thing, but I believe ii (meaning the 2 minor) V I is common, as is II (major) V I. As in in the key of G, the progression being Am > D > G. But donít quote me.

    Some teachers advocate playing the circle of fifths as a warmup. David Benedict got me into the habit of playing the circle of fourths, which I do every morning first thing. The reasoning is itís a lot more common to go from the I to the IV than I to the V. So I play a major G scale, then C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E, A and D ó the circle of fourths ó back to G, which I donít repeat. It sounds like torture but it isnít. Itís a good warmup. And I play each scale with one pick stroke per note, then two, three, four and lastly six, before going onto the next scale. Really gets both hands going. Takes just under 20 minutes and one cup of coffee.
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by Josh Levine View Post
    There are certainly songs that travel through a bit of it ...
    ... or through a fair amount of it, thinking of Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line".

    With all due respect to Mr. Cash (and that's a LOT!), when you realize that simple music theory was driving the key changes by verse, his pushing the limits of vocal range sounds (forgive me!) almost comical. As penance / redemption, I'm gonna go listen to the Folsom Prison concert.
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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by belbein View Post
    To hang on my wall and make it look like I know some music theory
    Exactly my impression of music theory all these years.

    Is this a common usage?
    Well, there was a time when I hoped you could use music theory to construct stunning musical beauty mathematically* - that would have justified to call it a theory. But it is not so. Instead, you create stunning beautiful music out of your ears and hands and use music theory a-posteriori as a language to talk about what you did and provide a made-up rationalization how you did it. It's like a millionaire who became rich by writing a book on "How to Become a Millionaire".

    (*) like, all the most beautiful pieces of music being eigenvectors of a multidimensional beauty operator...
    Last edited by Bertram Henze; Apr-28-2020 at 1:45am.
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by mmuussiiccaall View Post
    Start Looking at songs with multiple chords and look for snippets of this progression around the circle in fourths.
    B E A D G C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
    Jazz progressions go from left to right, eg Em7 A7 Dm7 G7 C.
    Rock progressions go from right to left, eg Hey Joe: C G D A E.

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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Some people have a pretty mixed-up idea of what music theory is. As soon as you give a name to a note, you’re using theory. When you work out a new chord, based around a tonic, third and fifth, you’re using a bit more theory. When you’re trying to find a chord to accompany the note G, you might go through every chord you know until you find one that sounds good; you might employ a bit of theory and try every chord you know that has a G note in it; you might employ even more theory and eliminate the chords that have notes from outside the key you’re playing in (although sometimes these can work, e.g. a 7th). None of this implies having a ‘good ear’ is a bad thing. Of course it’s not, but having at least some theory knowledge can save you time and frustration, and it’s usually a good thing to know what you’re actually playing!

    Regarding ‘playing the circle of fifths’, I’m not entirely sure I know what that means. It could just be a training exercise: play a scale (or tune etc) in e.g. C, then in G, then D and so on. And remember, of course, that the circle of fifths refers to the keys with sharps; for the keys with flats it’s a circle of fourths: C, then F, then Bb etc.

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    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    "Music theory is for the amusement and entertainment of the musicologist; the musician has little use for it."

    If you're interested in music theory, I've been writing about it, and would be happy to get feedback on my writing: http://www.markgunter.net/search.php?searchStr=abc
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Something about this thread leads me to post this who-knows-if-anybody-ever-said-it quote:

    A leading Nashville session player, when asked if he could read music, said - "Yeah, but not enough to hurt my playin'"

    Now that's funny, I don't care who ya are....
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Theory has its benefits and uses. I wish I knew more. And music basically is math, like it or not. I wish I were better at math, instead of being almost pathologically math-impaired. (I honestly think I have some sort of undiagnosed numbers dyslexia.) I have no doubt -- knowing a couple of near math genius + near music genius musicians -- that I would be a better mandolin player if I comprehended more music theory and even a little physics.

