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Progression by fifths

Chord sequences based on fifth relations (or fourth relations, fourths being inverted fifths) have been common in tonal music since the Baroque.

A diatonic progression of fifths consists of scale degrees in the following order: I - IV - VII - III - VI - II - V – I. In practice, only a few of the last chords are used.

In a major key, there is a tritone instead of a perfect fourth or fifth between the root notes of degrees IV and VII. So, fourth degree is occasionally augmented if it starts a progression by fifths.

The example above shows a reduced three-part pattern in a typical progression by fifths (bars 1-4). In the bass line, fourths and fifths follow in sequence. Chords 3 and 7 are composed by stepwise lines. One of the lines (middle part) is chromatic, so every other chord is a major chord. Scale degree symbols are correspondingly secondary dominants (V/III, V/II). If both lines were chromatic, it would create a chain of dom7 chords (chain of secondary dominants).

In bars 5-8, interval relations with regard to the bass have been written out for some chords. Chord progression from a secondary dominant to a scale degree is always descending, and the whole melody line is perceived as descending.

A melodic frame suitable for a progression by fifths often starts from the upper degrees (six or seven) of a key or even from the upper octave harmonized by a minor seventh building on the augmented fourth degree. This chord is the first chord in E minor for the progression II - V – I and prepares the secondary dominant for the III degree.

Bars 9-12 illustrate how a progression by fifths can be placed in a descending melody phrase. This creates appoggiaturas (4-3, 9-8) and a sense of the progression Em11 – A9 – Dm11 – G9.

It is essential to note that there are several types of progressions by fifths, from completely diatonic progressions to progressions with secondary dominants and chains of secondary dominants with tritone substitutions; in the last case, every accompanying line is chromatic.

The relationship between the melody and the bass line with tritone substitutions in bars 13-16 creates jazz style harmonies. An absolute chord symbol for the appoggiatura (#4) in bar 13 is F7#11. Find out what type of jazz chords are created between the melody and the bass line if bars 9-12 are harmonized with the descending chromatic lines of bars 13-16.

Progression by fifths in minor

Relative keys share a number of chords. A minor key may shift to the relative major momentarily or for a longer period. A typical four-chord progression by fifths is shown in the example below. The chord analysis below the staff gives the same information with a different emphasis.
Line 1 can be considered to be an A minor progression.
The G major chord is, however, often written as a secondary dominant (line 2).

The Dm (II) chord prepares the secondary dominant; a process often called a II-V. There is no standard symbol for the II-V progression. In the example below, arrows have been used to indicate the essential movement towards the III degree chord.

A progression can be analysed completely in C major (line 3). The context, however, defines the key in which the progression is perceived. A C major chord can be followed by, for example, E7 and Am, so A minor would be a better key for the analysis.