Lesson 6
The Circle of Fifths

  1. The Circle of Fifths
  2. Circle of Fifths Practice
                Scale tones - Chord tones
  3. Swing Time (Song)
  4. Improvisation - Rhythm Patterns 26 to 30
  5. The Woodshed
  6. Quiz and Quiz Answers
  7. Practice Materials

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Im 6.1 - The Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths is a continuous string of notes that are at intervals of a perfect 5th apart.
C is a perfect 5th above F, F is a perfect 5th above Bb, Bb is a perfect 5th above Eb, and so on. This string of perfect 5ths eventually leads back to its starting point (C), and so becomes a circle.


Going up rather than down : C is also a perfect 4th below F, F is a perfect 4th below Bb, Bb is a perfect 4th below Eb, and so on. The Circle is therefore also called the Circle of Fourths. They are both the same thing. I always refer to it as the 'Circle of Fifths' to avoid confusion.
Alternating between these two movements, going up a 4th, then down a 5th, one can play all twelve tones of the Circle within the span of one octave.

Audio 6.1

The Circle of Fifths Diagram reflects the close natural acoustic bond that exists between any one tone and its associate a perfect 5th higher (or a 4th lower) in pitch.

The Overtone series
Each ("fundamental") tone constitutes not just one single pitch by itself, but is accompagnied by a series of higher pitches formed by progressively shorter divisions of the fundamental wavelength. This produces the socalled "Overtone series".
The first "overtone" (also aptly called "partial": hase a wave length of half the fundamental's, the next one one third of the funadamental, followed by a quarter, and so on. The number given to each member of this Overtones series corresponds with its fraction of the fundamental wavelength it represents.
In the Overtone series for the fundamental C, as shown below, partial number 2 is another C (one octave up). Partial number 3 is a G, a perfect 5th above that, and number 4 is yet another C, this time a perfect 4th above the G.

Audio 6.2
Within this lower segment of the series the G is the first "foreign pitch" amongst the first three Cs. This has the effect that whenever a G (or G chord) needs to be "resolved" (move to a more stabel place) in a musical context, it tends to move to its closest related fundamental tone : C.

Likewise the Overtone series for the fundamental tone of F, has a C as its third partial. This C when required to be resolved will move to its closest fundamental : F.

The Overtone series for the fundamental tone of Bb, has a F as its third partial. This F when required to be resolved will move to its closest fundamental : Bb.

The Circle of Fifths is therefore a continuous string of interlocking partial 3 to related fundamental tones which eventually connects up back with its starting point.

This inherent accoustic bond is extensively used as a tool in harmonies of Western music to move from one chord to the next and thus stringing together chord progressions.

The Circle of Fifths underlies numerous principles and elements of all styles of Western Music. For the purpose of improvisation it is important to know that the Circle of Fifths is the most powerful engine of harmony movement (chord progressions) in Western Music for the past 300 years. In other words : chord progressions tend to move along segments of the Circle of Fifths.

Some typical examples

  1. In J.S.Bach's Prelude Nr.1 of his 'Weltempered Clavier Album 1' the chord progression for the first 12 bars is as follows :

    C - Dm7 - G7 - C - Am - D7 - G - Cmaj7 - Am7 - D7 - G - Go -

  2. In Serenade (Ständchen) by Franz Schubert the Chord progression (after 4 bars introduction) starts like this :

    Dm - Gm6 - A7 - Dm - A7 - Dm - Dm - Gm6 - C7 - F -

  3. Chopin's very simple but beautiful Prelude No.7 (Op.28) goes like this :

    E7 - E7 - A - A - E9 - E9 - A - A - E7 - E7 - A - A - F#7 - Bm7 - E9 - A - A-

  4. The Chord progressions of 'Hey There !' and 'Where's Woody ?', like numerous other I - VIm - IIm - V7 progressions are also continuous Circle of Fifths segments.
    • 'Hey There !' : C - Am - Dm - G7 - C - Am - Dm - G7 - C -

    • 'Where's Woody ?' : F - Dm - Gm - C7 - F - Dm - Gm - C7 - F -

  5. The three chords for the 12 bar Blues are also three adjacent members on the Circle of Fifths :
    • Blues in C :   V = G     I = C     IV = F

    • Blues in F :   V = C     I = F     IV = Bb

    • Blues in A :   V = E     I = A     IV = D
      etc. -

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Im 6.2 - Circle of Fifths Practice

From the previous Chapter it becomes obvious that it is absolutely essential for every improvising musician to develop an intimate knowledge and understanding of the Circle of Fifths. Therefore memorise this Circle and play it on your instrument in :

  1. Single tones
    Rather than going down in perfect Fifths all the time (which is impossible on most instruments) : alternate by going up a 4th, then down a 5th like this :
    Audio 6.3

  2. Simple Scale patterns
    For example play the first two or three notes of each major scale in Circle of Fifths order. Below the 1 2 3 1 pattern. Each note is 1 beat.
    Audio 6.4
    Keyboard players play single Circle of 5ths tones in the left hand, the scale pattern in the right hand.

    Here are 10 examples with play-alongs of Scale patterns

  3. Chord tones
    Take one chord quality, for example the major triad (shown below) and play it as arpeggios (in broken chord tones) for all 12 chords around the Circle of Fifths.
    Audio 6.5
    Keyboard players play single Circle of 5ths tones in the left hand, the chord pattern in the right hand.

    Here are 10 examples with play-alongs of Chord patterns

    Practice like this is most useful. It helps you to know and memorise the note sequence of the Circle of 5ths. This in turn will enable you to recognise Circle segments in the chord progressions of tunes you play.

