The Circle of Fifths and Circle Progressions

Circle progressions can be created with the help of the circle of fifths; that’s why they are called circle progressions. They are more complex examples of the use of secondary dominants. If you move counterclockwise within the circle of fifths and use all the notes you pass as root notes of a dominant seventh chord, you have created a circle progression. And this succession of dominant seventh chords, actually form a chain of secondary dominants.


In the picture above we move from B to C, and in doing so we create the circle progression: B7 – E7 – A7 – D7 – G7 – C. Look at this progression and see that every chord change in it is a strong one, and also check that every dominant seventh chord contains the two leading notes to the next chord.


Notice also that this circle progression contains two descending chromatic lines: D# – D – C# – C – B and A – G# – G – F# – F – E. In Jazz music it became a custom not to resolve the leading notes anymore, but play these chromatic lines instead.
Quite modern, don’t you think?

Well, actually it’s not!
In fact this was already done by Renaissance composers. The Fantasia Chromatica by the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 – 1621) is a very early example of the use of circle progressions.


Fantasia Chromatica, J.P. Sweelinck

This fugue is actually based on one of the descending chromatic lines within a circle progression of 4 chords. The fact that it is a fugue makes it all the more exciting, because only when all voices have started (bar 9) the precise chord progression becomes clear. There are also a lot of non chord notes which add to the tension. Exercise: try to find and identify all the non chord notes in this example.