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Section 9.1 The Circle of Fifths Progression

The circle of fifths progression (\(\left.\text{I}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{IV}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{vii}^{\circ}{}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{iii}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{vi}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{ii}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{V}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{I}\right.\)) was a stalwart of the Baroque era in music. You will find many examples of this progression in the music of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, especially in minor (\(\left.\text{i}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{iv}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{VII}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{III}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{VI}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{ii}^{\circ}{}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{V}\right.\)–\(\left.\text{i}\right.\)) with the subtonic \(\left.\text{VII}\right.\).

Figure 9.1.1. J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047, I.
Figure 9.1.2. George Frideric Handel, Suite in G minor, Passacaglia

This circle (the circle of fifths for harmonic progression) is different than the circle of fifths for key signatures because this circle of fifths for harmonic progression contains diatonic notes only. (The circle of fifths for key signatures (Figure 2.3.4) contained all 12 notes of the chromatic scale.)

Circle of 5ths progression diagram
Figure 9.1.3. Circle of Fifths for Harmonic Progression

The circle of fifths (for harmonic progression) is sometimes known as the “circle of descending fifths.”

Circle of descending fifths occurring diatonically on the staff
Figure 9.1.4. Circle of descending fifths occurring diatonically on the staff

The circle of fifths progression has been used regularly since the Baroque era.

Circle of 5ths progression diagram in Mozart's K. 545, I
Figure 9.1.5. Mozart, Piano Sonata in C, K. 545, I (1780s)
Circle of 5ths progression in Die Meistersinger by Wagner
Figure 9.1.6. Wagner, Die Meistersinger, Act II, Scene 6 (1860s)
Figure 9.1.7. Howard, “Fly Me to the Moon” (chords only) (1950s)
Figure 9.1.8. Perren and Fekaris, “I Will Survive” (chords only) (1970s)
Figure 9.1.9. Armato and James, I “Love You Like A Love Song” (2010s) (bass and chords only)

The circle of fifths progression has a feeling of inevitability about it because it consists of harmonic sequences. To understand harmonic sequence we will first look at melodic sequences, since the bass line is the “melody” in a harmonic sequence. Ask yourself what happens after this melodic idea:

Opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
Figure 9.1.10. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, I.

Therefore, a sequence is a musical idea repeated at a different pitch level.

Sequences can be short or long. For example, look at this familiar idea and notice how all four bars are sequenced down a step in the following four bars.

Opening of Mozart's 40th Symphony
Figure 9.1.11. Mozart, Symphony No. 40, I.

Now look again at the bass line in “I Love You Like A Love Song” and notice how it can be thought of a two-note idea treated as a descending sequence.

“I Love You Like A Love Song” bass line as a sequence
Figure 9.1.12. “I Love You Like A Love Song” bass line sequence in groups of two notes

Sometimes we will hear a circle of fifths sequence where some of the chords are not in root position, as in the Handel and Mozart examples. In these two examples, we are hearing the sequence of the roots, even though they are not clearly presented in the bass.

Circle of 5ths progression with roots as open note heads
Figure 9.1.13. Handel Passacaglia with roots as open note heads

We will return to the idea of harmonic sequence later in this chapter.