In this lesson we’re going continue to build on our knowledge of music theory and learn how to use the Circle of Fifths to change keys.
Let’s take a simple chord progression and put it under the microscope. Analysing an example like this will help you to write your own music and ideas using this concept. If you’ve started to learn about music theory the following progression might seem ‘wrong’:
E Major – D Major – G Major – D Major
This is because there is no Major key which contains all three of these chords. If you want to learn about which chords occur in each key check out this post.
If I play that progression E – D – G – D, it sounds like this:
Sounds quite nice right?
So how can that be if the chords are ‘wrong’? Well you don’t have to stay in the same key all the time. You can move through different keys during a song and even borrow notes or chords from other keys. A lot of people feel confused by this when they first start to learn music theory. Let’s take a deeper look at the progression above to see why it works.
Analyzing the progression
D Major and G Major are both in the key of G Major. Obviously G is the I chord, whereas D Major is the V chord. The note E is the sixth note of the G Major scale so it would be a minor chord.
If we look at the Key of D Major, D is the I chord and G Major is the IV chord. However E is the second note and again the II chord would be minor.
How about the key of E Major? Well, finally we get an E Major chord, the I chord, yay! But The notes D and G aren’t in this key at all!
Look through all the major keys. You will see that none of them contain D Major, E Major AND G Major. So what’s happening? Well, our simple progression contains a “Key Change”.
Looking at each chord separately
When we play the first chord, E Major, there are 3 Major keys that we could be in. E occurs in the keys of E Major, B Major and A Major. It can be the I, IV or the V Chord respectively. Note that these keys are all next to each other on the cycle of fifths below. You can learn more about the Cycle here.
Since all we’ve played is an E its fairly safe to assume we are in the key of E Major. However notes from any of the 3 keys above will work over this chord. Once we move to the next chord in our progression, D Major, we narrow things down. The keys of E and B Major don’t have a D Major chord but A Major does. Its the IV Chord.
D Major fits into 3 different keys just like E Major did. D, G and A. By Playing E Major Followed By D Major we’ve set up a V-IV progression in the Key of A Major. We could solo over the chords using up to 5 keys so far. E, B or A over the E Major Chord, and A, D or G over the D Major chord.
Next we’re moving from D Major to G Major, this is a V-I progression in the key of G Major. It could also be a I-IV progression in the key of D Major.
Adding a Melody
Let’s say for this example we write a melody over the chords. We’ll use the A Major scale followed by the D Major scale like so:
We’re changing key between A Major and D Major. Looking at the Cycle of Fifths again we can see that this is actually not a big jump at all. A Major and D Major are directly next to one another on the diagram. So even though our chord progression initially looked ‘wrong’, the chords actually all fit into closely related keys. This gives us a very subtle and simple way of changing keys.
Try coming up with a few progressions of your own which use chords from two different keys. By analyzing all the keys each chord can fit in as before you can start to develop the progression further. You could move through even more key changes. Or write complex melodies that switch between all the scales each chord can fit in to!
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