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I have been playing and composing Piano for many years, but never actually learnt any music theory! So, recently, I started reading up and comparing with things I've written to understand the theory behind the music.

There is this one progression i just don't understand why it works so well...

The part i understand: C-Minor -> F-Minor -> Bb-Major -> Eb-Major -> C-Minor Easy... All very close in the circle-of-fifths

But then... C-Minor -> F-Minor -> Bb-Major -> G-Major -> C-Minor ... G-Major seems a completely unrelated chord in the circle of fifths, and yet works great (to transition to a higher inversion in an uplifting way).

Can someone please explain the theory why this G-Major works so well?

Also, I was wondering whether I can use this phenomenon to modulate to another progression close to G-Major (E-Minor?)? And if so, how? (and why?)

Thanks in advance for your answer and your patience, and apologies if my terminology is wrong/simplistic... I'm really a beginner to the theory! :-)

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The G major chord is the "usual" dominant in the key of C minor. The harmonic point is the half-step approach to the note C from B. It is extremely common.

As a side note, often, when a phrase is repeated like Cm-Fm-Bb-Gm-Cm-Cm-Fm-Bb-G7-Cm would be common. The opening is a section of the cycle of fifths (or "circle" or "fourths" depending on the author) and the first Gm-Cm doesn't have a strong cadential (or ending) feel but the G7-Cm (or G-Cm) does.

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  • I guess you say "usual" because the dominant in a natural minor scale is a minor chord, but that it is extremely common to replace it with a major (or major seventh). correct? "The harmonic point is the half-step approach to the note C from B" - could you or someone else please explain what this means ? – Stevo Jan 21 at 9:21
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    When playing a G to Cm progression, the B in the G chord moves by half-step up to C. In a Gm to Cm progression, the Bb also moves to C but by a whole-step; there is a difference in sound and composers have tended to use the half-step approach at closures. Neither is wrong, just different. In Medieval music, one two-voice closure would have been a major sixth (D-B for example) expanding to an octave (C-C); using G rather than Gm contains this pattern. In a practical sense, one can use the Gm to Cm progression inside a phrase and the G to Cm progression at cadences to alert the listeners. – ttw Jan 21 at 14:11
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    It's better to learn how minor key harmony works and not think of it terms of three different minor scales, replacing the dominant chord, etc. Simply put a G major chord is not unrelated or foreign to the key C minor. It's absolutely essential in defining the key. – Michael Curtis Jan 21 at 14:19
  • @MichaelCurtis Any advice on how i can "learn how minor key harmony works"? Things i can do/learn by myself... (I had started private lessons, but had to stop after just 2 lessons nearly a year ago due to Covid...) – Stevo Jan 21 at 21:27
  • @Stevo, that's got to be disappointing. IMO you should study with "a book and Bach!" I just coined that phrase :-) Take a look at my answer for some details. It's a bit long for a comment. – Michael Curtis Jan 22 at 21:03
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...All very close in the circle-of-fifths...completely unrelated chord in the circle of fifths...

The circle of fifths isn't the "be all end all" of harmony. You should also learn about counterpoint and voice leading. But, let's stick with the circle of fifths for now, but with one change: rather than a literal circle of fifths consider root progression by descending perfect fifth.

C-Minor -> F-Minor -> Bb-Major -> Eb-Major -> C-Minor ... All very close in the circle-of-fifths

The root progressions are ↓P5 ↓P5 ↓P5 ↓m3, and the descending third motion connections relative major/minor chords.

C-Minor -> F-Minor -> Bb-Major -> G-Major -> C-Minor ... seems a completely unrelated chord in the circle of fifths

The root progressions are ↓P5 ↓P5 ↓m3 ↓P5, again the descending third motion connections relative major/minor chords.

Both progressions give the tones for a key signature of three flats with C minor being the sensible tonic. The progression G-Major -> C-Minor nominally gives us a cadence. Strictly speaking a cadence would depend on voice leading and rhythm, but the progression is tonally very important. Such cadential harmony would be one of the very first topics covered in a harmony textbook.

Identifying the cadential harmony is the basic answer to your question, but I think you should also consider your basic premise about the harmony that one of the progressions is more related to the circle of fifths. Both have the same number and type of root progressions. Both use chords from C minor. The only difference relative to the circle of fifths and roots by descending fifths is the placement of the descending third progression. The two progressions aren't very different on that basis.

I'm guessing you regard the G major chord as unrelated, because you are expecting it to be a G minor chord. That would be the case if you used only the purely diatonic chords from a key signature of three flats. But that is not how minor key harmony works. In the key of C minor the basic circle of fifths would be: Cm Fm Bb Eb Ab Ddim G Cm. The G chord is chromatic in terms of the key signature, but it does that by convention in C minor. The seventh degree in minor keys is always raised to one half step below the tonic for dominant chord. Some say this minor key harmony uses chord derived from the harmonic minor scale, but that just makes a different muddle of minor key harmony. Suffice to say minor key harmony is considered a more advanced harmony topic usually covered in the later sections of a textbook or course.

Your first progression is a plain vanilla diatonic progression that returns to the tonic with a relative major/minor progression.

