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I don't know anything about music theory but I am a fanatic when it comes to listening to classical music. For a while I have been curious about a type of chord progression which is very common in classical music but not heard in other types of music. It seems to be very common in Baroque music and seems to get rarer as we move to classical and the romantic period. I can't really describe it. But I can give examples and hope that someone knows what I am talking about.

Usually in a composition, the progression occurs twice but I do have an example below (by Bach) where it occurs three times.

My question is what is this progression or technique called?

I will provide the youtube links and the time intervals where they occur since they can occur multiple times in a video.

  • Vivaldi - Pick any composition and it will have it at least twice. Here is his "Winter".

    First occurrence: 1:08 - 1:20

    Second occurrence: 2:50 - 3:02

  • Vivaldi - Stabat Mater Dolorosa

    First occurrence: 1:47 - 2:06

    Second occurrence: 4:50 - 5:02

  • Bach's Trio Sonata # 6 in G - BWV 530 - Vivace

    First occurrence: 0:52 - 1:11

    Second occurrence: 1:49 - 2:08

    Third occurrence: 2:51 - 3:11

    I also have the sheet music for this which I am uploading with the chords highlighted.

    enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

    Measures 49 through 52, I wouldn't call them part of the chord progression as I know it. But then again Bach was a true master and he also has an artistic license. So he is allowed to violate the pattern that I am thinking of. Similarly, for measures 97 through 100 and measures 149 through 152.

  • Mozart - Piano Concerto # 21 - K.467 - First Movement

    First occurrence: 5:15 - 5:27

    Second occurrence: 10:44 - 10:55

    I am uploading the sheet music for this one too. I am not uploading the entire movement. Just the pages which have the chords I am talking about. The focus is obviously on the piano here.

    Mozart Piano Concerto - Page 10 Mozart Piano Concerto - Page 11

    Then a few more minutes of the piano concerto...

    Mozart Piano Concerto - Page 23 Mozart Piano Concerto - Page 24

  • Franz Schubert - Impromptu # 2 in Eb - D.899

    First occurrence: 0:28 - 0:34

    Second Occurence: 3:22 - 3:30

    Uploading the sheet music with only the chords in question.

    Schubert Page 2

    A couple of minutes of piano...

    Schubert Page 7

    Schumann - Kreisleriana - Op.16 - 07 - Sehr Rasch

    Two back-to-back occurrences: 0:15 - 0:30

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What a well-researched and well-sourced question!

This is a very common pattern in tonal music that we call a circle-of-fifths (or descending-fifths) sequence. Some would call it a circle-of-fifths progression, and they're correct, but sequence will be a little more specific. Let's break both of these points down:

  1. The "circle of fifths" is a pattern where each chord moves down by a fifth (or up a fourth, which is the same). Without getting too technical, this descending-fifth resolution is one of the strongest and most common harmonic resolutions in all of tonal music. As such, every chord will smoothly resolve to the next, which tends to make it a very satisfying (and largely consonant) progression.

  2. A sequence occurs when a particular musical pattern (usually both harmonic and melodic) is repeated up or down in musical space. So not only is this circle-of-fifths progression happening, it's paired with a repeated melodic idea, which only strengthens our expectations of what will come next.

Within a given sequence, the repeated pattern tends to occur three times, but this isn't always the case. Within the context of an entire composition, however, there's no reason for a given sequence to occur x number of times; composers just use them whenever they see fit.

Some further examples of this sequence for you (each will begin within a few seconds of the starting timepoint):

  1. Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated
  2. The theme to Family Guy
  3. The famous oboe solo from the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony
  4. Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
  5. Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman"

The list could go on, but suffice it to say that we hear this in all genres of Western tonal music.

But note that this isn't the only type of sequence out there. Another common one is the descending-third sequence we all know and love (or maybe hate) from Pachelbel's Canon. Other examples of this sequence type include Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria from Die Zauberflöte and Aerosmith's "Cryin'" (the latter of which is laughably terrible). And there are ascending sequences, too: here's one from Handel's Messiah, and here's one in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.

And for what it's worth, I think it's great that you've recognized these similarities with what sounds like relatively little theoretical training; good ear!

  • 1
    Another well-known example of the opposite progression (going up in fifths) is Hey Joe. – Your Uncle Bob Jun 22 at 18:56
  • @Richard Great explanation, but I'm confused about one thing. Take the OP's first excerpt from Vivaldi's "Winter." The chord progression goes something like [F minor, C major], [E flat major , B flat minor], [D flat major , A flat major], etc. which is [i, V], [VII, iv], [VI, III], etc. I see that there's a descending fourth within each pair of square brackets, but how is it a circle of fifths progression when it goes from V to VII and iv to VI? – Ashvin Swaminathan Jun 23 at 1:15
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    @AshvinSwaminathan Are you sure about that? I'm hearing F minor to a B♭m7, E♭ to A♭M7, etc. – Richard Jun 24 at 13:06
  • @Richard Thanks for the helpful response; I now hear what you're hearing! – Ashvin Swaminathan Jun 24 at 14:56

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