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Circle of 5ths

I’ve had questions from students lately about the circle of 5ths, so I’m recycling this post, the 10th in a songwriting series that I wrote a while ago.

Here it is.


How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 10: Circle of 5ths.

Since you’ve looked at the first nine instalments in this songwriting series (right?), you can now can write a chord progression and place it in a song form. The problem is, you can only do it in the key of C. How do we take all this knowledge and apply it to any other key we want?

Before we answer that question, we need to talk about a little piece of magic called the circle of 5ths.
But before you read this, do yourself a favour and check out this great post about the circle of 5ths from Or read it after, if you want. Just read it.

Circle of 5ths

If you’re feeling queasy, you’re not alone. Musical jargon makes people think theory, and when people think theory, they think “no fun anymore.” But what you need to know is that with each new piece of knowledge you acquire, things get easier. And you become better than most of the other guitar players out there.
And it’s not hard.  Here it is.
  circle of 5, guitar
Just look at the top of the circle. The bottom will look scary. There’s a lot of information down there, and there’s something frightening about a lot of information all at once. Let’s make it easy.
You’ll see a short 5-line staff at the top with a treble clef ( & ). Above it is the letter C. Notice there are no sharps (#) or flats (b). This lack of information should make you happy. This is the simplest key there is. We’ll use it a lot.


I mentioned the treble clef in part 4 of this songwriting series. This is a symbol placed at the beginning of a musical staff so that those who care can tell what the note names are. You should probably care. It’s ok if you don’t.
There are a lot of different clefs. Here’s four of them.
For what we’re doing, you only need to know the treble clef. The rest is there for those of you who like more information.

Back to the circle

Go clockwise around the circle one step, and you come to a new key, the key of G. Look at the 5-line staff and you’ll see one sharp – F#. To spell the key of G we go in a circle (like we did for the key of C in part 1 of this series) from G to G, but now we add an F# to the alphabet.
G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   (G)

Chords in G major

Here’s what the chords in the key of G major look like.
  chords in the key of Gmaj 2
Compare this sequence of chords to the sequence in C major. See any similarities?
The first chord in both keys is a major chord; the second chord is minor. Continue to compare, and you’ll see that all of the chords in both keys relate to each other in this way.  And this is the same in every key!
Just like before we label the chords with roman numerals.
I                    ii             iii             IV             V            vi                viii
G Major  A Minor   B Minor   C Major   D Major   E Minor   F# Diminished
The pattern you see there – maj, min, min, maj, maj, min, dim – stays the same for every key.

Finding a key

To find a key, all you need to do is choose a letter. That letter will be the name of the key. Then look on the circle of 5ths diagram. Find that letter, and look at the number of sharps or flats. Then spell the alphabet starting with the letter that you chose, and insert the sharps or flats. Example: key of A = A B C D E F G. Insert the sharps that you see beside “A” on the circle of 5ths and you get: A B C# D E F# G#.
Some of you might be wondering how I know  the names of those sharps.
Check out Part 11 for that.
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Create more by using less

Constrain yourself

Sometimes it’s hard to get started because there’s just so much you could do. When you’re in that space, think about eliminating possibilities.


Progression variation

For instance, you might have two chord progressions that you really like. You’re thinking of using one for the verse and the other for the chorus, but it doesn’t seem to be working. They simply don’t flow together.

Just eliminate one. It doesn’t matter which one. Tell yourself you’ll use the other one in another song.

Now take the one you’ve kept and explore the possible chord sequence combinations. For instance, the following chords – G Am Em D – could be combined as a progression in the following ways:


  1. G Am Em D
  2. G Am D Em
  3. G D Em, Am
  4. G D Em Am
  5. Am G Em D
  6. Am Em D G
  7. Am D Em G
  8. Am D G Em


Use the same process starting the progression with Em and then with D. At the end, you’ll have 16 progressions you can use. Some will be similar to others, but some will be different enough that they can be used side by side. In other words, one can be for the verse and one can be for the chorus.

Stay open to adding an extra chord if you think it’s necessary. Constraining yourself should be about generating ideas. This means that, when appropriate, you get to step outside of the box you’ve created.


Chord Duration

Another technique is to determine how long each chord can be. To keep it simple, stick to either 2 beats or 4 beats.

For instance:

G / / / | Am / / / |Em / / / | D / / / | can become


G / Am / | Am / / /|Em / D / | D / / / | .


If you repeat portions of the progression, more possibilities present themselves.

For instance,


G / Am / | G / Am | Em / / / | D / / / | or


G / Am / | G / Em / | G / / / | D / / / |


Combining progression variation and chord duration helps you generate a ton of possibilities. The work is always to find variety in a small amount of material.

When you do this, you find yourself writing more stuff. That other progression that you wanted to use for the chorus now becomes a completely new song.



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How to start

Sometimes it’s easy to write. Sometimes it’s really hard.

When it’s hard, you need a way to get started. Try this.


Rip someone off

Everyone does it. Some people do it consciously. Others unconsciously write something they’ve heard before. This is really common when you just sit down with the guitar and start noodling. That usually leads to playing something you’ve played or heard before.

Of course, consciously taking a big chunk of someone’s work is shitty. But it’s perfectly fine to take a fragment.

For instance, you could take a single bar somewhere in the middle of the verse (or wherever), and build some ideas around that.

