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In relation to How common is the complete circle of fifths progression? which describes some examples of the complete circle of fifths progression (a consecutive I-IV-VII-III-VI-II-V-I progression), apparently this full progression is more commonly found in minor keys rather than a major keys. Is there any reason for this? Explanations are greatly appreciated.

  • I question 'complete circle of fifths'. That should include all 12 keys, and move V>I each time. This example doesn't. – Tim Jan 20 at 12:45
  • @Tim, It's a diatonic circle of fifths. A different thing, but still valid. And it does not depend on the use of a tuning that uses 12 pitches per octave. – Rosie F Jan 20 at 16:05
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The reason why the circle of fifths progression works better in minor than in major is the higher flexibility of minor, in the sense that more notes are available than in major, without the need for alteration. In minor, all notes from natural, melodic, and harmonic minor are available without leaving the key. This is not the case in major. The consequence is that for some of the chords of the circle of fifths there are several options, depending on whether the notes are taken from natural, melodic or harmonic minor. For the circle of fifths progression in minor, the chords are chosen such that they result in the most pleasing progression, which cannot be done in major.

The problematic VII chord in major (half-diminished), which is the II chord in the relative minor key, becomes naturally embedded in a II-V-I progression at the end of the circle in minor, but not in major. Have a look at the progression in A minor:

|| Dm | G | C | F | Bm7(b5) | E7 | Am ||

The tritone interval from the root of the F chord to the root of the Bm7(b5) chord is not perceived as too weird because the II-V-I at the end is such a pleasing cadence. Furthermore, the Bm7(b5) leads logically to the E7 which resolves to Am. Now look at the corresponding progression in C major:

|| F | Bm7(b5) | Em | Am | Dm | G7 | C ||

First of all, the tritone interval in the bass occurs immediately but it is not 'justified' by any nice resolution, because diatonically the E7 chord is not available anymore. Second, the Bm7(b5) doesn't function anymore as a II in a II-V-I progression in minor, yet this is (almost) the only thing that it is good at.

In sum, in minor the Bm7(b5) chord is embedded in a natural II-V-I progression, and that's almost its only right of existence. In major, there is no such option (at least diatonically), and therefore this slightly strange chord keeps dangling somewhere in the progression because on its own (outside a II-V-I) it can't properly resolve. This is why the circle-of-fifths progression sounds much more pleasing and logical in minor than in major.

  • Hmm, you wrote "In minor, all notes from natural, melodic, and harmonic minor are available without leaving the key." Those two scale degrees, 6 and 7, are definitely altered for the melodic and harmonic scales. For instance, A minor's key has no flats or sharps, but to get an ascending melodic scale, F and G must be raised by one sharp. – Mark Jan 28 '15 at 17:38
  • I suppose what Matt was saying is, although we put an accidental on F or G, we can still stay on A minor key without the necessity to modulate. On the other hand, i often find myself playing F sharp or G sharp in the key of C major without having to modulate. – mey Jan 28 '15 at 18:10
  • @Mark: The thing is that raising the 6th or 7th in minor does not change the fact that you're still in the same minor key, you're not even using alterations in the common sense of the word, because all possible 6th and 7th scale degrees are native to minor. E.g. an E7 chord is the most natural thing in A minor, as is an Em chord. Please see this answer for more details on what I mean. – Matt L. Jan 28 '15 at 18:27
  • So what did you mean when you said "without leaving the key"? Did you mean 'without modulating'? I can alter chords all day without modulating (e.g., Am in E). An augmented 6th chord is highly altered but doesn't necessarily change the key when applied. – Mark Jan 29 '15 at 1:21
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    @Mark: I'm saying that raising the 6th and 7th scale degree in minor is not the same as altering a note in major, because all notes (in A minor: F, F#, G, G#) are directly available in minor. That's specific about minor, and it has no equivalent in major. – Matt L. Jan 29 '15 at 8:04
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One big chord in question is the 7. In minor, if unaltered, this chord is a subtonic chord, as opposed to its altered version where it is the leading-tone chord. So in C minor, diatonically, the 7 chord (subtonic) is Bb D F, while the leading-tone chord would be B D F.

