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Click to go to home page.The Circle of Fifths Part 2: Beyond Three-Chord Harmonies

Written by Paul Race for
Creek Don't Rise™
and School Of The Rock™

Our article Circle of Fifths, Part 1 outlines the basic relationships among chords in a given key, focusing on the I, IV, V or 1, 4, 5 chords in the typical 3-chord song. Internalizing such relationships is critical to being considered a guitar player in any contemporary sense.

This page should help you see the relationships among the other commonly used chords.


  • The "Tonic" or "Root" chord, sometimes shown as I or 1, is the chord that shares a name with the key of the song and on which the song is most likely to end. In a song in the key of C, the tonic chord is C.

  • The Dominant, or 5th chord is the chord that is based on the fifth note of the scale that the song uses. In a song in the key of C, the dominant cord is G.

  • The Dominant Seventh is the 5th chord with another note added that is a whole step down from the name of the chord. The added seventh provides more tension to the dominant - in a sense it makes the chord "want" to resolve to the tonic. In a song in the key of C, the dominant seventh is G7, which is a G chord with an F natural added.

  • The Subdominant, or 4th chord is the chord that is based on the fourth note of the scale that the song uses. In a song in the key of C the subDominant is F.

Most songs in modern music use at least those three chords. Many only use those. Many of those songs COULD use other chords to make things more interesting. But there are many songs that REQUIRE other chords.

In any key there are probably something like 48 possible chords. We will only focus on the chords you're most likely to encounter in most modern music. We also recommend that you read this page with a guitar in hand, so you can HEAR how these chords work in relationship to each other.

Besides, the tonic, dominant, dominant 7th, and subdominant, you are likely to encounter (or find useful) the following chords:

  • The "Relative Minor" or 6th chord is the minor cord based on the sixth note of the scale that the song is in. Sometimes it's easier to think of it as three half-steps down from the tonic. In the key of C, the relative minor is Am (A minor). A relative minor is often useful as a substitute for the tonic, to add more variety. As an example, in "Amazing Grace" (shown in part 1), the G (tonic) may go down to an Em (relative minor) on the words "saved" and "blind." The melody stays the same, but the extra harmonic motion adds interest.

    Some songs, like "Greensleeves" ("What Child is This"), go back and forth between the minor and the relative major (for "Greensleeves" it's usually Em and G). One very common use of the relative minor in 50s and early 60s pop music is in songs like "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" that go C, Am, F, G7 (or G, Em, C, D7, if you're in the key of G).

  • The "Second" (2nd) is the minor chord based on the second note of the scale that the song is in. In the key of C, the Second is Dm. A second may be used as a passing chord in songs like "Lean on Me." It is often used as a substitute for a subdominant chord, especially when you want to add variety or when you want to soften the transition between chords. A progression like C, F, Dm, G7 uses the second (Dm) both as a substitute for the subdominant (F) and to smooth the transition to the dominant seventh (G7).

  • Secondary Dominant - Sometimes, when a line in a song is going to end on the dominant seventh, a second may be changed to major, with a flatted seventh added. This is called a Secondary Dominant, because it acts as a dominant seventh to the true dominant. A song in the key of C might incorporate a relative minor and secondary dominant like so: C, Am, D7, G7. Though most people usually apply the term "secondary dominant" to a 2nd chord used this way, ANY chord in the scale can be used as a as a sort of secondary dominant, if it is made into (or remains) a major chord and adds the seventh. .

    • As an example of the most common kind of secondary dominant, on the "Amazing Grace" example in part one, the "second" (A) should be a minor chord, but it becomes a secondary dominant when you make it a major chord and add a seventh, right before it resolves to D7, the true dominant.

    • The G7 chords in the first and third lines serve a similar function by the way they add the seventh to lead into the C chord.

    • An example of using the third as a secondary dominant leading to a relative minor might be C, Em, E7, Am. The old Chicago song "Colour My World" is almost ALL secondary dominants, as the song spends most of its time beating the circle of fifths to death.

