How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

Moving clockwise, each note is a fifth above the last one. A fifth, as we know, is the third note of a major or minor triad (3-note chord), and the fifth note of any major or minor scale. For example, the C-major chord is C-E-G. The G is a fifth above C, and one “hour” past C on the Circle of Fifths. Similarly, an A-major chord is A-C#-E. The E is a fifth above A, and one segment after A on the Circle. This pattern holds true for any starting point on the Circle of Fifths.  And it comes full circle; if you start on C and go up a fifth 12 times, you’ll be back to C.

But the Circle can also be used to represent chords. The outer circle refers to major chords, and the inside circle to their relative minor chords. Remember, the relative minor is always the VI chord in a major key.

For example, in the key of C-major, the 6 major and minor chords are:

I Chord II Chord III Chord IV Chord V Chord VI Chord
C-major D-minor E-minor F-major G-major A-minor

How many songs in C use a variation of these 6 chords? Many popular songs use only 3 or 4 of them. Now look at the Circle of Fifths. The chords touching the C-major are the other five major and minor chords in the key of C major.

Just like the notes, this hold true for whatever key you’re in, or your base starting point on the Circle. In the key of G, all the chords touching the G correspond to the other major and minor chords in that key.

There’s also a great youTube video that explains this well, specifically for guitarists.

Get experimental

Developing a chord pattern based on the six major or minor chords is tried and true. Even if you use the I, IV, and V chords in your verse and chorus, you could try starting with the II, III, or VI chord for your bridge. All the notes you’re using belong to the scale you’re in—i.e. you’re never going out of key.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever used a seventh chord. That’s the one that sounds bluesy or jazzy. It’s called a seventh chord because it’s a major chord plus a flattened seventh note. That is, the seventh note of the scale is taken down by one half-step or semitone. That note is out of key, technically, and it sounds Phrygian awesome (see? It works).

The point here is that going out of key is cool. It creates musical interest, adds tension and can really open up a song.

So how does this relate to the Circle of Fifths, you must be asking? Say you’re writing a song in the key of C-major, and you’re using the tried and true chords—the ones on the Circle that touch C. If you want to extend a little, say for your bridge, or heck, the third line of your verse, try a chord that’s “two hours away” from C. So, try a D-major, B-minor, Bb-major, or G-minor.  Just like the seventh chord, these chords have one note that’s out of the base key signature or scale. The other two notes of each chord remain grounded in the base key signature.

If you want to experiment further, try the chords that are “three hours away” from your I-chord. Once you start introducing chords that have two notes out of key, things start sounding weirder or more dissonant. The trick here is to stay grounded in your home base. It’s fun to travel to strange and exotic places, but it’s reassuring to come back home soon.

And of course, this holds true right around the clock. You can start on any chord and you’ll have five other chords that are guaranteed to work in consonant harmony with it. Try chords that are 2 or 3 hours away from your base, and things can get interesting.

A fine example

The Beatles were masterful at creating interesting changes in the songs without compromising catchiness. In other words, they did some weird stuff without making it sound weird.

Take A Hard Day’s Night as a fine example. The A part starts with G-major, F-major, and C-major. Even though it starts with a G-major, the section is clearly in the key of C-major. The G and F are either side of C in the Circle of Fifths. It’s very consonant (i.e. not dissonant). The second half, however, things start to shift. They introduce a D-major chord (“things that you do”). The D is “two hours away” from C. They quickly return to the G-C-G pattern they introduced at the top to finish off the section. It’s like you’re walking along the curb of a street, and just for a moment, you step on to the road (maybe into a puddle), then right back on the curb.

In the B section (“when I’m home…”) they shift to a B-minor. This is a great contrast for two reasons: it’s “two hours away” from the base C-major, and it’s the minor flavor (it’s also Paul taking the lead vocal from John). By the end of this section, they’ve returned to the D-major chord that we’ve heard before.

The twists are both subtle and noticeable. There’s no mistaking the B section for anything else when it comes in. They always return to base fairly quickly.

