I'm convinced that the circle of fifths is one of the force behind music and I'm wondering if I'm right or wrong. But jazz, pop, etc.

They all seem to make arcs on the circle. The 2-5-1 well-known harmonic progression is an arc (in classical, jazz, pop, traditional, etc.). The 5-1-4 (primary chords) is an arc. The perfect cadence 5-1 is an arc. The 6-2-5-1-4 is an arc. A secondary dominant forms an arc. Borrowing chords from the parallel minor key forms an arc.

So is music just about making arcs on this circle? Is the circle of fifths the most important thing since sliced bread?

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Bowling, Richard, Tim, jdjazz, Shevliaskovic Apr 21 at 11:34

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Seems kind of opinion based to me. – b3ko Apr 21 at 2:29
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    I don’t see that there is a single most important symbol in music. Unless you count just a note. You know there is great music that does not involve chord changes. “Who Do You Love” is just one chord for the whole song. “Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima” doesn’t really have any typical notes in it, much less chords. Lots of music doesn’t really follow the circle of fifths at all. Balinese gamelon and some “Superbad” by James Brown are other examples. – Todd Wilcox Apr 21 at 2:46
  • @b3ko this isn't opinion this is facts – foreyez Apr 21 at 3:03
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    What is important to one player may not be important to another. Therefor it is opinion. How many sharps are in the key of G is facts. How many half steps are in a major third is facts. How to spell certain chords is facts. Whether or not the circle of fifths is the most important thing since slice bread is opinion. That’s a fact. – b3ko Apr 21 at 3:43
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    Just a precision: 2 5 1 is not a "jazz progression". It's an harmonic progression we can find in nearly every kind of (harmonic) music, classic of course, traditional, pop, rock, "chansons à texte", etc. – user59242 Apr 21 at 4:51

I do not think that the circle of fifths is the most important force behind music when so many folk and world music traditions ignore it.

Gamelan is fond of using a 5TET slendro scale, and since the circle of fifths has 12 spokes and 5TET has only 5 evenly spaced spokes in the octave, gamelan music that uses this slendro scale cannot be using the circle of fifths.

Indian music is fond of using ragas, which are apparently hybrids between modes and preferred melodic motives for them (according to the sources I've looked up). To my knowledge, if two or more ragas are used in a single song, they are not necessarily closely related in the circle of fifths. Complicating matters are the sheer number of notes found in ragas that are outside of our standard A440 12TET.

Even British Isles folk songs often ignore the circle of fifths. It's pretty easy to harmonize a D minor rendition of "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor" using only D minor and C major chords, for example. Alternating between i and VII chords doesn't sound like using the circle of fifths to me.

I believe I'm only scratching the surface here. I haven't even detailed stuff like the Japanese hirajoshi scale, Arabic maqam, 20th-21st century quartal harmony, or completely melody-free drum cadences. If the circle of fifths is ignored so often, how can it be the most important symbol in music?

  • you're listing music from a different century. go check out the current top 100 songs in those countries you mentioned. – foreyez Apr 21 at 13:54
  • @foreyez - I do not care whether the music I listen to is from a different century--that music still influences the music of today, and they still collectively weaken the importance of the circle of fifths. I've listened to two video game themes in the style of gamelan music, for example. (For the matter, I found both of them unpleasant to listen to because of their loose tonality.) Also, "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor" is a fairly famous folk song when I last checked. – Dekkadeci Apr 22 at 6:00

Not sure what you mean by 'making an arc'? What move would NOT make an arc?

Interesting concept - 'the force behind music'. Yes, a 'circle of 5ths' progression can push the music forward very nicely. Which is why it's a commonly-used device. But don't fall into the trap of thinking EVERY chord sequence must be derived from one.

  • Arc = part of the circumference of the circle. – Tim Apr 21 at 13:19

One way to understand the predominance of circle of fifths : there's only one note that differs from one tone to the other.

I like to see harmony as an house. Each room is a tone.

There's a single door in two close tones.

You're in C. You just have to alter the F to come into G (up fifth). You just have to alter the B to come into F (down fifth).

So it's very easy to pass from one to the other. You just have to pass one door.

That's explain why an "arc" (as you said) is so often used.

It said it's "one way", only one way. We could also talk about tension, for instance.

  • -1 ?… Explanation, please? For my information. To avoid same mistakes… – user59242 Apr 21 at 12:22
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    @Tim And that's why you don't explain downvotes. – Your Uncle Bob Apr 21 at 20:08
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    @Tim And the revenge comments under my other posts have begun... it's all so predictable. – Your Uncle Bob Apr 21 at 20:27
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    @Tim Well, I was accused of being a baby, and a little man, and a coward, and not intelligent enough to be worth trying to explain things to, and oddly enough also of not knowing who Phil Spector is. (I see some of the comments here have disappeared; maybe they'd been flagged.) All because of explaining one downvote, which was requested in the first place. I guess this demonstrates the wisdom of the "don't explain downvotes" rule on SO, and I'll probably stick to it here too. – Your Uncle Bob Apr 22 at 9:37
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    @YourUncleBob - I totally understand and agree with you.Calling names normally stops at about puberty. I still believe, and always have (see comments from years ago) that explaining why a dv is given is a positive move, as it's part of the learning process. As in teacher marks something wrong, doesn't really help the student to understand how to do it correctly; but there will always be those who can't cope. – Tim Apr 22 at 10:53

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