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Thread: Interactive Circle of Fifths

  1. #1
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    Interactive Circle of Fifths

    I've just published a free online music theory tool, the Interactive Circle of Fifths: http://randscullard.com/CircleOfFifths

    I look forward to feedback from the readers of this forum, since you folks are exactly my target audience for this tool. I hope you find it useful and interesting!

    (Be sure to check out the in-depth User's Guide. Even if you're already familiar with the circle of fifths, you may find some new ways to apply it in your music.)

  2. #2
    Village hooligan Dr. Jimmy's Avatar
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    Thumbs up

    Very cool! Thanks for this.
    "I'm listening to the f***ing song!"

  3. #3
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Yes, that's very neat, nicely designed too.
    I love the rotation option.

    The only failing - and it may be tricky to get round this - is it ignores the conventional minor key practice of using a dom7 as V. IOW, the minor key needs to be distinguished from aeolian. (The major V is the only necessary alteration - no need to harmonise the full harmonic and melodic minor scales, which would complicate things unnecessarily.)

    I was confused at first by the grey options in the "tonic" list, but I can see they're necessary for some of the modal options.

    On the subject of games with the circle of 5ths, have you seen this site?
    (Be afraid.. be very afraid.... )
    http://home.austin.rr.com/jmjensen/CircleOf5thsFun.html
    (This guy has a strange idea of "fun", IMO...)

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    Thanks for the feedback! I'm glad you like the site.

    I agree with your point about the minor key; Wikipedia has this to say in its "Minor Scale" article (my italics):

    Sometimes the natural minor scale is equated with the Aeolian mode, but a key characteristic of music in the minor mode in the common practice period of Western music is the use of the leading tone, a half step below the tonic...Also, in music written from the 16th to 19th centuries, the chord built on the dominant (fifth scale degree) is almost always a major triad, at least at cadence points; consequently, the seventh degree of the scale must be raised with an accidental to make this possible.

    My interpretation is that the strict theoretical definition of the natural minor differs from our common use of it. Because of the structure of the circle of fifths, I have to follow the strict definition.

    I thought about how to include commonly used accidentals (e.g. V of V) on the circle, but I came to the conclusion that I would end up with an overly complicated picture. I decided to design the circle to emphasize the structure and relationship of the keys, rather than provide every possible piece of useful information (and believe me, it wasn't easy to draw the line).

    Thanks again!

  5. #5
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RandomS
    Thanks for the feedback! I'm glad you like the site.

    I agree with your point about the minor key; Wikipedia has this to say in its "Minor Scale" article (my italics):

    Sometimes the natural minor scale is equated with the Aeolian mode, but a key characteristic of music in the minor mode in the common practice period of Western music is the use of the leading tone, a half step below the tonic...Also, in music written from the 16th to 19th centuries, the chord built on the dominant (fifth scale degree) is almost always a major triad, at least at cadence points; consequently, the seventh degree of the scale must be raised with an accidental to make this possible.

    My interpretation is that the strict theoretical definition of the natural minor differs from our common use of it. Because of the structure of the circle of fifths, I have to follow the strict definition.
    Not sure what you mean here. Your circle equates aeolian mode with minor key. The above definition seems to clearly state that the major V chord is standard in a minor key - therefore the "strict definition" coincides with how minor keys are commonly played. (Which, of course, it should do )
    IOW, the minor key is based on natural minor (aeolian), but the major V chord is a standard alteration.

    In rock music, pure aeolian mode does occur (Losing my Religion, Smells Like Teen Spirit), but orthodox minor key (with major or dom7 V chord) is at least as common.
    And in jazz, minor key is far more common than aeolian.

    As I say, this is not a criticism of your tool, which I think is great - as far as it goes. Maybe you need a comment in the User Guide about minor key practice? I think that would work better than some complex re-organisation of the design!

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    The whole topic of "minor key" is ripe for confusion: We have the natural minor (Aeolian), harmonic minor and ascending/descending melodic minor scales, and then we have the further complication that "minor key" often means the natural minor with a major V chord! (I like your term "orthodox minor" for this, that seems to be the only name for "minor" that isn't already taken!)

    The last thing I want my Circle to do is add to the confusion, and I think your suggestion of a note in the User's guide is an excellent one. I'll definitely take a stab at it.