Light a new path to songwriting

I co-wrote a song called Light Your Way with Adi Aman for our band Beige Shelter. We released it in May for Mental Health Awareness month.

Download the chord/lyric sheet here.

The verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all remain in the E-major key with no dissonant chords. The pre-chorus introduces the F#m chord which wasn’t used in the verse. For the guitar solo section and bridge, we flipped over by “3 hours” to the C#-major chord. By the end of the bridge, we’re back on B-major which is perfectly consonant with returning to E-major for the final choruses. Sometimes when you step far away from your base key signature, it can be tricky to get back to base.

Writing with purpose

I don’t deny that sometimes you just stumble upon some magical moment when you’re writing; you don’t know why it works, but it sounds cool and different, and you go with it. For myself, I’ve been trying to embrace my intuition for writing more recently. Knowing about the theory doesn’t destroy your intuition; in fact, I think it strengthens it. If you practice writing with purpose enough, you’ll begin to forget the reasons you make excellent snap decisions, but you’ll make better ones and feel more confident that they’re right. Keep on writing.

Blair Packham and the Jitters show photography

I went to the album release party for Blair Packham, a top Canadian singer-songwriter who was the frontman for The Jitters a short while ago. He continues to write catchy, clever, and thoughtful songs and he also teaches songwriters at Song Studio in Toronto. I know Blair from his numerous appearances on Song Talk Radio (some of our best shows, thanks to Blair’s articulate insights into songwriting).

For this show at the Pilot, Blair performed songs from his new album Unpopular Pop with his band The Impossible Dream, and then took the stage with his old band The Jitters. I had a eureka moment when they played Last of the Red Hot Fools, as I recall that song being on the radio when I was a teenager, but I never lined up Blair (or the Jitters) with the song.

I’m glad I took my camera, as Blair really dug the photos (“Wow! Pictures of me that I don’t hate!”) I’ve been listening incessantly to the Jitters and Unpopular Pop since…

Light Your Way collaborative songwriting

As part of the indie rock band Beige Shelter, we were approached to write a new song for a youth gang prevention event. Although we declined to perform for the event, we realized our new song was also a great message for mental health awareness and conversation.

My friend and Beige Shelter frontman Adi Aman had written a song a few years ago with a message to help out a friend going through some tough times. Adi sent me a rough recording and his lyric/chord sheet to play around with. In particular, he said he wasn’t very happy with the melody. Before I even got a chance to look at it, he followed up with a revised lyric that was more poetic and a bit more abstract.

The rewriting process

At the time, we were still involved in the youth prevention event, and I took this angle when rewriting the song. I thought a more direct lyric would be more effective in reaching young people. I also wanted to highlight the aspect of reaching out for help and getting it from friends and family. This, to me, is at the cornerstone of good mental health—people need to be willing to come forward and talk to someone they trust, and their communities need to be willing to listen, empathize and help as best they can.

I printed out Adi’s lyrics and chords and sat at my piano to work on the song. Starting with small edits, I quickly found myself rewriting entire phrases. I realized that using Adi’s lyrics as springboards, I could develop a much more direct song, and marry a melody to the words more easily. This is the sort of lyric I never would have come up with on my own, but using Adi’s original take as inspiration gave me the direction and focus I needed. Here are the working pages I used:

Page 1
Page 2
Page 3

I took care to develop a simple, flowing chord progression and catchy melodies. It was amazing how much mileage I could get from using C, G, F, and Am by playing around with the time between each chord change. I introduced a new, unheard chord to start the pre-chorus section. In other words, the Dm had not been heard in the song yet, but the rest of the pre-chorus chords were also used in the verse. This, along with the melodic centre change, was enough to give the listener a sign-post that the pre-chorus was a new section. For the chorus, I returned to the base C major chord but lifted the melody again.

