Circle of Fourths

       “The Power of the Circle of Fourths”

                  by Gene Roberson

If you have been using and/or teaching music students the CIRCLE of FIFTHS, that’s OK!!

However, if you REALLY want to advance as a composer, arranger, pianist, organist,  I suggest that you change direction immediately and take a look at all the great advantages of the “Musical Clock” aka. Circle of Fourths!

Rack Order:

  C-F-Bb-Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-(F#) B-E-A-D-G-C

Learn Key Signatures:  Key of C has NO sharps or flats.

Flats: F is at 1 O’Clock  1 flat which is Bb (Next door!)

Note: We add one flat at a time NEVER taking them away!

Bb is at 2 O’Clock. 2 Flats Bb and Eb (We add in order of the Fourths. Eb is at 3 O’Clock – 3 flats: Bb, Eb, Ab.

Ab is at 4 O’Clock – 4 flats: Bb Eb Ab Db.  Db is at 5 O’Clock. 5 flats: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb.  Gb is at 6 O’clock

6 flats: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb (B).

SHARP KEYS:  Just like Bb is the “Starting Key” for the flats, F# (the note F is next to Bb, “very interesting”!) is the Starting key for the sharp keys. They are friends!

We start with Key of G. 1 sharp: F#  -(Counter clockwise) Key of D – 2 sharps F# and C# (keep going counter-clockwise) Key of A – 3 sharps  F# C# G# – Key of E –

F#, C#, G#, D#, – Key of B 5 sharps: F#, C#,G#,D#,A#

Key of F# 6 sharps: F# C# G# D# A# E#.  This is so much easier than the old way to learn the keys! (Find the added sharp and go up ½ step, or in the flats, go up a fifth from the last flat added! Forget that!!

BASIC to ADVANCED Chord Progressions.

All songs from popular, hymns, to classical compositions are supported by chord (Harmonic) changes or progressions.

When you are supporting a melody (or musical phrase) with the same harmony (Chord) you are not necessarily creating a chord change, rather just harmonic repetition. For Ex. Play a song like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in the Key of C. Support the melody with only a C chord (C-E-G) in the left hand. Your ear will tell you that by the THIRD measure, the chord needs to change! When you STEP BACK one letter on the CLOCK to G, you are NOW starting the progressive ACTION!! Once you change the chord to G, the Circle of Fourths progression steps into motion! This is because the 3rd tone (B) in the G chord is the leading tone in the C scale.

But what does this have to do with the Circle of Fourths vs. the Circle of Fifths? You can achieve this with the Circle of Fifths,  HOWEVER, you have to constantly think  of going   “COUNTER-CLOCKWISE!!”  No thank you! I own a Hammond Clock built in the 1930’s that you can spin to make the motor move the hands clock-wise and spin in reverse and the hands will move in reverse. Music progressions NEED to move clock-wise, just like normal life motion! More in using the Clock for chord changes:

Simple songs generally start with the tonic chord (key of origin) and change to the dominant (one back on the clock) however, when you want to move forward with more advanced changes, (in an orderly basis of learning) you simply add the next key back. (Starting with C, jump back to D, then move to G and onward to C). Note: The keys behind the Dominant (G in the key of C) can be played as Major or minor chords, depending on the melody notes or the strength in the chord you are looking for. If they are Major chords they will be much stronger in harmonic structure. If you choose to play them as minors or minor 7ths, the harmonic structure will be much softer and you will basically be harmonizing within the scale or key you are playing.

The further you jump back from the key you are in, the more sophisticated the harmonic changes will be within your composition or arrangement. For ex: C – B7 – E7 –A7 D7 G7 back to C.  Take a look at the song “Red Roses for a Blue Lady!. You certainly can’t play that song with just C and G7!

What about the sub-dominant or the F chord used in the key of C? The sub-dominant or “F” chord in C is a very soft form of the dominant. It contains the 7th, 9th and suspended 4th of the dominant. I like to think that it just goes along for the ride! We use it for the A-men when singing hymns. It is also used when playing Gospel music. For ex. A C chord in gospel playing is  C-F-C.  An F chord is F-Bb-F, and so on. (Read my lessons on Gospel piano playing and arranging.)

Lastly, I like to think of the Tonic as being inside my home. When I step outside the front door, it is like going to the dominant chord, and soon it gets cold outside, so I come back into the house. When I go further away from my home, it is like going further back on the Musical Clock, such as to E7 chord. I have to come back to the house (C chord) by way of the A7 –D7 and G7th chords. When I go outside into the back patio, this is like going to the sub-dominant (F chord) I’m still in my home, but not too far from the inside or the C chord. I also think of this when casting my fishing pole out into the ocean, but that is another story!

BACK to the Circle of Fourths – More uses:

ii – V7 – I  Changes: One of the most used chord change is the  ii – V7- I  progression. In the Key of C, this would be the chords: Dm7 to G7 to C(Major)  Please look at the Clock and see how these three chords are positioned next to each other in groups of three, no matter where you start. Dm is the ii chord in C with G being the V chord and C being the I chord. Just start with any key on the clock and call it the ii (played normally as a minor or minor 7th) move clockwise and the next key is the V with the next position being the I chord. It works in all 12 keys.

