Lessons for Rufus: The circle of 5ths

June 8, 2006

[An ongoing public lesson in composition.]

Rufus arrives with some old onion skin filled with clefs of all kinds. Professor Berlioz scans the page and sees improvement in his autography and says so. He critiques the shapes of the flags in 16th and 32nd notes. “Here you try it.” Rufus grabs the pencil and starts making a 16th note. The pencil point breaks. “Shit!” Berlioz grabs the pencil and pushes it into the electric sharpener. “Here, good as new.” He taps the point, “It’s a good idea to gently break the very tip of the pencil so that doesn’t happen. Doodle for a few seconds to get the graphite looking solid.” Rufus does so. Now, I want you to relax as you write with a pencil. Just as when you work at your computer, it’s important to have good posture, and a relaxed hand as you write. Take a look at Bach’s handwriting. Granted, he used a crow quill pen, but you get the impression he wrote this calmly and quickly.


Berlioz: Rufus, if you were a typical incoming Freshman, I would take you on a much slower, gradated path, but you know much already, and for that reason, I will jump around to find holes in your knowledge and try to fill them. I will try to help put names on things you very likely know already. Today I’d like to review basic triads, their qualities, and what happens to them when you make them into 4-note chords, or in this case, seventh chords.

When I use the term “diatonic” I am referring to the notes of a major scale, or the white notes if you will. If I create a triad and clone it as I rise up the scale, I get the following chords:


You’ll see that there are three kinds of triads: a major triad (I, IV, V), a minor triad (ii, iii, vi), and a diminished triad (vii). Many teachers use upper case letters to refer to major chords and lower case letters to refer to minor and diminished chords.

To the right of this are the diatonic seventh chords. There are four kinds of seventh chords in a major scale. The chords are built upon one of the three basic triads, but in this case, a seventh is added above the bottom note which is either a minor 7th or a major 7th (played on the piano). So a MM7 seventh chord is based on a MAJOR chord with a major 7th on top; the Mm7, usually referred to as a dominant 7th and only exists on V, is made up of a major triad with a minor 7th on top. These are the two major sounding seventh chords. The MM7 doesn’t really need to go anywhere since jazz. In Classical music the 7th is considered a dissonance and would need to be resolved. The Mm7 is the core of so-called functional harmony. A dominant 7th chord has a powerful tendency to resolve to the tonic, or primary key. The last diatonic seventh chord is kind of an odd ball: it’s the dm7 or a seventh chord based upon a diminished triad, with a minor 7th on top. It’s known as a “half-diminished” seventh which is indicated by the little degree symbol with a slash through it.

Music made up of triads that just go up and down the diatonic scale is usually dull and predictable. Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” is one of the most beautiful exceptions (see my analysis on this blog). The power of the V – I chord progression is one that is found on other scale degrees as well. We can cycle through every triad by romping through what is known as the circle of fifths. If you ride it downwards, you usually run out of the range of the instrument you’re writing for. So, you adjust it: rather than descending by 5ths forever (listen to the first part of the example below), you jump down a 5th, then go up a 4th instead of down a 5th (it’s the same note, just an octave higher). So the bass line that goes down a 5th, up a 4th, down a 5th, up a 4th, et cetera, is demonstrated below, and is an example of a chord progression that rides along the circle of 5ths.


Now let’s listen to these two examples. The first takes you through the circle of 5ths using ONLY triads. It also has the bass line that descends by 5ths. You see that the last two notes are not heard and “fall off” the piano.” The second example does the same thing, but adds a seventh to each chord. You hear it is a much more emotional rendering of circle of fifths chord progressions. Also note that in the bass, it has been adjusted to fit on the piano, and sounds much more satisfying.


Berlioz: Your assignment for next week..

Rufus: Ah c’mon Prof, I’ve got my big Judy Garland concert coming up next week, I can’t…

Berlioz: Ah yes, alright I’ll give you next Tuesday and Wednesday off, but back to work on Thursday. I’d like to you compose a work for chorus, yes, you may record all the parts. In it I want you to obsessively explore the circle of 5ths. Mind you there are many, many other ways of tapping into that circle, I’d like you to discover as many as you can. I’d like you to clean up the performance of your recording and I want everything in tune. You may not use any instruments whatsoever. It will be due in one week. Good luck.


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