Back and forth

I presented the revised song to Adi and he liked it very much. He had a few revisions for some of the chord changes, especially the unusual chords I used to end the chorus. Adi felt keeping it simple would be more effective, and once he sung it with his rich voice, I was compelled to agree.

Our bass player Tom made a suggestion for a lyric change at the end of the second verse:

Me: It goes “For your grief, but you know…” which is kinda cheap. We need a good word that rhymes with “grief.”

Tom: Believe.

Adi (singing): For your grief, but believe…

Me: And that flows great into the pre-chorus lyric “You have got the strength to carry on…” — well done, Tom!

Feedback from other songwriters

I presented the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup by playing back the recording from our latest rehearsal. Members found the song to have an inspiring message without being didactic, and with a good flow to the chords and melody.

We adopted two points from the group to improve the song:

  1. Revised the chorus lyric “And you think that there’s no way to see the light” to “And you think there’s no way out of your plight” so that the word “light” isn’t featured twice in the chorus.
  2. Extended the ending to repeat the main hook “We’ll be lighting your way” a few times before finishing the song.

Recording and Producing

We wanted to release Light Your Way as a single during the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) Mental Health Week between May 1 and May 7. I knew this would be a tight schedule to get it arranged, recorded, mixed, and released.

During our first recording session, we were still finessing lyrics and making small changes to the chords. I used a rehearsal recording to set the tempo for a drum loop. I recorded Adi playing his acoustic guitar and then recorded his vocals.

Tom recorded a bassline at his home studio and sent it to me. Meanwhile, I developed a drum track and added some piano comping. Our lead guitarist, Karan, was busy with final exams and couldn’t commit to the recording session. I asked singer-songwriter and guitarist Paul Vos to contribute lead guitar based on some noodling I had done on my keyboard. Paul did an awesome job with the last minute crunch and played the part with great finesse.

During the mixing stage, I decided the piano track wasn’t helping and re-recorded an electric piano track with a little more interest than simple comping. I still wanted the acoustic guitar to be the main rhythm instrument—the electric piano was just there to add some weight to the track. I also added a string pad and a tambourine to thicken up the choruses. Finally, I recorded some vocal doubles with Adi for the choruses, again, to give them a little more thickness.

Final release

We wanted something unique for the cover art. Adi happened to see a canvas watercolour painting of tulips that my wife Hema had done a few years ago. He liked it enough to ask her if we could use it for the cover art. She gave us her blessing, and I took a photo of it to develop the cover. We kept it very simple, with the Beige Shelter logo and the title. A big thanks to Hema for her beautiful contribution!

Here’s the final track, which is available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Music and other digital retailers. It was a great joy and privilege to write and produce this song with Adi, Tom, and Paul. Enjoy!

BS Fridays Radio Showcase photography

I was invited to take photos of a singer-songwriter showcase put on by BS Fridays in Toronto on April 7, 2017. The event took place at the Cameron House, and the organizers put on a great show of talented performers.

Winter Without You (with Shari Archinoff)

I met singer-songwriter Shari Archinoff at one of my meetup groups. Shari plays piano, guitar, sings, and lives in the same neighbourhood I grew up in.

The first time we met, I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano. Shari developed lyrics and a melody for a song about moving on from a relationship with a winter theme. We also threw in a little joke about the debate over the naming of Canada’s national bird. We completed a draft of the song in one afternoon.

Something I’ve been playing around with recently is trying to write in different modes. For the verse, I developed a chord progression in C major, but started the progression on D minor (the II chord). The mode reveals its slightly unusual nature when the G major chord turns up in the verse. Normally, if the song were in D minor, the IV chord would be G minor, but using a G major instead keeps the song in the key of C major, even though it doesn’t start with a C major chord.

A couple of weeks later, I had developed a more interesting chord progression for the chorus and some greater melodic interest for the piano verse part. Shari had completely re-written the lyrics with much greater attention to poetics and melody details.

We performed the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup in January. Feedback from the group was largely positive, and we ended up taking a suggestion to transpose the song a whole step higher. We found the higher key resonated a bit better with Shari’s voice.

