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I'm wondering if chords usually move down by fifths. It seems so by the diagram, so iii to vi, vi to ii, ii to V, V to I. etc. Other chords can also be thought of like that, because IV/ii and V/vii are often interchangeable. So IV -> V can be thought of as ii -> V.

chord progression flow diagram

Is that the most typical movement of a chord progression?

See 4:55 in the video below. This is one of many teachers explaining this flow. I've seen this flow myself in plenty of songs I've played.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dom Apr 22 at 18:05
  • Please use the chat above if you want to discuss the premise of the question. Any future comments that don't apply to the when should I comment guideline will be deleted. – Dom Apr 23 at 14:01
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I'm wondering if chords usually move down by fifths.

A ponderous question. It is simple in presentation but difficult to answer depending on the OP's background. In order to properly answer this question it needs to be properly unpacked:

  1. First, I take it that the OP intends to ask if chord roots usually move by fifths. Supposing this is true, we need to understand that while seemingly broad, the answer is actually quite specific:
  2. Composers only began thinking about music in terms of constructing vertical harmonies around the time of Renaissance / Early Baroque. Harmonius vertical relationships were a reactionary bi-product of horizontal thinking. Composers then developed these relationships over several hundred years until the introduction of pan-tonal (i.e. non-functional) harmonic languages in the early 20th century. Yes, there are many, many examples of earlier composers using non-functional harmony, but that fall outside the realm of this answer.
  3. The vast majority of music written after early 20th century branches out in myriad directions. While hard data is nearly impossible to quantify, the extreme prevalence of pantonality during the mid-20th century, the emergence of minimalism, and technology's role in giving voices to non-traditionally educated musicians means that if incorporating progressions at all, it is less likely those progressions will be functional, let alone functional in the way the OP describes.

  4. Further, it is important to acknowledge that the OP must only be referring to music written in the Western European Classical tradition. Many, many, many other types of music around the world do not incorporate functional harmony as we describe it, among many other things.


So now that we've unpacked the context let's look at the actual question:

I'm wondering if chord [progressions written in the Western European Classical musical tradition between the years 1600–1930] usually [contain root movement] of mov[ing] down by fifths.

And here's the answer: it depends

You see, progressions stem from cadences. Cadences have different types of strength. Not all are the same, and different cadences are used for different reasons. This is the result of building and releasing tension. In the Western European Classical musical tradition, an Authentic Cadence is the strongest (with a PAC being the strongest of the two). The interval from tonic to dominant is the fifth.

If we cycle backwards, we run into what's known as the pre-dominant. The root note for the IV chord is known as the "sub-dominant" as it is a fifth below the tonic.

Thus if we look at the following progression:

I–IV–V–I

We see that while the roots of both intermediary chords are in fact, a perfect-fifth away from tonic, the root movement between them is actually only a major-second. In other words, it does not move "down by fifths".

Why are these chords so popular?

As the OP stated, the perfect-fifth is the most harmonically-pure interval after the octave and perfect unison. The above chords are therefore, with respect to their interval, the best suited to give the strongest progression.

Now, what about the ii6/5?

This chord is wonderful as gives the impression of IV-V, while giving descending root-movement of perfect-fifths. While this progression is very popular (especially during the Baroque period, in which the clearest examples of root movement by descending fifths may be found), it does not and cannot constitute the majority of written music.

Alright smart guy, so what about the other chords?

Oh, substitutions?

Sure, ii may be substituted for IV, as I described above. Other chord substitutions are weaker: iii for I or V, for example, vi for I or IV. Substituting vii for V gives you a leading-tone chord, which has root movement by minor-second and doesn't fit the "descending by fifth" theory. Let's put some of these substitutions in context:

iii–V–I (root movement by 3rd then 5th) vi–V–I (2nd then 5th) vii–V–I (2nd then 5th)

As you can see, substitutions do not intrinsically beget root movement that fits your model.

But all of this is merely looking at how root-movement by fifth is possibly used, not whether or not composers employ them more than any other progression. The fact of the matter is that unless an individual has compiled data for the entirety of written music, it is impossible to answer with 100% accuracy. That said, we need to think about what is the "most likely".

The fact is composers use a variety of chord progression (and regressions) to suit their needs. Theory is developed to try and explain how it is that they make the music that they make. Theory comes after music, not before, and it is just that, a theory. Simply wanting something to be true doesn't in fact make it so.

So root movement by fifths? During one period of human history in the context of one musical tradition, it was a widely-used musical device.

  • It can’t just be limited to Common Practice Period. Jazz, pop, rock, edm, rap they all do it. Just look at the top hits today. – foreyez Apr 23 at 15:56
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    @foreyez - are you here to learn or are you here to entrench your own view? One of those ways is productive, the other is not. The very nature of your question ignores a staggering amount of world music. I never said it wasn’t evident in other times or genres. You asked when it usually happened, and I answered. It happened the most transparently during Common Practice. If you are not satisfied you are asking the wrong question. – jjmusicnotes Apr 23 at 16:57
  • The question wasn't about "widely used" but "usually move." The difference in the wording is critical. – Michael Curtis Apr 23 at 19:18
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Do chord progressions usually move by fifths?

No.

I think you are overlooking an important part of that flow chart: the curved arrow to the right of I means "the tonic chord can move to any other chord."

So, that results in a super common progression I ii6.

The rest of the flow chart does display descending fifth progressions with some options variations like IV ii and vii0 V.

