Are there any examples of songs that employ a Circle of Fourths that I might be able to practice along with? How does the progression tie in with different scales?

3 Answers 3


The idea behind the "Circle of Fourths" is that every 7th chord resolves to a I chord a fourth above it. For example, a G7 chord resolves to C, because C is a fourth above G (although truthfully, I actually think of this relationship in reverse: the chord that resolves to C is the one a fifth above it, namely G7).

Probably the most widely-played example of a chord progression employing this Circle of Fourths concept is the bridge from "I Got Rhythm", which goes D7-G7-C7-F7-Bb (each chord is played for two bars). Each chord resolves to the chord a fourth above it, until it finally concludes in the home key of Bb. Another example I was just thinking about is the blues song "Salty Dog", which I've heard played as E7-A7-D7-G7. Same idea, different chords.

One of the reasons these chord progressions are so popular is because dominant chords (i.e. 7th chords that resolve the chord a fourth above them) are rich with potential substitutions and alterations. Two of the most common include:

  • Tritone Substitutions: You replace a dominant chord with another dominant chord whose root is a tritone away from the original dominant chord. E.g.: replace a G7 with a Db7, because Db is a tritone away from G.
  • Diminished Substitutions: Every diminished chord is equivalent to a dominant chord with a flatted 9, in four different ways. For example, the dominant chord made of the notes Db-E-G-Bb is equivalent to a C7-9, an Eb7-9, an F#7-9, and an A7-9. So you can play diminished scales over dominant chords, you can replace dominant chords with diminished chords, you can combine tritone subs with diminished subs, etc. etc.

So a chord progression like in "I Got Rhythm", with its Circle-of-Fourths progression of dominant chords, is like a blank canvas of harmonic possibility. You can really go nuts exploring all the different opportunities it presents.

Update Regarding Tritone Substitutions

This is inspired by VarLogRant's comment below, which I think is close but not quite on the mark (I'm including this here because I ran out of characters in the comments section).

In functional harmony, a chord's role is not, in fact, determined by its root. Of the three main diatonic types of chords—major 7th, minor 7th, dominant 7th—all three have the same interval relationship between the root and the 5th; if I play just a C and a G, no one can tell if that's a CM7, a Cm7, or a C7 chord. Not until I add both the 3rd and the 7th can the listener distinguish between the type of chord (and therefore its functional role). But once I play the 3rd and the 7th, the chord's functional role becomes clear.

In fact, so long as I play the 3rd and the 7th of the chord, I can actually leave out the root and/or the 5th and the listener will still hear the harmony. So a chord's functional role in the harmony is determined by its 3rd and its 7th. Consequently, any two chords that have the same 3rd and 7th notes can be used interchangeably.

(Aside: In fact, my teacher taught me to avoid playing roots and fifths of chords when comping. He reasoned that the bassist would play roots and fifths, and if I avoided playing them, that left me with spare strings and fingers with which I could play chord extensions and alterations, i.e. color tones. But he also insisted I always play the 3rd and the 7th unless I was intentionally trying to be ambiguous.)

In a Dominant 7th chord, the interval between the 3rd and the 7th is a tritone. This is important because a tritone is symmetric, i.e. if you invert the notes in a tritone, you still get a tritone. A tritone is the only non-octave interval that has this property, and it means that if you play the 3rd and the 7th of a dominant chord, the listener has no way of knowing which of the two notes is the 3rd and which is the 7th. So you get one dominant chord in which the lower tone is the 3rd, and a different dominant chord in which the lower tone is the 7th.

For example: say I play an F# and a B as the 3rd and 7th of a chord. The interval between is a perfect 5th in one inversion and a perfect 4th in the other. Either way, the B must be the 3rd and the F# must be the 7th.

But say instead I play an F and a B. Which is the 3rd and which is the 7th? It's not clear, because in either inversion, the interval between them is a tritone. If the B is the 3rd, then the root is G and the F is the 7 in the G7 chord. But if the F is the 3rd, then the root is Db and we hear the B as a Cb, i.e. the 7 in a Db7 chord. Since the 3rd and the 7th are the two tones which determine the functional role of the chord, either the G7 or the Db7 will have the same functional role in the harmony and thus can be used interchangeably.

  • 4
    A central concept with tritone substitution comes from the realization that jazz chords are generally dominant 7 chords, and because jazz soloists often use the flat five, the harmony drops the fifth, leaving root, third and seventh, and they're a tritone apart. This means that you can substitute a Db7 (Db F B) with a G (G B F) because 2/3 of the notes you hear are the same. Which is, I guess, a "why" behind Alex's "how". Mar 9, 2011 at 14:42

Just to extend Alex's answer with regards to choosing scales to play in your lead lines over any sort of progression really.

Modes of the scale break down as follows:

  • Ionian: the major scale this can be played over pretty much any chord which has a major third eg is based off a major triad.
  • Dorian: this mode differs from the major scale in that the 3rd and 7th intervals are flattened, the flattened third makes it a minor mode; this means it will sound nice over any minor/minor 7th chord.
  • Phrygian: Again here we have another minor mode; the 2nd 3rd 6th and 7th intervals are all flattened, good for minor/minor 7th up to and including flattened extensions like a flattened 9th.
  • Lydian: differs from the major scale only by a raised 4th interval, this makes Lydian perfect for major chords.
  • Mixolydian: has only a flattened 7th to differentiate it from the major scale; this means it contains a major 3rd and the flat 7 (as does the dominant V chord); so as you might imagine; fits well with its root dominant chord.
  • Aeolian: Better known as the natural minor contains a flat 3, a flat 6, an a flat 7 good for most minor chords.
  • Locrian: is technically a minor scale, the 2nd 3rd 5th 6th and 7th intervals are all flat; it may be simpler to think of it as a minor scale with a flat 2 and a flat 3. locrian can played over the diminished triad or tri-tone(which means that it is made up entirely of intervals 3 tones apart), or anything minor with a flat 5(min7b5 | min7b5b9 | etc).

Using these a good rule of thumb is:

Major/7th/9etc: Major Scale / Lydian Mode

Minor/7th/etc: Minor scale(aeolian) / Dorian Mode / Phrygian

Minor/7th/9etc: Minor scale / Dorian Mode

Minor/7th/b9etc: Minor scale / Phrygian

7 chord(dominant(V)): Mixolydian

Dim/min7b5/etc: Locrian

Pentatonics can pretty much always be thrown into the mix, and a good way to move around progressions is using tones from the chords being played, eg arpeggios.

This hasn't covered the harmonic/melodic minors, which in turn lead to other dominant modes, highly recommended to learn.

  • 3
    A point to remember when looking at DRL's excellent contribution is that jazz players look at scales following the chord, while rock and folk people look at scales following the key of the song and the chords following that. If you're playing "Wildwood Flower" in D, for example, everything works around the D scale, but if you're playing the Rhythm changes, your melodic choices are determined by which chord you're o Mar 9, 2011 at 14:47

I suggest “Bluesette” by Toots Theilemans which, apart from 2 semi-tone changes, progresses from Bb back to Bb in 19 consecutive fourth changes! That’s why it’s a beautiful melody. Try Youtube for a live performance.

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