Jazz Theory 10

  1. Our sub-conscious acoustic association
  2. From Unstable to Stable
  3. The Circle of Fifths
  4. Applications of the Circle of Fifths
  5. Examples in Classical music
  6. Examples in Jazz
  7. Practice
  8. Quiz - Quiz Answers
  9. Lesson Material - General files

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JT 10.1 - Our Sub-conscious acoustic association

We discussed the acoustics of a single tone in the previous Lesson.
You will therefore now appreciate that with every tone produced, the ear not only receives the vibrations of the fundamental pitch, but also the vibrations of all the overtones that accompany it.

The human brain is therefore (sub-consciously) continuously brainwashed in associating the overtone pitches with their fundamental pitch.

This sub-conscious association is particularly strong between the Fundamental (parent) and the Overtone No.3 (oldest child). For this is the first truly different pitch that occurs in the Overtone Series.

Audio 1

Overtones No.2 and No.4 are perceived as being the same as the Fundamental (duplicated one and two octaves higher).
Overtone No.3 is a low ranking and therefore prominent component in the timbre of all musical sounds.

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JT 10.2 - From Unstable to Stable

jt004.gif When a tone is heard in a musical context where it becomes unstable it wants to move (resolve) to a stable note elsewhere.

The major triad is a very stable chord.
It can form the end of a musical statement. There is, to our aural perception, no need to continue to another tone or chord.

If we play for example a G major chord it makes a statement, it provides an answer.

The Dominant 7th chord, on the other hand, poses a question.
It is, in a musical sense, very unstable and usually needs to be resolved to another chord.

If we play for example a G in the context of a G7 chord, it becomes unstable.

It poses to our ear a question that has to be answered (resolved) by an other tone or chord.
We feel that the G7 chord can not be the end of the music, something else has to follow to conclude it.

In this unstable situation the G is perceived by our ear as Overtone No.3 and it resolves to its parent Fundamental (an octave and) a perfect fifth down : the C.

Audio 2

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JT 10.3 - The Circle of Fifths

The above association applies to any note of our musical system.

When we play the C for example as a C7 chord it in turn becomes unstable, it assumes to our ear the role of Overtone No.3, and resolves to its Fundamental tone a perfect fifth down, the F.

Audio 3

The F in turn as an F7 chord resolves a fifth down to Bb.

Bb7 resolves a fifth down to Eb, and so on.

Continuing this process from chord to chord we eventually return back to our starting point.

Audio 4

In this process we describe a complete Circle, through all 12 tones of our musical system.

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This circle is called the Circle of Fifths.

Audio 5
(Starts on C, then anti-clockwise, alternating a 4th up then a 5th down.)

The Circle of Fifths is sometimes also referred to as the Circle of Fourths.

For moving a perfect 5th downwards (from G down to the C below) is the same as moving a perfect 4th upwards (from G up a 4th to the C above).

To avoid confusion, I will always refer to it as the Circle of Fifths.

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JT 10.4 - Application of the Circle of Fifths

It is most important to realise that the Circle of Fifths is a Diagram reflects the natural acoustic relationship between adjacent tones on the Circle.

Going anti-clockwise : each note represents Overtone No.3 followed by its Fundamental.

Going clockwise : each note represents a Fundamental followed by its Overtone No.3

The Circle of Fifths underlies many principles and elements of Western Music. These are discussed in detail in Chords Book 1 and the Scales Book. We will discuss some of these also in this Course.

Most of all, the Circle of Fifths is a powerful engine for harmonic motion (the movement from one chord to the next) which has been used in Western music for the past 300 years.

The dominant 7th chord provides the strongest pull along the Circle. But other chord qualities too move naturally along the Circle in a pleasing and logical progression.

The harmonic force moves anti-clockwise. But short chord progressions moving one or two steps clockwise against the flow are also common.


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JT 10.5 - Examples in Classical Music

Analysis of Western music reveals that most harmonies consist of a number of Circle of Fifths segments. Check out the following examples yourself.

I have amplified the bass notes on all Audio demos. This makes it easier to follow the root movements of the chord progressions.

