Please Don’t Call it the “Cycle of Fourths”

fourths don't call it cycle of fourths Ariane Cap

My last post on fifths  (when not to play the perfect fifths) and the one before on the forgotten fifth are hopefully still fresh in your memory because there is one additional really important thing to know about the fifths. And I consider it super important, because it sits at the root of Western harmony since the classical times. And it is super relevant because with all the liberties we get to take and modal music we get to do these days (in pop, funk, jazz, scores), that V-I connection is still a big deal.

Why is V-I so important?

Because when a V chord (especially a dominant seventh chord!) resolves to the I chord, it is all about tension and release!

Within the V7 chord is a tritone – a very tense interval. It is formed between the third and seventh scale degrees. When it resolves – typically to the root and third of the I chord (could be major or minor, that I chord), we go from tension (tritone!) to release (root and third sounds very stable).

Ever since (and even before)  classical times, stories were told through harmonic tension and release. That’s why in classical theory books you see all this hubbub about the dominant and the subdominant (the main functions) and the sub-functions thereof.  Every single chord I can create within a key by stacking thirds has a certain “function”. And the V chord is tension city. And the I chord is “home”.

Listen to it on the bass and watch for the fret board shapes: tension – release:

What does the bass do?

Let’s say we are in the key of C, where G7 is my V chord and C my I.

So while the tritone in G7 (B and F) resolves to the third in C (C and E), the bass (playing the root) goes from the V (G) to the I (C).

If you go from the V down to the I, that is considered a “falling fifth”.

You could of course also go from the G below to the C above. This is not such a strong resolution, but entirely fine.  One reason why the following fifth feels like a stronger resolution is because of gravity. It is deeply ingrained in us that something that is higher up has more kinetic  energy and more energy is being released when it falls to the ground. Lifting something up from the ground takes energy letting something fall to the ground releases it

Cycle of Fifths

Practicing and understanding the cycle is a great idea. It teaches you a lot about key signatures, correct note naming, sharps and flats and fret board harmony and how to play in all keys and it is super educational for the lay out of notes on the bass! For example: have you ever noticed that E – A – D – G is a slice out of the cycle?

I distinguish between practicing the diatonic cycle and the regular cycle, but that is for another post! Important here is that in a diatonic cycle you skip the notes that are not part of the key. But you are still stepping through steps like the cycle outlines!

Most important, the cycle (especially the diatonic one!) shows up in music everywhere. Lots of songs have V-I in them, but many also have II – V – I in them. Even IV – V – I (as in a blues!) is in the cycle: blues in G: has G C and D in it. Can you find the three in the cycle?

There are some songs that take the entire diatonic cycle to the right (ascending fifths):

  • parts of Hotel California

for example.

But many more songs go “to the left”:

  • Still got the Blues
  • Autumn Leaves
  • Europa Santana
  • I will Survive

are examples of songs going through the entire diatonic cycle in minor;

  • Fly me to the Moon

is an example for the cycle in major. So, when we practice the sequence of the cycle (especially the diatonic cycle! And especially counter clockwise!), we practice something very practical.

The Cycle of Fifths versus the Cycle of Fourths?

Fourths and Fifths are inversions of each other. So if I ascend a fifth by going clockwise in the cycle, I might be tempted to say, okay now, if I practice the cycle counterclockwise, I go in ascending fourths, so I am actually practicing the “Cycle of Fourths”.

By calling it that, however, you really miss the entire point of this crucial bass movement. It would be much more fitting to call it the Cycle of descending Fifths.

Because, check it out:

  •  C7 is the V of F
  • F7 is the V of Bb
  • Bb7 is the V of Eb…

See it in the cycle?  I added purple V -> Is into it, so you can see it clearly.

fourths don't call it cycle of fourths Ariane Cap

And that is exactly the reason that when you practice this sequence it feels like you are running down a hill and cannot stop!

Because each note pushes into the next… another V – I ad infinitum, you can go round and round and round 🙂

Please don’t call it the cycle of fourths. It is the cycle of descending fifths.

Or the “circle” if you will. But Carol Kaye told me once that that outed you as a classical person in the 60s and that to be hip it’s the “cycle”. Cycle it is!

Cycle of falling fifths, cool?