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    Im 6.3 - Swing Time (Song)

    Swing Time is a 32 bar song in the familiar AABA format (like A Happy Day in Lesson 1).
    The A section is once again a I - VIm - IIm - V7 progression as in 'Hey There !' and 'Where's Woody'.

    The Bridge features the famous <Rhythm Bridge named after George Gershwin's 'I Got Rhythm'.
    This Bridge consists of a string of dominant 7th chords in Circle of 5ths order.
    Each chord occupies 2 bars :

    Audio 6.6

    Other famous songs that feature the 'Rhythm Bridge' include :

    And what if I Don't ? (Herbie Hancock)
    Anthropology (Charlie Parker)
    Crazy Day (Gerry Mulligan)
    Oleo (Sonny Rollins)
    Perdido (Duke Ellington)
    Scrapple from the Apple (Charlie Parker)

    Audio 6.7

    Swing Time : Swapping 2s.

    1. 1st chorus (32 bars) : I play the first 2 bars of each 4 bar phrase, you play the following 2 bars.

    2. 2nd chorus (32 bars) : You play the first 2 bars of each 4 bar phrase, I play the following 2 bars.

      Improvise using the F major scale over the A sections and the A, D, G and C Mixolydian modes over the Bridge.

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    Im 6.4 - Improvisation - Rhythm Patterns 26 to 30

    We look at two aspects this lesson, one old, one new.
    A. Critical Tones
    The Swing Time Bridge section provides a good opportunity to use the Critical Tones Concept.
    Four Mixolydian modes cover the Bridge. First practise these.

    Audio 6.8

    Then find the Critical tones
    From A7 to D7 C# - - - -> C
    From D7 to G7 F# - - - -> F
    From G7 to C7 B - - - -> Bb

    Practise :
    Audio 6.9

    Then try to improvise using these tones.

    B. Accents
    Placement of accents can make or break a musical phrase.
    The natural accents in a bar of 4/4 time fall on the down beats 1 and 3 :

    This is very predictable. It creates boring phrases that have no energy or forward drive. But no matter how simple it may appear, it is difficult for the beginning improviser to get away from it. It needs some serious and sustained practice.

    In Jazz improvisation aim to place accents on down beats 2 and 4 and on any of the off beats :


    There are two ways you can practise accents :

    1. Practise scales in swing quavers with strong accents on all off beat notes.
      See the
      Woodshed below.

    2. Use the accents on off beats and down beats 2 and 4.

    Below are five more Rhythm Patterns to add to your collection. (The occasional accent on 1 or 3 is quite OK, it can provide a good contrast, but it should be the exception, not the rule.)

    Audio 6.10
    Play each pattern twice, going around the Cicle of Fifths, selecting a new note each 4 bars.

    Work on these Rhythm Patterns. If you find them too tricky at first to improvise on, play them with a single note around the Circle of Fifths (as I did on Audio 6.10). Select simpler patterns for the song improvisation.

    On the Swing Time Audio I first play the melody of 'Swing Time', and then one chorus improvisation with scale-tones only, using Rhythm Patterns 29 (A sections) and 30 (Bridge).

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    Im 6.5 - The Woodshed

    Continue with practice of the Mixolydian mode in all keys. Place strong accents on all off beat notes.
    Here is a Practice Routine combining mode and corresponding chord. (The accents may not come out that well on the Demo midi when played through your browser.)

    Audio 6.11

    You can also reverse the order, playing first the chord up to the 9th, then the mode back down.

    Audio 6.12

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    Im 6.6 - Quiz

    1. Place the the following notes in proper Circle of 5ths order.
      1. C D E G A

      2. D E F# A B

      3. C Eb F G Bb

      4. G Bb C D F

      5. F G A Bb C D E

      6. Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C

      7. E F# G# A B C# D

      8. Eb F G Ab Bb C Db

    2. What can you conclude from the above eight exercises in respect of the keys on a keyboard ?

    3. What are the three chords (I, IV and V) for the Blues :
      1. In the key of Bb

      2. In the key of Eb

      3. In the key of A

      4. In the key of B

      5. In the key of D

    4. 'Oleo' is a song in the key of Bb. It contains the 'Rhythm Bridge'. Which are the chords in the Bridge section.

    5. 'And what if I don't' is a song in the key of Eb. It contains the 'Rhythm Bridge'. Which are the chords in the Bridge section ?

    6. Identify all Circle of Fifths segments (of 2 or more successive chords) in the following popular Jazz Tune. Mark each segment by placing brackets around it as shown.
      1. F - F#dim - (Gm7 - C7) - Am7 - Dm7 - Gm7 - C7 - F - F#dim -

      2. Gm7 - C7 - Am7 - Dm7 - Cm7 - F7 - Bb - Abm7 - Db7 - Gbmaj7 -

      3. Em7 - A7 - Dmaj7 - Abm7 - Db7 - Gbmaj7 - Gm7 - C7 - F - F#dim-

      4. Gm7 - C7 - Bb7 - Am7 - D7b9 - Gm7 - C7 - F - Dm7 - Gm7 - C7 - F.

    Quiz ANSWERS

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    Im 6.7 Practice Materials

    Swing Time Lead sheet - Bb - Eb Melody & Impro Play-along
    Swapping 2s Play-along
    Rhythm Patterns Notation Demo
    The Woodshed Mixolydian modes Demo Play-along
    Circle of Fifths

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    Copyright © 1997 - 2007 Michael Furstner.