We recorded the final version in my home studio. Shari added some wonderful melody variations to the final chorus.

It was a joy to work with Shari and we’re hoping to do some more writing together.

Nashville-style singer-songwriters in the round

Once again, I attended a night of talented singer-songwriters in a Nashville-style round, where four performers do four songs each in turn. What makes this kind of setup amazing is when the performers backup each other with guitar or harmony vocals.

The performers for the February 9 show at the 120 Diner in Toronto were:

  • Chase Stevens
  • John Chris Ford
  • Bruce Harrott
  • Annie Bonsignore

As before, I took some photos of the performers and shared the hi-res copies with them.

Nashville style singer-songwriters in the round photos

Once again, I attended a night of fantastic original music at the 120 Diner in Toronto. I was invited by two of the performers, Sherry Jacoby and Lora Ryan. The show was hosted by Annie Bonsignore and Roger Beckett from A&R Productions.

The great thing about the Nashville-style setup is the interplay between the artists. In particular, Augusta Ray lent her sweet country voice to other performers on stage. As well, Paul Malysa prompted the audience for random key words and improvised a song on the fly, with backup vocals by Augusta. It was a fun night and a privilege to hear such talented singers and songwriters.

I took photos of the performers, and offered to share high-resolution copies with the artists.

Relentless Turmoil – Loud Isn’t Loud Enough – mastering work

Last year I was approached by indie punk band Relentless Turmoil to master their latest album, Loud Isn’t Loud Enough. If you read anything about mastering on internet forums and what not, you’ll hear time and time again that it’s a strange black art. For a home studio based producer, it’s supposed to be an elusive task. But like most things when it comes to production work, the devil is in the details. Mastering is also about creative decisions just as much as it is about technical know-how, and most of the moves are quite subtle.

The process depends on what I’m mastering. For a single song, I consider overall tone, dynamics, and final volume. For an album of songs, I also consider sequencing, gaps between the songs, and relative volume between the tracks.

Sequencing and silence

Loud Isn’t Loud Enough is a unique album. Nine of the eleven tracks are full songs; one is a live track, and the last is a track of random “mess-ups.” The entire thing can heard in just over ten minutes. The shortest track is 22 seconds, and the longest clocks in at 1:33. There are great riffs and big energy to almost all the tracks. I decided to let some of the tracks overlap with each other, or leave no silence at all. I wanted to keep the album moving and energetic. The live cut and “mess-ups” track finishes off the sequence.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard an album that serves up a surprise final track. On the 1995 Tea Party album The Edges of Twilight, the final track, Walk With Me, clocks in at 14:20 with a five-minute song, a long silence, and an instrumental outtro. You’d never hear the instrumental bit if you stopped playback after the song itself, and maybe you only heard it if you forgot to stop the playback.

I brought a bit of this spirit to the final “mess-ups” track by adding almost 40 seconds of a buzzing guitar amp sound off the top, at a reduced volume. If a listener heard the album at a low level (who would ever do this with a punk record?), they might not even hear the buzzing and think the album was over, or they’d hear a very faint sound, turn up the volume, and be suddenly assaulted by the screaming band members a minute later. The band loved the idea and the way I did it.

Loud Isn’t Loud Enough

This is punk music. Punk is by its nature loud; like, your amp goes up to 12 kind of loud. Loudness is about more than the final mastered volume; it’s about the dynamic range. In other words, the difference between the loudest moment and the quietest moment in the song. The loudness wars aren’t about the maximum volume as much as they’re about the drastically reduced dynamic range.

Relentless Turmoil was clear in their directive – they didn’t want to squash the dynamics. They wanted the music to breathe with the beat and rock out like a classic punk or rock record. I fully agree with this approach, and I don’t believe you need to overdo the loudness in order to have a great energetic record.

Tone, dynamics, and final volume

I referenced a classic Sex Pistols record to achieve a similar tone for the Relentless Turmoil record. I adjusted each track with a little more “oomph” in the bass and a bit less harshness. The overall tone is warmer than the final mixes provided by the band.

