A Merry Circle of Fifths

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No, this is not an article about drinking at a jam session. I’m sure most of you have heard the expression “Circle of Fifths”. The notion is if you move from one tone to another 5 tones higher, eventually it circles back around to the beginning spot. Interestingly (or not), going the other way around is a circle of Fourths.

This is all very interesting, (or not), but I have to admit I have a hard time making much sense of this, at least on the fly. Whenever someone is showing someone else a chord pattern, it seems like someone will exclaim, “Oh, I get it – it’s a circle of fifths.” This is always dismays me, because I have no trouble jumping to 4ths and 5ths or even 2’s or 6’s, but trying to do the math on a circle of fifths always eludes me.
This is especially difficult in the dark, by lantern light, at 4 in the morning, with the better part of a fifth already inside of me.
Why did I bring this up?
Oh yes, it’s a metaphorical allusion. Despite my squeamishness about it, the circle of fifths is an elegant mathematical representation of the magic within our (the Western world anyways) chromatic 12 tone scale, and that’s pretty cool. It reminds me of the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, which sounds made up, but is miraculously used by numerous plants for concentric petal, leaf or root patterns – how about that? Sometimes, the universe actually makes some sense.
I told you that, to tell you this (paraphrasing Ron Thomason). I have come to realize that, like the seemingly meaningless circle of fifths or Fibonacci’s Sequence, music styles relate in ways that may surprise you.
I started off playing rock’n’roll. I learned a bit about meter, and keys, chords, transposition and especially, riffs, which are really helpful in improvisation. I only cared about rock (and maybe blues). All other forms I heard puzzled me, or left me cold. Country? Hopelessly lame. Jazz? Impossibly (and willfully) obtuse. Big Band? Too brassy and sappy.
Then I got bit by the bluegrass bug. Like a lot of rockers, it took a bit of getting used to, rhythm wise – the emphasis was not on the downbeat but the rhythm floated on the “chuck” on upbeat – and it’s a marvelous way to provide driving energy from acoustic instruments. I was able to apply what I already knew regarding keys, chords and such. I have found the transition from riff-based soloing to a combination of riffs and melody a refreshing challenge – it certainly does not come naturally to me.
Then, some years later, I began playing some classic country music, and lo – much of the guitar playing I learned for bluegrass translated into country rather nicely. Also, country music is very much melody-driven, and many of the melodies fit nicely with bluegrass songs I had learned.
Then, the circle came all the way around. I started playing some rock and blues with some bands in town, and my approach was nearly nothing like it was when I was a rockin’ lad in my 20s. In the 20+ years I had been playing bluegrass, and country, I picked up principles of timing, harmony and melody that would have bewildered me way back when. OK, to be honest, I still get bewildered – just not as often, and maybe not as obviously.
Every twist and turn you take in playing music, you get to bring elements of what you knew and apply them in new ways. Folks, this is fun stuff. So, come to the Fall Campout, find a jam where they’re playing a style way outside your comfort zone. It can be embarrassing, but no one can see you blush in the dark!

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