Suspended 4ths:  When you are learning Suspended chords, the most used suspension is the 4th resolving to the 3rd. The suspended chord adds “Tension” and tension needs relief! This is a must learn harmony lesson. We also use this chord with the (flatted) 7th tone. This type of chord is found in most Jazz tunes and Jazz improvisation!

Think of the Clock as a “SPELL – CHECK” SYSTEM!

The note for the suspended 4th is one tone away (clockwise)

And the 7th is always the very next tone or progression. So for a C7sus chord, just play C bass, with F and Bb. If you want to resolve the suspended 4th, simply lower that note ½ step (F down to E) This works in ALL the keys. If you are wanting to play like Herbie Hancock, just DON’T resolve the 4th.  Here is an exercise for piano or organ: In the right hand, play C-F-Bb-C (octave). Play the C (Root) in the left hand, or pedal (organ). Play all 12 of these Herbie Hancock Jazz chords Around the Clock.


Learning basic chords: Here is another way to learn basic MAJOR chords using the Circle of 4ths. Pick any note, add the note one back, then add the note to the right. That is the Suspended 4th . Simply resolve the 4th down ½ step and you will have the Major chord based on the first key you choose. For ex.  Play C, add G (note to the left) add F (note to the right or clockwise) “Listen to it, then move the F down to E.

If you want to turn it into a minor chord, lower the E ½ step down to Eb!  Try this in all 12 keys “Around the Clock.”

    6.  Learning Minor 7ths: Minor 7th chords are another very

popular and important chord to know, especially in Jazz, pop and Broadway style music. Burt Bacharach, the popular songwriter, uses minor 7ths chords in most of his songs. Look at “What the World Needs Now!” Now look at the clock; Play C, skip the next note and play the next two! Bb and Eb. The foundation for any minor 7th can be spell checked this way.

Another ex. Play B – add A&D. You are also playing the voicing that Jazz players uses. Yes, Bm7 is spelled: BDF#A

As the four note root position, however, a pro player will NOT play the chord that way most of the time.  So use the clock method for learning these wonderful chords!

Minor chord substitution: Any minor chord (triad) can be embellished (or substituted) with the 9th chord of the “Next Progression.” (We also use the term “Next Progression” when referring to going around the clock in fourths.) When playing a minor chord, simple play the 9th chord of the next progression instead. For ex. F minor becomes Bb9 – G minor becomes C9. This is mainly used in Major key harmonics rather than songs harmonized in the minor key. A sample progression would be: C – Fm – C,                         play instead: C – Bb9 –C.  Note: The minor chord is actually inside the 9th chord of the next progression. The minor chord notes are the 5th, 7th & 9th of that 9th chord! So, you can see that they are related. This is used a great deal in pop styles.

Relationships of Tonic Key Base to  all others on the clock:

It is important to know how all the eleven (other) chords relate to the key (Tonic) you are playing or composing in. Here is a chart for you to use: I will refer to the key of C as the Tonic for this reference chart. However it goes without saying that this is the same for all 12 keys of the Clock.

C chord to F chord –  F is the soft dominant (sub) and is used for Amen’s in hymns, Gospel chord styles, mainly used as a soft release change from the tonic in romantic style when the stronger dominant change is too much. Can be substituted for the dominant.  The F note is the 4th of C and is used mostly as the suspended 4th. It is also the extended 11th tone of the C scale and is played with the 11th chord. The easiest way to learn the 11th chord is to play the triad one whole step below the root key and play the key root in the bass. For ex. C11 = Bb-D-F with C in the bass. G11 is:

F-A-C with G bass. This is primarily used as an extended dominant and substituted for the dominant 7th, ie. G7

C to Bb –  Bb is a whole tone down from the tonic (C). It is the flatted 7th in the scale (also known as the 7th in commercial harmony) As a chord, the Bb Major, 6th, 7th 9th etc. is a contemporary Dominant. So in the key of C, we substitute the Bb chord for the G chord. This will change the way you arrange songs, especially hymns.

C to Eb – The Eb chord is based on the flatted 3rd which is also the note that turns the C Major into C minor. The 5th of C (G) is the common note in Eb (3rd) and can also be substituted for the dominant. Also used in Fanfares, Intros and endings such as C-Eb-D-Db and home to C.

C to Ab –  Ab is the flatted 6th and also enharmonic to the Augmented 5th tone of the scale. The C root is common to Ab as the 3rd of the Ab triad. Used also as a whole tone relation to C as well as a substitute for the sub-dominant (F) as well as the dominant (G). There is also a well kept secret about the (actual) note Ab or G#. Do you know the answer?

C to Db –  Db is ½ step up from C.  C is the Major 7th (not flatted) of the Db scale. Used as a penultimate chord in pop music as well as impressionistic period music. Common progression would be: C – F – DbMajor 7th – C.

