Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.
– Leonard Bernstein
CHAPTER AIM: To hear and understand the Progression of Fifths
Music is a language.
It is grounded in grammar, but also full of the highest expressive potential. It seems to be based on sets of rules, yet it seems to break those rules in the search for creative communication.
It is a communal language. The accumalation of that communication produces culture.
When you listen closely to that language, you start to hear familiar tropes. I’ve encountered the rhythmic DA-DA-DA-DAAA of Beethoven’s fifth symphony in dozens of other pieces of music.
This is true of harmonic patterns too. Relationships that fall so pleasantly together. Familiar tropes that echo through time.
This chapter I’m going to demonstrate what that means in practice, by extracting the lovely melody from our Bach piece, and putting it under a harmonic microscope.
When we do, we uncover something of the way music has communicated to itself – and continues to communicate – throughout the ages.
Progression of Fifths
1.49-2.08 Melody 1
The basic harmonic facts of this section are quite simple. And fast!
The chord progression goes:
1.49-2.08 Melody 1
- 0.01 From D minor we change to G minor
- 0.02 C major
- 0.03 F major
- 0.04 Bb major
- 0.06 E minor (or something close)
- 0.07 A major
- 0.08 Back to D minor
What we have here is a sequence, and you can find this sequence – or a variation of it – employed throughout the Baroque age, and beyond.
It is a set of harmonic relationships that work well with each other. Each chord seems to lead the next, before rounding back in the last two to complete what now feels like a neat circle, and return us to our starting key, thus signaling the end of the section.
There are some harmonic reasons why this works, but first some more examples from Bach’s contemporaries.
The Fifth Element
There are numerous examples of the pattern and its many variations.
This is one of the most well-known, from the Winter Concerto of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons:
Here is a vocal version by Handel, from his Dixit Dominus:
And here is the same progression in a familiar form for tv/film lovers. Think slow motion warfare or other tradegy:
As the ‘Adagio’ suggests, the pace of Albinoni’s piece is far slower. It’s the same basic chord progression, only it’s happening at half the speed.
But whatever the speed, it’s a chord sequence that sounds natural to the ear, with each key begging the next, before returning to the initial key.
It’s easy to see – or rather hear – how popular the progression was.
1.49 Melody 1
Let’s examine this sequence, let’s look at those harmonic compments.
If we break the sequence down, we find it depends almost entirely on a sequence of 5th relationships or their equivalent from the other direction, the fourth relationship.
This is all about the relationship of the Tonic, your home key, to it’s two closest friends, the Dominant and Sub-Dominant. Which has an unfortunate whiff of S&M to it, but I assure you these harmonic relationships are close – close as family – and entirely platonic! This is all about the 1-4-5 chord relationship that is the root of most rock and pop.
If you count up five notes from your tonic, you find your dominant, or your V chord. But if you count downwards, again five notes, you get the sub-dominant, or the IV chord. In other words, these are inverted forms of the same relationship.
Because of this close relationship with 5th relationships, the sequence is usually called the ‘Progression of Fifths’. From each chord, we leap a fifth or a forth. That makes each step feel harmonically close and familiar
Thus we have:
Dm – Gm (5th) – C (4th) – F (4th) – Bb (4th) – Em (more complicated) – A (5th) – Dm (5th)
There’s something else interesting about these notes. We are in the key of D minor. And yet these 7 changes of key in fact take us through the seven notes of the scale of Dm:
Dm-Gm-C-F-Bb-E-A-back to Dm
Those letters D-G-C-F-Bb-E-A can be rearranged into the simple scale on the keyboard ie
D – E – F – G – A – Bb – C – D
It’s a neat harmonic arrangement of what is termed the diatonic scale (the major scale of F major). It sounds right, and yet is open to variation and exploration.
Is this another reason this circle of fifths works? That it completes a major scale, as well as a progression of fifths, and that swift return home.
The Classical Age and beyond
Vivaldi Albinoni and Handel are all contemporaries of Bach, but the pattern – in its many variations – can be found in the music that came after. We term this the Classical Age.
Here is an example from Mozart:
And here a generation later, comes Schubert:
Now the progression is being worked more, so there is greater harmonic complexity within the sequence. Music is a language, and as that language develops, familiar tropes can become cliches. Composers cannot simply repeat the language of their predecessors.
Here is a rare use from Wagner. But the reference is deliberate. It comes from the opera the Meistersingers, and serves as a reminder of the works of past craftsmen in the traditions of German culture.
Shoemakers, in this particular instance!
And so our harmonic progression of fifths becomes more occasional as classical music develops into the 20th century. Here’s an example from the 20th century, from Benjamin Brittan’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra:
But hang on, Brittan is actually recycling an original theme by Purcell. So really this comes really from further back into the Baroque period. And Brittan used it as a good excuse to repeat a great tune.
Which doesn’t mean the progression, or its close relatives, disappeared from music altogether. Recognise this Jazz standard?
That’s it for this chapter.
We’re going to finish our Bach next chapter, with a look at the entire movement through musical key. Spolier alert: Bach is brilliant at the simple and complex at the same time…
- Here is a compilation of similar progressions. Some of the discussion below shows easily classical music discussions can become taxonomic rather than axiomatic.
- Here is the Vivaldi, Winter from the Four Seasons. Animated by the excellent Smalin, you can see following the red line how this is in fact a violin concerto.
- Here, for a slow-down, is Albinoni’s Adagio
- And here Handel’s Dixit Dominus
- The Mozart Violin Sonata is here, and nicely played too. And just goes to show you don’t have to be in a concert hall to hear decent classical music. To jump straight to the clip part you can click here instead.
- And the Schubert Violin Sonate here. I’ve cued this link to the last movement, from where the original clip was taken. If you want to go straight to the clip itself use this link.
- Wagner’s chorus from Meistersingers is here, performed by the Welsh National Opera. Jump to the excerpt here.
- Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is here from the Proms.
- And here’s Dave Brubeck’s Take Five