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The circle of fifths, regarding tonality. See article for details.

Play the top key of a piano. It should be a C. Starting from there, count that key as 1, and count down the white keys to get to 5. That's an F. Do it again, and you'll get a B, an E, an A, a D, a G, and then a C again.

Now build chords on top of this. Just triads, all on the white keys. You should end up with the following sequence: C, F, Bdim, Em, Am, Dm, G, C. This is your basic Circle of Fifths progression.

This has turned out to be a rather popular progression. This is probably in part because it uses the strength of the Authentic Cadence, multiple times in a row—especially if you modify the chords appropriately, you can pretty much produce a chain of overlapping authentic cadences.

The basic progression, in Roman numeral notation is as follows:

  • major: I, IV, vii°, iii, vi, ii, V, I
  • minor: i, iv, VII, III, VI, ii°, V, i

For example, in the C major and A minor (the relative major/minor pair with a key signature of 0 sharps or flats), the progressions are as follows:

  • C major: C, F, Bdim, Em, Am, Dm, G, C
  • A minor: Am, Dm, G, C, F, Bdim, E, A

The exact chords can be modified, but the sound is still similar. Note that the first four chords of the minor version are the same as the last four chords of the major version; this overlap is often used by composers to modulate between keys or express ambiguity of tonality for various purposes.

The full eight-chord progression (or seven-chord, if you don't count the repeated chord at either end) is pretty prominent when it occurs, but doesn't occur too often. Much more frequent, though, is a half-sized progression consisting of four chords—usually the last four of either progression or the first four of the minor progression (which is the last four of the major one anyway).

The partial version, especially when using the last four chords of the major progression or the first four chords of the minor progression, is closely related to the Humoresque Progression, with the only difference being the second chord. The difference is not that great since the two second-chords share two triad notes anyway.

This progression also has a chromatic form, but this is much less observed because of the tendency of music to stay in one key. Here is the chromatic circle anyway, for reference:

  • C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db (C#), F# (Gb), B (Cb), E, A, D, G, C

The term "circle of fifths" also refers to a circular diagram shown on the right here. This, however, shows the relationships between the different pairs of keys major and minor and how many sharps or flats they have. To put it in layman's terms, there are twelve different notes in each octave, and each one of them has a major scale (along with a minor scale starting on a different note), and they each have some number of sharps or flats, and the circle diagrams them in an easy-to-reference format. This also shows "enharmonics"—keys that can be spelled in two ways, but (generally) sound the same, because notes like F# and Gb are basically the same.

Note: The notation "m7b5" (i.e. "minor 7th chord, with flatted fifth") is the half-diminished seventh chord. So, "A#m7b5" is the same as A#ø7. The m7b5 notation is just an artifact of the jazz-originated letter-based chord notation system.

Examples of the full (eight- or seven-chord) progression, or more than half at least:

Examples of the half (four-chord) progression:

  • King Harvest, "Dancing in the Moonlight" (Cm7 Fm7 Bb9 Eb)
  • Talk Talk, "It's My Life", refrain, right after using the very similar Humoresque Progression
  • Hidetoshi Sato, the Neon Genesis Evangelion theme song "Cruel Angel's Thesis" (Cm Fm Bb Eb in the refrain, multiple times)
  • Weezer, "Island in the Sun" (everything that isn't the refrain is Em Am D G in G major)
  • Melocure, "Agapé" (Gm Cm F Bb in the refrain, repeatedly)
  • This troper thinks Queen's "Now I'm Here" should count as a circle of fifths progression, even though it's technically A-D-B-E-C sharp-F sharp-E flat (D sharp)-A flat (G sharp).
  • Aqua's "Barbie Girl" (C#m-F#m-B-E)
  • Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" chorus (Em-A7-D-G)
  • The refrain of the opening theme for the English dub of Digimon Frontier.
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