You can hear right away that in the minor mode, the subtonic leads just fine to the mediant chord (i.e., VII - III, or Bb major to Eb major in the key of C minor). On the other hand, the leading-tone chord really doesn't do so well leading to III (B dim to Eb major is tricky).

Now in major mode, you don't have these two choices (at least diatonically). The leading-tone chord in major does not lead to iii very well (B dim to E minor), nor does the subtonic (Bb to E minor, Bb being altered in major mode).

And so, in minor mode, there is a more natural transition from VII to III, compared to vii dim - iii or VII - iii in major.

  • Does that mean a full circle progression is more likely to happen in natural minor than harmonic or melodic minor? In these two modes the vii is diminished...and for melodic, the ii is minor and the vi is diminished. Thanks☺ – mey Jan 28 '15 at 1:13
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    Don't think of the different flavors of minor scale as separate, independent scales unto themselves, but rather as a single, rather malleable scale, able to dynamically alter itself as needed. So if you can have a subtonic VII chord as well as a non-diminished ii, and a major V, all in the same progression. – Caleb Hines Jan 28 '15 at 4:29
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    @mey: Please also see this answer regarding the fact that 'minor' incorporates all flavors (natural, harmonic, and melodic). – Matt L. Jan 28 '15 at 5:59
  • Thanks very much. The great flexibility of minor keys makes me want to explore more about their interesting chord progressions- so far i have learned much more of major key progressions than the minor ones. – mey Jan 28 '15 at 18:05
  • @CalebHines Maybe so, but who says that's not true for the major mode as well? Db7 can lead to C major (via tritone substitution), etc., right? – Mark Jan 29 '15 at 1:25
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Probably because that elusive dim chord moves towards the V then to i in minor better.Or it sounds better as a m7b5 as a 4 note chord, giving the same effect.In major, it sounds quite weak without the root (a 5 note) which would make it a V7.

  • So perhaps that means the leading tone in the ii dim chord makes the transition smoother for a minor key. .. While in major key the ii chord does not have such a strong pulling effect? Is my interpretation correct? – mey Jan 27 '15 at 19:54
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    In the major, that chord will be the vii. – Tim Jan 27 '15 at 20:12
  • i think one of the challenges here is to make the vii dim leads to iii rather than I... but then in minor keys a similar challenge also happens with the ii dim-V pair, where the root of ii dim is only a semitone away from the root of III. What do you think? ☺ – mey Jan 27 '15 at 20:36
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    ii was never going to be a dim anyway. And where did III come from? Or are you using in say Amin. ii as Bo? Which will make III = C. That's why I think the Bo, as vii in C, is too weak, but better suited to be the V/V in Am. – Tim Jan 27 '15 at 21:04
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    ii dim - V - i might be more interesting in minor, but let's not discount ii - V - I in major, which is used very often. – Mark Jan 27 '15 at 21:45
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The issue is entirely the diminished chord (or half diminished seventh chord). Unlike the rest of the chords, the root leaps a tritone instead of a perfect fifth. This makes it the weak link in the chain.

In a minor key, it is the 2 chord, which comes fairly late in the progression, after the direction that the progression is going has been well established. In a major key, it is the 7 chord, which is the second chord in the progression, which means it comes before any progression has been established at all. There is no built up momentum behind it.

Furthermore, coming out of a diminished chord is also quite weak. The diminished chord wants to resolve by going up one scale degree (ii°-III or vii°-I), rather than follow the circle of fifths. This reduces any momentum even further. The minor progression, however, makes up for this by following the diminished chord by the strongest chord progression available: the V-i. The major progression, iii-vi, is much weaker.

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