The Circle of Fifths for Songwriters

If you're acquainted with an music theory at all,  you've heard about the circle of fifths. It's one of the building blocks of western music theory. It lists all of the keys in a circle of fifths (or fourths depending on your direction around the circle). Musicians primarily use it at first to learn the key signatures of the various keys. It starts with the key of C, which has no sharps or flats. It then goes onto G with it's one accidental of F#. Then on to D with it's two sharps F# and C#, etcetera. The interesting thing about the circle is how many different ways it applies to music.

Not only does it make it easy to memorize the different keys because it's so logically laid out, but there are many other patterns in it as well. The pattern of keys (C, G, D, A etc) also follows the occurrence of sharps (F#, C#, G#, etc) and backwards follows the occurrence of flats (Bb, Eb, Db, etc.). It also lists all of the relative minors for each major (the relative minor having the same key signature as the major). If you're serious about making music, this chart must be memorized.

Diatonics 101

One of the great applications of the circle that most people don't know about is that it tells you all of the chords in any given key. If we use C as an example: we start off with C as the major and we know immediately that we have Am as the relative minor. So we already know the I and the vi chords. If we go one step to the right, we get G, the V in C and G's relative minor Em, the iii in C. If we go one step to the left of C we get F the IV and its relative minor Dm which is the ii in C. So just by looking at the two sets of chords next to the key we're in, we get all of the chords available in that key. In C we have: C Dm Em F G Am*. The only chord we have missing is the vii...more on this in a moment. So to get all of the chords available in any given key all you have to do is start at the home key on the circle, that will be your I and vi. One step to the right and you'll have your V and iii. One step to the left of your key and you'll have your IV and ii. There's a world of songs in this alone.

Diatonic Chords in the key of C Major

*Of course this also applies to songs in the relative minor. The biggest difference here is that the Vm chord in the minor key is often made into a major. This enforces the V to Im progression. There are actually tons of variations of chord progressions in minor keys. More on this later.

The bVII Chord

The circle does really well when dealing with chords given within a certain key but what happens if you want to use some blues/rock type progressions? Well this works just as well here too, we just have to use the circle a little differently. This time we're going to stick to the majors, or the 'outside' of the circle. If we use the key of C again, we see that going right we have our V and going one step left we have our IV. But, if we keep going one more to the left we come to Bb which happens to be the bVII in the key of C. If you're familiar with pop and blues progressions, you'll know that the VII chord a major key is a minor 7th b5 chord. This chord is almost never used in popular music. In other forms of music (classical, jazz) it has specific applications. The bVII chord (a major chord) however, is often used in both pop and blues. The chord is said to be 'borrowed' from the minor but it's suffice to say here that it has a special sound. If you're not sure, trying playing a IV-V-I and then interject a bVII in there to see how it fits. It's not truly diatonic but it's been used so often that we're used to hearing it. This chord has been used in everything from the blues, to Elton John songs, to the theme to Star Wars.

Adding the bVII chord to the key of C Major

Once More to the Left

So if we start at C, go one to the left we have F, our IV chord, if we go one more to the left, we have Bb, our bVII chord. If we go one more to the left, we get Eb, our bIII chord. This is another blues/rock chord that is often used. If you strum through a I to bIII progression, it automatically sounds like rock or blues (although it is actually used in all types of music). In fact if we start at C and list the next four chords to the left in the circle, we have one of the most used rock and blues progressions of all time. We start with C the I chord, we go to F, the IV chord. One more to the left we end up at Bb, the bVII and then Eb, the bIII. This chord progression is used in everything from rock and blues, pop, to some of your favorite club songs (it's used in dance music all the time).

Adding the bVII and bIII to the key of C Major

Going Modal

Another application of circle applies to writing in songs in different modes. If you're thinking that this is revolutionary, it isn't. Modal songwriting has been around for about 500 years; Celtic music, folk songs, songs from the Middle Ages (to name a few) all use modes. We're going to look at Dorian first. A very famous song that uses this mode is 'Scarborough Fair'. We're going to use the same chart we did with the diatonic chords in the key of C. Except this time the root (red circled chord) will be on the Dm, the chord on the lower left of the highlighted circle. We start with the Dm chord; our Im chord. The F right above it will be our III chord. We're going to go to the right this time. Next we have C, our bVII chord, and Am, our Vm chord. Once more to the right and we have G, our IV chord and Em, our IIm chord. The only chord missing here is our VI chord which (like the VII in major) is special in dorian. 

Hint: When writing using modes, play through a modal progression a couple of times to get the sound in your head. That way you'll end up writing in that mode and not automatically start writing in minor or another key. Try playing a Im IV Vm chord progression a couple of times and see what I mean. This is a 'very Dorian' chord progression.
To write in another key, just move the highlighted section around the circle of fifths until you arrive at the key in which you want to explore.

The Other Modes

Writing in other modes (ie. Mixolydian, Phrygian etc.) can start with this way of putting the various chord progressions together. For example, writing in Mixolydian, we would move the red circled chord to the top right (the G in our C major example) and go from there. Once you've written songs in different modes, you'll start to see there are special cases in each mode. There's a ton more to it than this but this should be a good primer.

Variations on a Minor

Like mentioned earlier, when writing in minor keys many variations have been used. There are three different forms of the minor scale that we derive chords from. In the case of minor, these different forms get mixed and mashed together all the time. What usually happens is the song starts in the natural minor and then a couple of chords from the other minor scales are 'borrowed' to make new chord progressions. We're going to let you know the different chords available and let you choose how you want to use them. These are the chord progressions most often used in pop and rock. We won't be going into all of the different extensions since that is an article in itself. 

We've already mentioned the natural minor. This follows the same chords found in the relative major scale. If you want to know all of the chords in the other minor scales, you'll have to make some small changes to the original VI and VII chords. To make a harmonic chord progression, you'll sharpen the (flat) VII. To make a melodic minor progression, you'll have to sharpen the (flat) VI and (flat) VII. The problem with the minors isn't so much the actual chords as it is the quality of the chords. Changing the 6th and 7th notes of the minor scale changes the quality of all of the chords in that key. So just by sharpening the 7th, you've changed the qualities of all of the chords that use that note. As a result, songwriters will take chords that they like from one form of the minor and use them in various ways.

Like mentioned before, the v (minor) will often be changed to a major chord (and just as often to a dominant 7th) to reinforce the V-i progression. There are others. The IV chord is often made into a major as well. Sometimes writers will change the IV to a major and leave the as a minor. The difference between this and the modes mentioned earlier is that the rest of the chords (e.g. the VI chord) from the natural minor are left alone.

Here are some variations:

i IV V: Am F G

i iv V: Am Dm E(7)

i IV i bVII bVI v: Am D Am G F Em

i IV V: Am D E

i bIII IV V: Am C D E

And Then...

Then there are the minor chord progressions used in RnB...but that's another article. Have fun.