Your second progression "works well" because you inadvertently put it into conventional minor key harmony with the standard dominant chord and a descending fifth, cadential progression back to the tonic.

Also, I was wondering whether I can use this phenomenon to modulate to another progression close to G-Major (E-Minor?)? And if so, how? (and why?)

Yes. Basically harmony is about relative relationships between chords. They typical thing is label chords with Roman numerals to analyze and list progressions. Your two would be:

  • Cm: i iv VII III i
  • Cm: i iv VII V i

Just transpose them to another minor key:

  • Em: i iv VII V i
  • Em Am D B Em

Nothing about the progression changes in the transposition except the tonic.

I'm not sure if you really meant to take your minor progressions and put them into a major key (G major.) That won't always be a mechanical process of transposition. Sometimes you can just "flip" the chord qualities of major, minor, diminished from those of minor keys to those of major keys:

  • Major: i iv VII III VI iio V i
  • Minor: I IV viio iii vi ii V I

...where the o means "diminished." So, in major:

  • Em: i iv VII V i
  • G: I IV viio V I
  • G C F#o D G

...which should work just fine. Other progressions might need tweaking to flip from minor to major and vice versa, but that would involve a deeper study of harmony.


Some harmony resources:

JS Bach

The music of Handel would also be a great resource. Historically Baroque composers will provide for minor key examples than classical composers like Mozart. This style may not be your style, but it would be the stuff to study to learn common practice for minor key harmony.

Harmony Textbooks

  • first read up on the rule of the octave, it will provide a concise rule of thumb for practical harmony and was part of how harmony was taught historically
  • Kostka, Tonal Harmony is a well known textbook, you would need to purchase it
  • Some older textbooks can be found in Google Books (use the preview and free ebook filters) or the Internet Archive. They aren't always great - teaching and writing approaches change over time - but they are free. This one - Hamilton, A Manual of Harmony - seem pretty good, it gives a lot of major/minor scale harmonization examples side by side and has a section on cadences.

I think it's best to compare several textbooks and then reconcile what they say in regard to real historic scores. Ultimately what great composers did is what matters most. Textbooks attempt to describe that with different wordings, some better than others, sometimes contradictory. But you can always rely on real composer's scores.

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G major contains G B and D. G and D are already diatonic to the scale of C minor. In other words, they are part of that scale.

The plot thickens, though, when we find out that there are different minor scales. The first is a direct steal from its relative major. So, in key Cm, all the notes come from the E♭ major scale. Which contains B♭.

Then there's two others - the harmonic and melodic minor scale sets.Both of which ditch the B♭ note in favour of B♮. And that's where the magic happens. We can use G B D (as in Gmajor), within key C minor. That B note is the leading note, just one semitone under the tonic, here, C. That gives a sonic pull towards the C, and is the main reason why G major sounds so good in key C minor.

2nd question - not quite so easy, as when we're on that G, it sounds like (and is) leading somewhere - the C. So just getting to G and thinking we're there doesn't work. Try it and listen.

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A V in a minor progression, especially before the i, sounds pleasant because the third of the V is a one semitone below the root and acts as a leading tone which resolves up to the tonic.

Examples: The chorus of Eastbound and Down (Em C A B7) [as a bonus, the fifth of B7 is also a leading tone to the G major that starts the verse in E&D] and the verse of some versions of Poor Wayfaring Stranger (Em Am Em Am B7 Am).

I can't think of any good examples immediately where the fifth is a triad and not a dominant 7, but I have heard it. If anyone comments, I'll add.

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  • E.g. in lydian mode chord on the 5th step is maj7 – user1079505 Jan 20 at 22:42
  • i v6 iv6 V is a common example where the dominant is not always a dominant seventh chord or major triad. – Michael Curtis Jan 21 at 14:22
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If we play in Cm and want to have a leading tone we have to augment the 7th tone Bb => B. (This is the historical evolution of the music!) Now, this transformation we have a major dominant chord G,B,D which is borrowed from C-major, the parallel of Cm.

After a modulation from Cm to G you can easily modulate from G to Em (relative key of G.)

E.g. :

  1. Cm-Fm-G7-Cm = i-iv-V7-i (c-minor)
  2. Cm-Ab-D7-G = i-VI (V)/V (cm => G)
  3. G-Am-B7-Em = I-ii-(V7)/vi (G => em)
  4. Em-Am-B7-Em = i-iv-V7-i (em)
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    It's not necessarily borrowed (from C major). It doesn't need to be. It already exists within the C mnor key and scales. – Tim Jan 20 at 15:44
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One analogy of composition is that it's like embarking on a musical journey. You have mentioned that both sequences feature the circle of fifths, but you haven't referenced the fact that to go through the circle of fifths is like setting out on a journey.

The first few chords in a circle of fifths is like setting out for a walk on a very well-known terrain. Then the further you go, the less well-known it gets (but the act of walking still feels familiar). In both sequences you wrote out above, you come home before completing that full walk. The act of coming home always gets you to your front door (G major, the one before you walk back into your C min house).

