Chart of the circle of fifths

Finding Chord Progressions Using the Circle of Fifths

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Even if you’re just learning an instrument or have started beginner guitar lessons, you will have likely run into the Circle of Fifths. While many know it’s a great way to find the key signature of a song, along with sharps and flats, it can help unlock loads of other info as well. Patterns you make on the circle can easily be shifted to transpose and find potential substitutions. Here are a few different ways to find chord progressions on the Circle of Fifths.

The patterns on the Circle of Fifths

The easiest place to start on the Circle of Fifths is C, because it is natural — which means it has no sharps or flats. We can tell it is natural based on two things. First, look above the “C” on the circle below and you’ll see the key signature lists no sharps or flats. Second, by starting one note to the left of “C” on the circle, you can count the seven notes in the diatonic scale: F C G D A E B.

The notes are not in order, but they are the same diatonic notes in the scale, and you’ll see there are no sharps or flats. If we move to “G” on the circle and do the same thing, you’ll see its scale includes C G D A E B F#. This major scale pattern will work with each key.

circle of fifths — full chart

Finding guitar chords

You can also find guitar chords by making patterns on the circle. A “C major” triad is C-E-G. You can draw a triangle starting at the C, moving four notes to the right (E) and then one to the right of C (G) to build that triad, and that same shape can be moved to find any other major chord. Shift it to D and see that is made up of D-F#-A.

C & D Major chords on the circle of fifths

This same principle works with minor chords and even larger chords. A four sided shape can be made for C7 (C-E-G-Bb) and that can also be moved to find other dominant 7ths. If we want to find the tritone of the root, we simply draw a line straight across the circle: C goes across to F#, which is dissonant. Any pattern you discover on this image can be shifted to find the same info in a new key.

Finding the chords in a scale

C ScaleYou can also find all the chords in a scale. Notice at C, six of the chord degrees are adjacent to it: C Dm Em F G Am. If you shift to another key, that same premise holds. You can use Roman Numerals to represent these degrees as I ii iii IV V vi — this same pattern works around the circle. The vii degree is found by using the tone right before the tritone — for C, that’s the B. Now that you know these patterns, you can start building chord progressions!

When using formulas or shapes, just remember, lowercase is minor and uppercase is major.

The chord progressions on the Circle of Fifths

The most common chord progression in popular music is the I-IV-V, and that’s easy to find on the circle: you move one degree left to find the fourth and one right for the fifth. So, for C, the I-IV-V progression is C-F-G.

Another common chord progression is the I-vi-IV-V or I-V-vi-IV — which include the relative minor (the vi, which can be found just below the tonic on the chart, so for C that’s the Am). This makes a rounded T shape that can be transposed to any other key; in D the I-vi-IV-V would be D-Bm-G-A.

Of course, there are a number of variations on that pattern: if we want something a little jazzier, we can use I-vi-ii-V (in C that’s C-Am-Dm-G), the ii and IV have two similar notes in their chords, so it works great. If we want a progression that is more rocking, we can use I-bVII-IV (in C that’s C-Bb-F), or maybe I-bIII-IV (C-Eb-F), where we are using a flattened major III instead of the iii.

If you want a sadder or even a bluesy sound, you can start your chord progression on the minor like vi-IV-V-I. Moving from major to minor or vice versa will give your song a different vibe, so experiment until you land on something that speaks to you.

A more uplifting rock progression is I-II-IV-I — in the key of G, that’s G-A-C-G. Any chord order you find can be easily shifted to find the key you want. Here are a few more common chord progressions, try to find them in different keys.

  • i-VII-VI-V
  • I-V-bVII-IV
  • ii-V-I
  • I-bIII-bVII-IV
  • i-iv-v
  • i-III-VI-V

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One point to remember about patterns and chord sequences is that songs will use them in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the same progression repeats through the whole tune; other times, pieces are mixed with other cadences and movements. Sometimes a verse may be I-vi-IV-V and then the chorus is I-IV-V to give it a lift. Mix things up and play what you think sounds good!

Substitutions on the Circle of Fifths

These basic chord progressions will keep you occupied for a few weeks or months of study, and there is nothing wrong with using them to write your song. However, you may eventually get bored with these chord progressions and want to change things up. For example, if your song needs a lift at the end and uses C-Em-F-G, the pattern can be shifted one whole step to D-F#m-G-A.

Other ways to substitute are to switch a major to minor, use the relative minor, or switch to a chord from a nearby key on the circle. We can also find chord inversions, instead of using C-E-G we can try the order of E-G-C for a slightly different sound (this works great on a piano). Secondary dominants are also great to replace other chords, and this is just a matter of following the fifths. D7 would be the secondary to replace G and so on.

Basically, when you are finding a potential chord progression or substitution, the farther you jump on the circle, the greater chance for dissonance. Dissonance is not always a bad thing, but it has to be used in the right context. The best way to utilize the Circle of Fifths is to start with basic sequences like the I-IV-V and then start adding minors and new chords. Experiment with what sounds cool, sad, odd, and know that any pattern you find can be moved to another key.

Apply the circle to familiar songs

There is so much to discover on this circle, and as you study it, you will have many Eureka! moments. Even musicians who have played for years are often surprised by something new they can find. Understanding music theory won’t happen overnight, but if you use the circle regularly, it will start to click.

One of the best ways to apply the Circle of Fifths is to learn some of your favorite songs, chart the chords on the circle, and use the patterns you discover to inspire your own songwriting. Eventually, you will notice the songs that share chord progressions and patterns will all have similar vibes.

The Circle of Fifths has it all — and with it, you barely need any other musical reference!

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About Shawn Leonhardt

Shawn Leonhardt is a freelance writer for Guitar Tricks, the original online guitar lessons program since 1998. With over four million members, Guitar Tricks is the premier guitar lessons platform for beginner guitarists and advanced players alike.

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