Some typical examples in Classical music are :

(Circle of 5ths Diagram)

  1. In J.S.Bach's Prelude No.1 from his Well-tempered Clavier (Album 1) the chord progression starts like this :

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

    (each chord extends over 2 bars)

  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. Frederic Chopin's very simple but popular Prelude No.7 - Opus 28 goes like this :

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

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JT 10.6 - Examples in Jazz

(Circle of 5ths Diagram)

Just about every Jazz Standard, exhibits the same principle.
Here a few examples :

Fools Rush In - All of Me - Heart and Soul

  1. Fools Rush In (notation) by Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom starts with :

    Fmaj7 - Bm7b5 - Em7 - Am7 - Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7 -

  2. All of Me (notation) by Simons and Marks contains this progression :

    Cmaj7 - E7 - A7 - Dm7 - G7 -

  3. Heart and Soul by Hoagy Carmichael (similar to I Got Rhythm by George Gershwin, Oleo by Sonny Rollins, and several other Jazz Standards) goes :

    F - Dm - Gm - C - F - Dm - Gm - C -

  4. The three chords for the 12 bar Blues also are 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


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JT 10.7 - Practice

It is essential for any musician to develop an intimate knowledge and understanding of the Circle of Fifths.

Memorise this Circle and play it on your instrument in :

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

    Audio 12

  2. Scale Patterns
    Play the first two or three notes of each major scale in Circle of Fifths order.
    Here two examples.

    Pattern 1 2 1 :

    Audio 13

    Pattern 1 2 3 1 :

    Audio 14

    You can also use other scale tones :

    • 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 (in C : C - D - E - G)

    • 1 - 7 - 6 - 5 (in C : C - B - A - G)

    • 1 - 2 - b3 - 1 (in C minor : C - D - Eb - C)

    • or anything else you care to dream up.

    Keyboard players can play Circle of Fifths bass notes in the left hand, while playing one of the patterns in the right hand (as demonstrated on the Audios).

  3. Broken Chords (Arpeggios)
    Take one chord quality, for example the major triad and play it in broken chord tones for all 12 chords around the Circle of Fifths.

    The major triad.

    Audio 15

    Try also other chords.

The Circle of Fifth Play-a-Long Midi file provided uses major triad chords and can be used for all major scale patterns, major triads and major 7th and dominant 7th chords.
The Play-a-Long track starts on the C chord and progresses anti-clockwise along the Circle. Each chord for one bar only.

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JT 10.8 - Quiz

Rearrange the following notes in Circle of Fifths order :

  1. Ab - B - Eb - Db - F - G - Bb - C - Gb

  2. G# - E - D - C# - A - F# - G - B

  3. F - C# - G - G# - B - D - F# - A# - C - D#

  4. Bb - A - C - Eb - F - D - Ab - G - E

1. What is the relationship between any tone on the Circle of Fifths with the tone which occurs at the exact opposite side (180 degrees away) of the Circle ?

2. What can you say about the distribution of white and of black keyboard notes on the Circle of Fifths ?

3. Select alternate notes around the Circle of Fifths. What do you get?

What can you observe about the
Perfect and Plagal Cadences (Lesson 7) in the context of the Circle of Fifths ?

Draw a complete Circle of Fifths from memory.
Then mark next to each note on the Circle the number of sharps or flats that tone has in the key signature of its major scale.

For example :
C has no sharp or flat in its key signature : write 0 next to C.
G has 1 sharp in its key signature : write 1 # next to G and so on.

Here are the Major scales 1 and Major scales 2 in case you need to check them.

(Circle of 5ths Diagram)

Identify all Circle of Fifths segments in the following popular Jazz Tune.
Mark each segments by placing brackets around it like this : C - (Am - D7 - Gm - C) - E7.

F - F#dim - Gm7 - C7 - Am7 - Dm7 - Gm7 - C7 - F - F#dim -

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

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

Gm7 - C7 - Bb7 - Am7 - D7 - Gm7 - C7 - F - Dm7 - Gm7 - C7 - F.

(Circle of 5ths Diagram)

Compose an 8 bar long chord progression that uses Circle of Fifths segment(s).
Experiment with a few. Select the best one and improvise over it using chord-tones only.

Quiz Answers

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JT 10.9 - Lesson Material

File Name Contents
jt10fac.gif Jazz Theory 10 - Facts sheet




Large Keyboard

Keyboard Diagrams

Manuscript paper

Circle of Fifths



Circle of 5ths P-a-L for major and dominant patterns
Starts on C --> F -->, Bb - etc., each chord for 1 bar

Circle of 5ths P-a-L for minor patterns
Starts on Cm --> Fm -->, Bbm - etc., each chord for 1 bar

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© 1998 - 2008 Michael Furstner (Jazclass)