— 2012 — Jan 16

Around the circle of fifths… backwards

by Anton Schwartz

In high school I was a big Jimi Hendrix fan. A bunch of his songs have stayed with me ever since. I was humming Hey Joe not too long ago and it occurred to me: the song’s chords are a cycle of major chords moving downward in fourths. The world is filled with songs whose chords move around the cycle in the standard direction… down fifths… but I had never noticed one that moved “backwards,” like Hey Joe. I wondered: are there others?

Plenty of songs use a cadence that resolves down a fourth once. In the classical world, that’s called a plagal cadence. But how about a sequence of resolutions down a fourth, like Hey Joe?

I’ve found a few pop songs, and readers have commented with a couple more:

  • Take Me to the River by Al Green (later covered by the Talking Heads): the section after the verse, that leads into the chorus. C → G → D → A.
  • Jumpin’ Jack Flash by the Rolling Stones: the chorus. (“It’s all… right… girl…”)
  • Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles: the bridge halfway through. (“Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.”)
  • The Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Picture Show: At the end of the bridge (“Let’s do the time warp again.”) F → C → G → D → A.
  • Don’t Bring Me Down by Electric Light Orchestra: the end of the chorus (“I’ll tell you once more…”)
  • Heartache Tonight by the Eagles: the intro (thank you, Alan Davidson!) Bb F | F C | G
  • (What You Know by rapper TI is harmonically identical to Hey Joe, but it’s such a copy that it hardly counts as a separate example.)

In the realm of jazz, I haven’t come up with anything to match those. The closest I’ve come is one progression I’ve noticed a couple times. It goes from a minor chord to the minor chord up a fifth, then again to the minor chord up another fifth from there… albeit indirectly, with intervening chords:

Cm   Cm/Bb   |   Am7b5   D7   |   Gm   Gm/F   |   Em7b5   A7   |   Dm

That’s the beginning of Benny Golson’s Whisper Not. He could have extended the cycle, but at that point the song instead remains in Dm, which is the main tonality of the song.

We find exactly the same progression in Green Dolphin Street, eight bars before the end. There, the sequence starts on the ii minor of the song’s key, and leads via the vi minor to the iii minor. That chord begins the iii-VI7-ii-V7 that leads back to the tonic chord.

And again, the same progression in Jobim’s Triste (bars 9-17), though it resolves to a major chord at the end (Dmaj7), not minor.

Can you think of any other songs that use this progression? Or, more generally, songs whose chords move up in fifths?

10 Responses

  1. “My Romance” has something like that moving to the end…

  2. Alan: My Romance has a descending bassline like the others, but the progression is not the same – no movement down in fourths.

    But I did think of another example on my gig last night: Jobim’s Triste. If you play the song in Bb (not the original key but the most common) then the progression of bars 9-13 leads from Cm to Gm to Dmaj much like Whisper Not & On Green Dolphin Street.

  3. I have a feeling that the Hey Joe progression is in all kinds of old funk tunes, but I haven’t been able to think of which. Finally a student offered one the other day: Take Me To The River (by Al Green, later covered by the Talking Heads). Yes!! The section after the verse, that leads into the chorus.

  4. A couple more great example: the chorus of Jumpin’ Jack Flash by the Rolling Stones and the bridge halfway through Here Comes The Sun by the Beatles.

  5. Mets says:

    I don’t know if anyone else has used it, but I discovered this progression:
    C9 – Bm7 – Am9 – Ddom7 – G7
    And then to “lock” the key in:
    C7 – Cm + 6 – G
    And etc:
    G9 – F#m7 – Em9 – Adom7 – D7 – G7 – Gm + 6 – D – C#m7…

    • Matty says:

      You’re not the first one :)

  6. Xavier says:

    Not whole songs, but some parts of it, yes. Example: beginning of “What a feeling”. Or several places in Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata (Allegro con brio, bar 174; Rondo bar 364-367: C – G – d – a – …). Does it count?

    • Thanks, Xavier! Yes, Flashdance starts I – V – ii – vi – IV – I… which is exactly the root sequence I’m talking about. But it’s different in that the chord qualities are all diatonic to the tonic key, so it doesn’t give the sense of modulation that, for example, Take Me To The River or Whisper Not do. As for the others, when I look at bar 363 of the Rondo I see | C |G Dm | Am | D7 | G Dm | etc. Once again, the first four chords are all that same root movement, but diatonic to C. Since the harmonic rhythm is different it feels more removed from the examples I’m talking about. Just my two cents.

  7. Alan Davison says:

    How about the intro to The Eagles – Heartache Tonight?
    (Bb F / F C / G)

    • Yes, totally! The rhythmic flow of the chords is unlike the other examples, but it’s the same harmonic idea. I’ll add it to the list now – thanks, Alan!

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