Those walks are a bit boring, they are over quickly (4 bars) and they repeat over and over. They feel nice because they are familiar. Only difference between your first and second sequence is that you made a point of highlighting your front door. In the first one you just walked, then presented as being back home again without mentioning the front door, i.e. no cadence as part of the sequence. This allowed you to show more of your walk within 4 bars. In both cases, they repeat ad nauseam, like a daily walk to the shops where each walk lasts 4 bars.

In music terms, you are doing what needs to get done. You are walking for functional reasons, and in pop this usually means providing a simple harmonic basis for lyrics or musical effects. (I try not to sound snide!)

When you understand that a cadence (as you described - G maj to C min) is merely the last chord in your journey, i.e. it's being back at your front door, you realise why it feels "nice".

This regular short walk may be useful and good for your health, but if you are a true explorer of harmony, if you walk for walking's sake - then you need to develop, surprise, and amaze your listener with different harmonic directions AND harmonic forces that pull you in directions.

Otherwise, there's nothing wrong with using this 4 bar walk as a means to do other things like explore lyrics or rhythm.

Pop songs go against the idea of expansion and longer term progression, which is why people get posh about classical and even some types of jazz; they are for the "real" explorer. This is often true, although I personally believe the greatest pop composers understand this and at least try and get people out for a proper walk.

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  • I fully agree with you, even if i felt a bit offended at first with you thinking those progressions were my whole compositions :-)... But then... if I am honest, I DO admit finding my pieces too simple. This is in fact the main reason why I decided to try to teach myself more theory. Do you have any advice on how I can learn to walk further and more elaborately? Things i can do/learn by myself... I had started private lessons, but had to stop after just 2 lessons nearly a year ago due to Covid... Maybe i should ask this as a separate stackexchange question? – Stevo Jan 21 at 21:24
  • Wasn’t my intention and I didn’t think that your compositions were that simple. I’ll be absolutely honest, I’m a music grad but a not a composer. I had a place to study composition at Guildhall (London) 22 years ago but didn’t take it, probably best I didn’t. My advice though is simple. Find some well known classical music, or maybe a Beatles tune you don’t know, write down the chords or harmonic progression. Pause, then guess where the chords might go next, be amazed by how your expectations were thwarted, etc. Basically study some good quality existing music is my best advice. – hazymat Jan 21 at 22:09
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G-Major seems a completely unrelated chord in the circle of fifths

If that's so, then how is this possible: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle_of_fifths#Jazz_and_popular_music

Fly Me to the Moon is presented as an example of the circle of fifths. Here are the beginning chords in C minor:

Cm Fm Bb Eb Ab Ddim G7 Cm.

There's a G major chord in there, in C minor. In a textbook example of the circle of fifths.

The confusion must be caused by someone having presented the circle of fifths as some kind of a "true" underlying model of music theory where everything and anything can be mapped. And I think you're even talking about a narrower related concept, the diatonic circle of fifths. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle_of_fifths#Diatonic_circle_of_fifths

Diatonic chords and notes aren't enough for everything. If they were, you wouldn't have accidentals in music. And you could play all songs without the black keys. Every now and then, the set of intervals around the tonic is modified a little bit, for example to get the G major chord. No, it's not diatonic in C minor, but it sounds nice to get that B - C pitch movement. The B note is soooo close to being home, it makes you want to get back home to C much more than a Bb would. Tonic Sweet Tonic.

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  • Depending on how we perceive diatonic - B's in there, in key C minor. – Tim Jan 20 at 18:03
  • @Tim there's no B in C minor. There is in the harmonic and melodic scales, but diatonic by definition refers to the natural notes of a given tonality. – musicamante Jan 20 at 18:16
  • @Tim If we include A and B in C minor as "diatonic", then I'll have to start calling the actual diatonic scales something like The Scales Formerly Know As Diatonic. Raising Bb to B is just a very, very commonly used harmonic alteration in songs in the key of C minor. It's more common to use it than not. If you want to have a proper dominant chord, you have to make that change for the duration of the chord. Some people would like to have diatonic mean "anything that's commonly used". Laurence talks about b7 being "honorary diatonic". It's just a very commonly used alteration, not diatonic. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jan 20 at 19:00
  • Indeed, my confusion comes from the (wrong) understanding that proximity in the circle of fifths defines harmony. If my (still limited compared to you guys) understanding is correct, proximity is related to diatonic chords. And yes, I used the G-Major to go back to the Tonic, moving to a higher inversion, which gives a very 'uplifting relief' feeling. – Stevo Jan 20 at 20:24
  • @Stevo If you can locate the chord tones and scale degrees relative to the home note at each point, and if you can see how the sounding voices move or change, then you understand harmony. I get a feeling that you already understand harmony in a practical sense. There's no magic formula, or if there is, the circle of fifths isn't it. You can see on the piano keyboard if the bass moves by a fifth/fourth, and if you keep making those steps, eventually you'll end up where you started. So "circle". It's really simple, I don't get what the big deal is. Forget the circle hoo-ha if it bothers you. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jan 20 at 20:42
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C minor / F minor / G major = C harmonic minor.

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