C to Gb (F#) –  Gb (F#) is the flatted 5th an also the sharped 4th of C.  Gb shares the “Twin dominant” (3rd and 7th) tones of C which are: Bb and E.  When adding a C bass, the chord is a voicing of C7 common in commercial harmony. When the bass note is switched to Gb or F#, it becomes Gb7. That is why our teaching method refers to “only having to learn six 7th chord cores! Get more of this information in my GPS Piano System available at www.sheetmusicplus. Lesson # 7.

The flatted 5th triad is also known as the Petrusska chord when combined with the Root triad; C-E-G with Gb-Bb-Db sitting on top. (According to Leonard Bernstein). You will also hear this “Extreme French Pipe Organ Chord” in the improvisations of Olivier Latry, organist at Notre Dame in Paris.  Be sure to learn this powerful chord in all keys “Around the Clock!”

C to B –  B is the Major 7th of the C tonic harmony. It was very strange to find this note added to the C triad (C-E-G-B) until the Impressionistic Era. In the 1920’s the use of the secondary dominants (B7-E7-A7-D7) in relation to C tonic were mainly used. The Major 7th found its way into songs written in 1940 to this day with songs such as: Misty, Ebb Tide, Tenderly, Trombone Samba,  and many more. You can even add the 9th tone to the Maj. 7th. Some even add the Maj.7th to minor, diminished, and Augmented triads.

C to E – The E chord is based on the 3rd tone of the C triad. The 3rd of E is the Augmented 5th of C. The E Major chord resolves beautifully back to the C chord, using a bass line of E to D then to C. (Whole tone bass line).

C to A – A is the 6th tone of the C tonality. In my early days as a church pianist, I would hear pianists adding the 6th to the tonic. This became very bland when I discovered adding the 9th if the melody allowed! This is very common as a decoration of the tonic with harp-like broken chords. A is also added to the C diminished (C-Eb-Gb) triad as enharmonic to the double flatted 7th of C. Hence A= Bbb.

The A triad (A-C#-E) or the A7th is the second chord in the “We Want Cantor” pop music progression. It is important to learn the I –VI-II-V progression (C-A-D-G) or with added 7ths (C-A7-D7-G7) in all the keys around the Clock. Again, notice the progression starting with C, bouncing back to A, then progression back to C  by way of  D to G, then C.

This also works well with minor or minor 7th chord. For ex. C – Am7- Dm7-G7-C.  So many pop tunes are based on this progression. Again, learn in all the keys.

C to D – D is the 2nd tone of the C scale. The note D can be used as a suspended tone (For ex. C2) taking the place of the root (C) with the intention of resolving it to C. Some contemporary accompaniments do not resolve the 2, but rather keep it in place. A popular tune that uses this suspension is “Thru the Eyes of Love” or the theme song of “The Young and the Restless”.  The D Major (D-F#-A) triad can be used as another whole tone progression, especially since the flatted 7th tone of D is C.  I love using this progression as the ending of majestic hymns and carols such as “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and O Come All Ye Faithful!  The use of the D minor chord will be similar to the sub-dominant or the F chord.

C to G – Well here we are!! G is the fifth of C, the dominant of C and probably the most important chord (especially in Country Music) to our home tonic key of C!  Used without playing the C chord first, it is the most popular classical Fanfare!  Play the notes G (repeated in different rhythms) as the Fanfare to the Bride’s Processional, “Here Comes the Bride!” 

It’s time for the Sermon!

(If you are offended by this section, then please feel free to skip!)

How do I memorize the Musical Clock? I start at the very top of the clock with the 12 O’clock position. I remember that at the top is Christ, with God on the left and Father on the right. Then after the F which is at 1 O’clock, we have the word BEAD with flats. God the Father is at the 6 O’clock position with (again) the word BEAD. And this is an easy way to memorize the Circle of Fourths, know as the Musical Clock! I have even had students buy a regular inexpensive clock and remove the numbers, substituting them for the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.

In the 1970’s when I went into the piano and organ retail business, we had two famous music teachers that were hired by the famous Hammond and Conn organ companies to travel around the country, visiting organ dealers and teaching many instructors how to sell organs using a simple teaching method. They were Mildred Alexander and Eveylyn Terrell. Most of the customers were hobby organists, with a few professional organists attending seminars. One of the first items of their teaching program was to show the values of the Musical Clock, using the Circle of Fourths. Some teachers in most cities, resisted since they had already taught the Circle of Fifths. However, after seeing the difference (such as in most of the points in this article) all of the teachers changed. I have a list of over 300 teachers that use this exclusively. By the way, over Five Million Dollars worth of electronic organs, pianos and digital keyboards were sold as a result of their fine teaching. Other famous teachers, such as Dennis Awe, Dyanne Awe, Richard Bradley, LeRoy Davidson, Bill Thomson, used this Clock to teach commercial harmony.

I trust that you have been enlightened with this important information above and will join with the many instructors showing our future musicians how they can become composers, arrangers and professional musicians.

There are probably more uses for the Clock and I will add them as they become revealed.

This article was created and published by Gene Roberson: Composer, Arranger, Organist, Pianist.

The material herein may not be reproduced or published in part or in whole without express permission by Gene Roberson.

Copyright 2018

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