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Circle of 5ths is in tons of chord progressions, sounds nice and 'easy', etc. But if you keep going on it the song can sound unreasonably predictable.

What are some good ways to use a little bit of this iii-vi-ii-V-I type thing without it sounding like you're just going round and round and round and round?

EDIT: All the jazz suggestions are cool and probably useful to some other folks (and a bit interesting to me as well) but my main interest is in progressions that lie somewhere on the pop-"avant pop" continuum.

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Are you trying to avoid going all the way around and resolving on the main chord, ie break out in the middle of it, or something to do after you resolve to the main key? – ssb Feb 6 '13 at 2:05
Trying to break out in the middle, without just totally going off the rails :) – buildsucceeded Mar 19 '13 at 23:13

3 Answers 3

The old standby is to treat the last link in the chain as a deceptive cadence, i.e., V-vi or V-♭VI. It's an old chestnut, but very effective at breaking the pattern and keep things moving at the same time. Other landings are possible - Bach used ♭II6 to usher in the coda of the fugue of BWV 582.

If you're really feeling sneaky, you can break out earlier than the V-I link (effective the 2nd time you use the thematic material), or you can overextend the sequence before breaking out. (Breaking out at either ii or IV is a doddle - just follow up with V-I or a half-cadence.)

Edit: ii-V-I or ii-V is, of course, part of the cycle, but, as cadential formulae in their own right, they can be treated as such, i.e., rhythmically altered to play up their cadential nature. (I don't think that the use of rhythm to break out of sequences of any sort can be overstated. Lengthen or shorten a chord, or even a note, and you will have forced the weight of the sequential phrase onto a different beat, which means that you can change the significance of the phrase.)

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I sometimes go against the circle of fifth if the chords match the notes well. So sometimes i go I -V-II for instance.

occasionally, depending on the notes, i could follow on vi with IV and III with IV instead of vi. Not sure if this helps?

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Here are some (partly overlapping) suggestions on how you can vary the sound of a iii-vi-ii-V-I progression:

  • Use different additional chord tones (sevenths, extensions, and alterations) for your chords such as flat and augmented 5ths, 6ths, (major and minor) 7ths, (sharp, flat, and regular) 9ths, (sharp and regular) 11ths, (flat or regular) 13ths, and also try added tone chords such as add9 and suspended chords such as sus4. Mix extensions and alterations as you find it sounding okay. (For example you can look for nice melodic voice lines created with the additional chord tones.)
  • Mix up what chords are major and minor, utilizing secondary dominants. Ex: III7-VI7-ii7-V7-Imaj7 (i.e E7-A7-Dm7-G7-Cmaj7 in C major).
  • Use V9sus4, V11, or IVmaj9/V (i.e. G9sus4, G11, or Fmaj9/G in C major) as the dominant (or similar as secondary dominants).
  • End on/resolve to a bVII9(#11) chord (i.e Bb9(#11) in C major) instead of the I.
  • End on/resolve to a bIImaj7 chord (i.e Dbmaj7 in C major).
  • End on/resolve to a vi chord (i.e Am in C major).
  • End on/resolve to IV chord (i.e. F in C major).
  • Play the corresponding chords of the relative minor, such as for example I6-#iv7(b5)-vii7-III7-vi (i.e. C6-F#m7(b5)-Bm7-E7-Am), or try out other mediant substitutions for parts of, or for the whole, progression.
  • Use slash chords, i.e. use other bass notes than the root of the current chord. Ex: Em7/D-A7/C#-Dm7/C-G7/B-C in C major. (You can also use non chord member notes as you find it pleasing.)
  • Use a pedal bass note, for instance a V. Ex: Em7/G-Am7/G-Dm7/G-G7-C6/G in C major.
  • Substitute for the dominant only like this: V-V-V-V-I (i.e G-G-G-G-C in C major).
  • Use tritone substitutions and chromatic progressions. Ex: ii7-bIII7(#11)-bVI7(#11)-bII7(#11)-Imaj7 (i.e Em7-Eb7(#11)-Ab7(#11)-Db7(#11)-Cmaj7 in C major).
  • Use Coltrane changes substitution.
  • Play a whole tone ascending progression. Ex: iii7-#iv7b5-bVI7(#11)-bVII7(#11)-Imaj7 (i.e. Em7-F#m7(b5)-Ab7(#11)-Bb7(#11)-Cmaj7 in C major).
  • Play a whole tone descending progression. Ex: bVI7-#iv7(b5)-III7-ii9-Imaj7 (i.e. Ab7-F#m7(b5)-E7-Dm9-Cmaj7 in C major).
  • Play this wild ascending chromatic progression: III7-IV7-#IV7-V7-Imaj7 (i.e. E7-F7-F#7-G7-Imaj7 in C major). It will, as likely also the whole tone progressions, probably sound way out but might work depending on the context.

Of course you can mix the ideas of the suggestions above to create further variations.
For all of the above you need to pay attention so that your melody notes fit (i.e. don't clash with) the notes of the current chord or chord applicable scale. If they do not fit you'll have to adjust the chord or chord extensions and alterations to fit the melody. For example if the melody uses the ninth scale degree you shouldn't use a sharp or flat nine chord there, or if the melody uses the fifth scale degree you shouldn't use an augmented fifth for the chord there.
And of course you need to use what fits the style of your music - most of the above applies well to jazz but might sound odd in other contexts.

[In case my roman numeral analysis is incorrect, the actual chord in C major denote what I intended for the examples suggestions.]

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