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Satie Around the Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths is a graphic representation of key relations, but it is also a useful tool for thinking about fifth relations in chord progressions. One of my favourite Erik Satie moments illustrates just how effective a circle of fifths progression can be!

Circle of Fifths Progressions

Chords whose roots are related by fifth move as part of a circle of fifths progression. Cycling through these chords creates a very particular sense of forward motion - of moving around the circle.

But a chord progression moving by fifth within the context of a major or minor key will not always move by perfect fifth. Take, for example, the following circle of fifths progression in C major:

The root of each chord is the fifth of the root of each subsequent chord.

C is the fifth of F

F is the fifth of B

B is the fifth of E

E is the fifth of A

A is the fifth of D

D is the fifth of G

G is the fifth of C

Did you notice line 2? "F is the fifth of B." Specifically, F is a diminished fifth above B. If we were to move by perfect fifth, F would be the fifth of Bb. But we are in the key of C here, so we keep to the key and B is B-natural.

All other fifths relations are perfect fifths. You can see how this works moving counter-clockwise around the circle.

Ignore the flats, and you have the circle of fifths progression in C major notated above. This kind of progression often harmonises a sequence, though it rarely steps through the entire cycle.

But what does a Circle of Fifths progression sound like?

If you want to hear a circle of fifths progression, listen to any Vivaldi concerto and you won't have to wait long to hear one, usually underpinning a melodic sequence in the upper strings.

But my absolute favourite circle of fifths progression can be found in a piece by Erik Satie called "Trois morceaux en forme de poire", or Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear. This is a suite for piano four hands written in 1903, and it is in 7 movements! :-D Right away, I love the Satie-esque humour.

For the first 24 bars, the harmony is static under a simple and typically tuneful melody. The only harmonic excitement comes in bar 17 when the bass drone moves from D to E!

Reduction - Satie, VI. En plus, fr. Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear

The most beautiful moment comes when Satie sets a quirky circle of fifths progression suddenly amongst the harmonic stasis.

Reduction - Satie, VI. En plus, fr. Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear

F# minor moves to B minor which then moves to E minor. F# is the fifth of B. B is the fifth of E, and we are moving counter-clockwise around the circle of fifths.

The quirkiness continues, because Satie then reverses direction. He moves from D minor to A minor to E minor. E is the fifth of A, and A is the fifth of D. So he has now reversed direction and taken us clockwise around the circle of fifths.

Oh, Satie, you're so funny! And I admire your free playfulness!

Four bars of sudden forward motion, and the music returns to its former stasis, this time on E. But after only 7 bars, Satie reiterates the circle of fifths progression, this time settling on the opening tonality of D minor.

And the movement ends with a final sidestep up to E and back down to D, one last playful structural nod. The harmonic structure is simple yet very effective, made even more so by Satie's signature melodic sensibility.

This piece is so much fun to play, and it's even better to listen to. Listen for those two lovely moments when we gently step out of a ponderous sense of stasis to move around the Circle of Fifths, first one way and then another.

Listen for the changing bass line! What is the effect on you of the circle of fifths progression? How does it relate to the moments of stasis? Is this sudden forward movement a musical metaphor?

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