Of course IV V is absolutely essential to functional harmony and that is root progression by step.

Step-wise movement of 1st inversion chords is completely missing from the flow chart.

Keep in mind that a lot of harmony by descending/ascending fifth will occur as sequential harmony. In terms of phrasing and structure in common practice those sequential passages don't just happen anywhere. There are structural conventions to consider.

Anyway, IV V, I ii6, and V vi are so super common that we really can't say progression by fifths is the usual movement.

The flow chart isn't "wrong" but it leaves out a lot of important information about formal structure and harmonic conventions in common practice music.

  • I'm quite concerned that people may believe in anything they find on the 'net. Find something, post it, and suddenly it's credible. It worries me that peple could be that fickle. I can't say more. Someone might believe me... – Tim Apr 22 at 17:28
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    That flow chart is found in many forms, but the original source is Kostka, Payne, Tonal Harmony. So it gets re-presented on the web, minus the 400 pages of text of the original book. That leave many unsuspecting webizens thinking they've found the holy grail of harmony in a single chart. I wish the rule of the octave was to top Google result instead! – Michael Curtis Apr 22 at 17:39
  • IV -> V can also be seen as ii -> V since ii and IV can be switched. You're right that from the tonic it can go to any chord, but then it tends to move back to the tonic in fifths. – foreyez Apr 22 at 18:01
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    Also note that I said "usually" which means most of the time. If it's not most of the time then what interval is? Hasn't there harmonic/frequency analysis done on this? – foreyez Apr 22 at 18:13
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    Be careful to not use "usual" as a weasel word to justify an overly simplistic view. Commonest root progressions will be descending 5ths, 4ths, and 3rds, and ascending step... all of them very common, very usual. – Michael Curtis Apr 22 at 18:18
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There are two melodic clauses - probably the most usual:

  1. soso lati dododo (and its minor relative: mi fi si la

  2. sofa mire do ... ( miredoti la)

Both are leading a fourth up or fifth down.

also the usual bass-line that goes do re mi do, fa so la fa or so la ti so, do re mi do etc.

They are developed by counterpoint as well they are basic for harmonic progressions! (Since Baroque - if not even Gregorian chant - till many popsongs and walking bass in jazz.

Btw.: this question is related to another that has been asked recently about the circle of fifths which is actually a circle of fourths.

Another reason is: that dominant and secondary dominant chords have two tones in common.

The other most usual progression is IV-V. We wonder that here are no common tones. A possible answer/explanation could be: The progression IV-V is actually a whole turn round skipping the whole circle. (That’s what I read in my first theory book that I held in my hand with 17 years.)

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"Usually" is arguable. Not every chord progression is downwards by fifths only, but there is something to be said for that sound of a descending fifth.

Lots of common chord movements do follow this pattern. The ii-V-I, ubiquitous in jazz music, is two consecutive root movements down by a fifth. In general, resolutions downward by a fifth seem more final than others, but of course there are no hard rules for this kind of thing.

I've seen this exact kind of chart in some of my education (ta-da!)

Diatonic Chord Motion

, so you're not alone. The image marks the work of www.scaletrainer.com, but I came into possession of it from an instructor. I've even seen the same diagram on musictheory.net (scroll down). But I quickly realised the limitations of the chart, and I get the feeling you already have as well.

Why does the dominant lead to the tonic? has some explanation of the descending 5th root motion while focusing on some other aspects of harmonic resolution. That root motion of the dominant scale degree to the tonic seems to be implying a whole chord progression itself even when played alone!

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The vast majority of chord progressions in the classical theory move, four forward, one forward or three steps back. That is the easiest and best way to move between chords.

  • "four forward, one forward or three steps back" didn't quite get that. example? – foreyez Apr 23 at 13:24
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No. It's not ALL about 'the circle of 5ths'. You really need to let this one go!

The teacher in that video is stating 'rules' that just don't exist. (I think she's obsessed with the 'circle' too :-) )

Yes, dominants resolving to tonics, and the secondary extension - dominants of dominants of dominants moving to tonics) are very frequently found in tonal music. But so are other things.

  • haha, you caught it :). but I really think it is though. to give you an example, yesterday I played something that I've been playing since I was about 8 years old on the piano, I never knew what it was. it was just some jingle I always had in my head. Turns out, it was the circle of fifths progression. not just that, but today I stumbled upon the lead sheet for 'all the things you are' which is a jazz standard that is also based on the circle. then I found out that 'autumn leaves' also based on the circle. and pretty much every pop song I find forms arcs on the circle. – foreyez Apr 22 at 17:42
  • And dare I say it - the theme tune for 'Coronation Street' (a U.K. soap, so it's heard several times a night) contains that same sequence... – Tim Apr 22 at 18:08
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    @foreyez ...except when it isn't by desc 5ths, like the tritone sub, modal jazz, Giant Steps, etc. roots by fifth is a harmonic essential, but don't overlook the other harmony essentials! – Michael Curtis Apr 22 at 18:14
  • @MichaelCurtis not overlooking but I just asked what happens over 51% of the time. according to that diagram and the many songs I played it looks like fifths. – foreyez Apr 22 at 18:15
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    @foreyez you'll probably never be happy with any answers if you are trying to quantify it like "what happens over 51% of the time". Based on your style and your goal what is expected and what happens is vastly different and trying to pigeonhole all chord progressions into this general sense is not very useful. – Dom Apr 22 at 18:24

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