    Mark Gunter, I promise to read at least your introduction to a Simpleton's Guide to Understanding Music Theory. I'll let you know what a theory simpleton thinks about it. : )
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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Romkey View Post
    And music basically is math, like it or not.
    Yes, I only wish the nomenclature would be as consistent. Instead, math is hidden under a jungle of letters and funny little symbols. You have to blaze your way through a lot of musicologistic history (that a word?) to arrive at the wonderful simplicity and clarity of the math involved.
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    I hope this isn't going too far off piste. A jazz trumpeter that I know a bit who also plays Irish trad has come up with a 3d version of the circle of fifths. This video below explains it. In these strange times of lockdown this may be worth 10 mins of someone's time...

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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Cowham View Post
    I hope this isn't going too far off piste.
    Not at all - it nicely demonstrates what I said above. That has always bothered me - whenever I asked music theorists for a simple rule or formula, they rained me with cryptic examples. I half expected to see a pentagram in there somewhere (knowing full well that this is not possible) - but I am now convinced that a Rubik's cube could play a chord with every turn if it wanted to.

    I have been guilty of the same thing, however - I sometimes say in a session "this tune is in G dorian", and the blank looks of my fellow musicians tell me I've gone too far. And this is how the system works; you get so used to the idioms that you stop seeing how complicated they are. A lawyer's view on nature.
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Gunter View Post
    .....If you're interested in music theory, I've been writing about it, and would be happy to get feedback on my writing: http://www.markgunter.net/search.php?searchStr=abc
    That’s a lot of work you did, and very nicely done. You’ll get nones of dollars for it, but thanks.
    Last edited by Bill McCall; Apr-28-2020 at 12:13pm.
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    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill McCall View Post
    Thatís a lot of work you did, and very nicely done. Youíll get nones of dollars for it, but thanks.
    Thanks Bill, it's a work in progress.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bertram Henze View Post
    You have to blaze your way through a lot of musicologistic history (that a word?) to arrive at the wonderful simplicity and clarity of the math involved.
    Quote Originally Posted by Bertram Henze View Post
    I half expected to see a pentagram in there somewhere (knowing full well that this is not possible)
    Going back through history doesn't clear the waters much, I'm afraid. The oldest extant musical texts we have access to are Sumerian - and the Greeks (ala Pythagoras, et al) seem to have borrowed and built upon the Babylonian works. The math can be somewhat obscure in all of them.

    Pentagram? How about a heptagram ...

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Circle of 4ths/5ths in old Babylon

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    Registered User mmuussiiccaall's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Bevan View Post
    Jazz progressions go from left to right, eg Em7 A7 Dm7 G7 C.
    Rock progressions go from right to left, eg Hey Joe: C G D A E.
    Hmmm, HEY JOE is an anomaly, I sure wouldn't base any blank statement around that song.

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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by mmuussiiccaall View Post
    Hmmm, HEY JOE is an anomaly, I sure wouldn't base any blank statement around that song.
    Ya think? What about "With A Little Help From My Friends"? "Desire" by U2? Any of a thousand rock tunes that go D A E?

    How 'bout Deep Purple's "Hush"?

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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Bevan View Post
    Ya think? What about "With A Little Help From My Friends"? "Desire" by U2? Any of a thousand rock tunes that go D A E?

    How 'bout Deep Purple's "Hush"?
    Now we both agree about the practice of rock adding a bVII chord for the Mixolydian feel in hundreds of rock songs E.g. about every AC/DC song.

  30. #22

    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    The point is that rock progressions travel around the circle of fifths in the same way that jazz progressions do, but in the opposite direction.
    Hey Joe's anything but an anomaly, as far as "rock theory" (ya, an oxymoron to many jazz theorists) goes.

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    Registered User mmuussiiccaall's Avatar
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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Bevan View Post
    The point is that rock progressions travel around the circle of fifths in the same way that jazz progressions do, but in the opposite direction.
    Hey Joe's anything but an anomaly, as far as "rock theory" (ya, an oxymoron to many jazz theorists) goes.
    O.K. Jim tell me another song with the chord progression of HEY JOE.

  32. #24

    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"

    Wait, I thought a circle of fifths was a bunch of guys sitting around drinking whiskey. Pretty sure you all have it wrong.

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    Default Re: "Playing the circle of fifths"



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