Like the subtle moves to the tone, I also made adjustments to dynamics with subtle settings to overall compression and mutiband compression. For the final volumes, I hit the limiter a little bit harder.

Neither relentless nor turmoil

This album was great fun to work on. I don’t listen to a lot of punk music, but to me, any good music deserves the same attention to detail and care. The songs grew on me, and it’s a really fun album. Take a listen below and name your price on Bandcamp to download it.

Holiday Shopping Spree

Through co-hosting the Songwriter’s Meetup and Song Talk Radio, I get to meet many singer-songwriters in and around Toronto. Some of them have written original Christmas songs, including Carmen Toth’s This Christmas I’m Giving You Love and Melanie Peterson’s Santa’s Sleigh. Themes of peace and love tend to come up, as is typical of many holiday songs.

Of course, I try to be different. So, I wrote a song embracing consumerism and throwing playful jabs at the status quo of creative types. This is not to say I find typical holiday themes trite or tedious, but I do commend singer-songwriters who put their own special twist on these themes. In fact, it’s a tricky business writing a good original holiday song instead of playing cover versions of well established songs. Carmen and Melanie have done a great job with songs and performances that are sweet, thoughtful, and festive. It’s clear to me that I was inspired by these singer-songwriters to write this song.

Writing and recording the song

I wrote the lyrics over my lunch break one day, and the piano part after work. I did a quick demo recording and presented the song at the December Songwriter’s Meetup. A main critique of my song was that the holiday aspect wasn’t clear until the end of the chorus. I took the suggestions and revised the first verse lyrics, and wrote a new holiday-esque musical introduction with glockenspiel section. I also took a more deliberate approach to my melody, thanks to some suggestions from my singer-songwriter friend Melanie Peterson.

I recorded a final version, and then set to work creating a video. I spent about two hours at the Toronto Eaton Centre, listening to my recording on repeat and shooting footage of shoppers, interesting sale signage, and the latest big-screen TV’s at Best Buy.

During a Beige Shelter rehearsal, I asked our bassist Tom Kuczynski to record me playing the keyboard and singing the song. Tom’s also a talented photographer and videographer. I then edited together a quick video.

All in all, this was a quick and fun writing and recording process, with a push to get it done before Christmas. It’s amazing what you can pull off when you have a hard deadline to meet.

Lyrics

Your new greeting card
Peace and love for the holidays
I say good fortune for all
And dollars to spend on sales

You wrote that song
The evils of materialism
Give away half your guitars
To the needy and poor musicians

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Always preaching moderation
Credit cards gotta stay at home
Support your local economy
Don’t be a consumer drone

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Get what you want
Not what you need
You’d better like
What you got!

I only wanna spend
Christmas with you
Binge watching on Netflix
On my brand new
75-inch, L.E.D., 4K HD, and 3D
Smart TV with 1000 watt, 5.1 surround sound

You know what
I like my stuff
Makes my life easy
You know what
It’s never enough
Holiday shopping spree

Live music photography

I recently purchased a new medium telephoto lens for my camera and put it to the test with photographing a couple of live music events. I enjoyed a “songwriters in the round” event at 120 Diner in Toronto. I already knew three of the performers, and got to meet and hear several new ones.

Beige Shelter was playing a show at Skeaky Dee’s, and I took photos of bands The Thick, The Cashews, and singer-songwriter David Dino White. For this show, the stage was bathed in a very bad blue light, so I converted the photos to black and white in post-production.

For another Beige Shelter show, I took photos of supporting acts Brian Sasaki and Wilson & The Castaways. The show was a great success at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club in Toronto.

The new lens is great for capturing sharp photos in low light. I find the keys to great photos on stage are using spot metering and adjusting the focus point as you shoot. I like to capture high emotional moments in the performances and where possible, get them with their eyes open. Framing with odd angles also adds a cool dynamic.