And remember, we’re talking about a first draft here. By the time you finish polishing the whole song, the bar you borrowed will probably be miles from where it started. It often changes as the things around it changes.

Borrowing people’s stuff is meant as a starting point, not the end. And if it doesn’t change a lot, then it acts like an homage to the other artist.

That’s a nice thing. Especially because 99% of the song is yours.


Beyond the fragment

Listen to your favourite song, and ask yourself why you like it so much. Is it the hook, the bass line, the arrangement, the lyrics? Does the chorus do something dramatic like lose the bass line, go to double-time, use a lot of silence?

You could use any one of those elements as a general idea for inspiration. The point is to really listen, and consciously list the things you like. Keep notebook for this. That way you collect a set of ideas and tools that you can use in any number of songs, not just the one you’re working on now.

The notebook becomes a place you go when you feeling stuck.


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How to make sure your next song doesn’t sound exactly like your last song

At a certain point, this becomes a real concern. It’s particularly difficult for a singer whose only instrument is an acoustic guitar, and whose only tool-set is open string chords.

If you’re in a band, you have more options in terms of sound. But if all you know is verse-chorus-verse form, you’ll start to feel like everything you write is the same.


The fix

Of course, there are ways to counter these problems. One is to simply learn more chords, or pick up a book on song form.

Another is to look for inspiration. This means listening.


Listen widely

If all you listen to is the type of music you write, then it makes sense that all you’ll write is music that sounds like that.

But if you listen to house music (say), you’ll hear a different way of approaching form – extreme repetition of a limited amount of material, some of which stays the same from beginning to end, some of which repeats and varies. (I’m over-simplifying in order to make a point).

No verse-chorus-verse.

If you’re a folk musician (or rock, or jazz, or whatever) how do you incorporate this? Maybe the verse takes the house approach, and the chorus breaks into your regular way of doing things. Or vice versa.



Sit down and make a list of everything you use when you write songs. This includes materials and techniques.

Materials include things like:


  • Chords
  • Melody


Technique includes things like:


  • Strumming
  • Fingerpicking
  • Flat-picking


Add anything else that you know. Then list things that you know about, but don’t actually know. This might be 7th chords, hammer-ons, etc.

These are things that you can add to your abilities when things feel stale. This often breaks you out of a box, gives you fresh ideas.


What do you hear?

Then make a list of what you hear when you listen to unfamiliar music. Or any music. This doesn’t have to be accurate; just list impressions.

For instance, if you listen to jazz, you might hear that the piano player doesn’t play all the time, or that the overall feel is looser than other types of music.

Just try to describe whatever you hear. The point isn’t necessarily to add to things that you can do (although that’s good, too). The point is to generate a fresher way of thinking about what you do by stepping off the path you’re on once in a while.


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Communicating with melody

I’ve never heard songwriters explain how melody relates to the meaning of their words.

Is their approach completely intuitive? Or are interviews (where I always hear songwriters talking) the wrong place for that kind of discussion?

I don’t know. But I don’t have a problem talking about it here.

This is a continuation of my previous post on time signatures and rhythm. You may want to check that one out first.




Walking through the doorway, all on the same pitch. A pretty determined move, full of intention. Then it meanders kind of drunkenly as soon as the singer sees whoever it is that’s standing there.

A nice contrast between confidence and a lack thereof. What story does it tell?



melody 5:4

The ascending line implies optimism, a feeling of lightness. The descending line implies the opposite. Why is this person on the other side of the doorway so awful? How does the symbol of the doorway fit in here?



melody 3:4

The descending line isn’t hopeful. But the rise in melody on each downbeat is. A descent to the depths, all the while thinking that maybe things will be alright.

Maybe they will. This is an example of melody as foreshadowing. Things are bad, but they could get better.

You’ll have to write the rest of the song to see if they do…

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Different time signatures for the same lyric

You’ll need to understand rhythmic notation for this post. if you’re not sure about this, check out this post on sixteenth notes…


…and another on quarter notes and eighth notes.


How to make chord progressions a pro would love, Part 14: Rhythm


Take this line:


“I walked through the doorway and saw you standing there.”


I’ll set this line in 4/4, in 5/5, and in 3/4.

For all of these examples, I use triplets at the beginning of the bar for two reasons:


  • they fits naturally with the words
  • they have a sense of forward movement, supporting the idea of walking


The end of the bar changes in each example to illustrate how extending or compressing the length of the bar affects the lyric.



4:4 lyric

In 4/4, we get 4 eighth notes at the end of the bar. This feels plodding and unnatural, like you feel nothing. If you came through a door and saw someone standing there, you would have more of a reaction, whether you were surprised or not.



5:4 lyric

With 5/4, the eighth notes on “saw you” are extended to quarter notes. This is better. There’s a sense of hesitation, communicating surprise. But it still feels kind of stiff.



3:4 lyric

The sixteenth notes carrying the words “saw you standing” convey a sense of tension. It’s as if you’re so surprised that you stumble.


It could always be better

I’m not sold on any of these. I would need to tweak the rhythm in each one to get it to flow better. Triplets may not be the best idea. Introducing syncopation would probably help.

Endless choices…

The point is that by changing the length of the bar, you’re able to communicate in ways that you weren’t able to before. You get a chance to consider the lyrics and what the mean to you, and to your audience.

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