    That said, the most common secondary dominant progression is typically a major second (with flatted seventh) leading to the dominant (such as a C, F, D7, G7 progression).

  • A Third (3rd) is a minor chord based on the third note of the scale that the song is in. In the key of C, the third is Em. Like the relative minor (6th), a third may be used as a substitute for the tonic, especially when you want to soften the transition between the tonic and the subdominant. As an example, a chord progression like C, Em, F, Dm, G, G7 is much smoother than a straight C, F, G7.

  • A Diminished Seventh is one of the least used chords. A diminished chord like B, D, F (written as Bdim) is sort of like a minor chord with the top note flatted a half note. It may be used as a substitute for a dominant seventh. So instead of, say, C, G7, C, you might use C, Bdim, C. In this case, the Bdim acts something like a G7 without the G.

    In many cases, though, a fourth note is added, a sort of seventh. So, as often as not, a guitarist may play Bdim (B, D, F) as Bdim7 (B, D, F, Ab). Some composers use diminished sevenths to transition up a third. So a song in the key of C might go to a Bdim7, then go to Eb. Again, you won't see this often, but now you have some idea why it might be used.

    Augmented chords do not occur as part of normal harmonic progression, but we'll add them here in case you bump into one. An augmented chord sharpens the highest note of a triangle. So a C chord C, E, G, becomes an augment chord by sharpening the G - giving you C, E, G#. In Tin Pan Alley songs and some jazz standards, an augmented chord is used as a transtion between the tonic and subdominant. C, CAug, Eb.

    Showing the Circle of Fifths Sideways

    For simplicity's sake, the following chart shows ONLY the keys in which you can play the tonic in open chords on guitar. They are shown in fifths so you can see the relationships between the keys from F to E: F, C, G, D, A, E. If you pick the key in which you are playing, you can easily find the other chords that are mostly likely to be used in that key.

    Tonic (1st, Major)Dominant (5th, Major)Dominant 7thSubdominant (4th, Major)Relative Minor (6th, minor)Second (2nd, minor)Third (3rd, minor)Diminished Seventh (7th, Diminished)

    Magic Circle of Fifths WheelOnce again, most of the information above is in the handy "Magic Circle of Fifths Wheel" from part one. Except it goes through all the sharps and flats, and not just the ones you're likely to play in Rock, Pop, Folk, Country, or Bluegrass bands.

    Again, right-clicking on the little picture to the right, and selecting "Save Target As" or however your browser phrases it, then opening it on your hard drive and printing it, will usually get you the best results, since some browsers don't display the thing properly, which means they usually won't print it properly either.

    Listen for the obvious uses of these chord relationships when you hear songs on the radio. Study the way they're used as you learn new songs to play.


    I've had the privilege several times in my life of playing with people who knew this stuff. All somebody had to tell us was what key the next song was going to be in, and we never looked back. Not always easy keys, either. Friends would try to join in, then freak out when they learned there wasn't a sheet of music, or even a lead sheet or lyric/chord sheet among us. Was it magic? Was it divine inspiration? No, it was music theory, mostly knowing scales and chords. None of us were rocket scientists; only a few of us had studied music seriously, but we learned what we had to.

    I've also had friends ask me how I can play along confidently on songs I've never heard before. When I try to explain that all chords in a song are related, and they tend to work together in predictable ways, their eyes glaze over. When I give them a circle of fifths chart and try to explain how memorizing twelve - get it twelve - chord names in sequence can change their entire musical outlook, they shake their heads and say there "must be an easier way."

    Hopefully something we've said will stick with you, and, even if it doesn't make sense now, it will "click" at some point in the future. In the meantime, paying attention to how chords work together will take you a very long way toward becoming a good accompanist, improviser, performer, and possibly composer.

    Whatever you do enjoy your music!

    Paul Race,

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