  7. #7
    bitter old fool Jed's Avatar
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    Nice piece of programming.

    I don't spend much time these days with tools like this (having memorized the cycle of 5ths and it ramifications long ago) but I do have one comment:

    I'm (more than a little) "old school" and am used to roman numeral analysis that identifies chord functions relative to the Major scales' diatonic progression (even for Minor modes). So I'm used to thinking of Aeolian as Imin IIdim bIII (maj) IVmin Vmin bVI (maj) bVIImaj. Overall I think this style is more informative.

    I understand the style you choose is seeing more use these days but I wonder about the ramifications of breaking the link to the Major-scale-centric system that used to be the standard (at least in my experience).

    cheers,

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    Part of my motivation to build this Interactive Circle was that most discussions of the circle of fifths focus on the Major mode, and neglect the other modes. (They might mention that the relative minor is three steps around the circle and leave it at that.) I found this ironic, because the circle of fifths is the structure that (to my mind) ties the seven modes together into a single whole.

    (Admittedly, it's hard to show more than one mode on a "paper" circle of fifths without the diagram becoming very confusing, but that's one of the advantages of doing it in software...)

    Because of this emphasis on the other modes, using a Major-centric naming system would (IMO) be somewhat confusing for the user.

  9. #9
    bitter old fool Jed's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RandomS
    I found this ironic, because the circle of fifths is the structure that (to my mind) ties the seven modes together into a single whole.

    Because of this emphasis on the other modes, using a Major-centric naming system would (IMO) be somewhat confusing for the user.
    We see it different ways . . .

    It is the very fact that the modes are modes that explains why and how the cycle of fifths (and many other major scale constructs / harmonic phrases, etc) tie all the modes together in a relative way. But from a modal pov it is the strength and power of the major scale that defines the various flavors / feelings inherent in the various modes.

    1) For me, since the modes are "modes of the major scale" it makes perfect sense to identify them in such terms. Just as their formulae are always written and calculated relative to the major scale, ex. dorian = 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7.

    2) I'm reminded of a mode formula whenever I see its diatonic series presented relative to the major scale as well as it relativity to it's parent major scale (parallel vs relative mode thinking) because all of the same flat/sharps are there relative to the root notes and the variations in chord types further clarify the variations from the parallel major of the tonic.
    Code:
    Ionian =      Ima7   IImin7   IIImin7   IVmaj7   V7   VImin7   VIImin7(b5)
    
    Mixolydan =   I7   IImin7   IIImin7(b5)   IVmaj7   Vmin7   VImin7   bVIImaj7
    
    Lydian =      Ima7   II7   IIImin7   #IVmin7(b5)   Vmaj7   VImin7   VIImin7
    
    Aeolian =     Imin7   IImin7(b5)   bIIImaj7  IVmin7  Vmin7  bVImaj7  bVII7
    
    Dorian =      Imin7   IImin7   bIIImaj7  IV7  Vmin7  VImin7(b5)  bVIImaj7
    
    Phygian =     Imin7   bIImaj7   bIII7  IVmin7  Vmin7(b5)  bVImaj7  bVIImin7
    
    Locrian =     Imin7(b5)   bIImaj7   bIIImin7  IVmin7  bVmaj7  bVI7  bVIImin7
    3) Notating diatonic chords in the above manner relates well to the intervalic naming conventions where intervals are assumed to be major or perfect unless specifically called out otherwise. The correlation between a "minor 2nd" and "b2" and a "bII" are some what more obvious. When I see something written as "III7" it signifies a V7 of VImin and something quite different from the dom7 chord built on the diatonic 3rd of the Phrygian mode (that you present as a III7 and I would present as a bIII7)

    4) While there are 3 major modes (two of which see very common usage), 3 minor modes (two of which see very common usage, one being the relative minor) and one diminished mode (no common usage), none of the modes carry the same weight with respect to theory / notation / popular usage, either melodically or harmonically, as does the major scale.

    5) Where there is consistency in terminology & notation, confusion is reduced. The major scale is for better or worse, the standard / template by which all other scales and musical constructs are defined traditionally.

    I'm not so much trying to change your mind as to just express an opinion. As I said, I'm a little "old school" and am hard pressed to see the value of some of the newer notation systems. I don't expect others to change how they see these things because of my opinions but the community would do well to consider the effects and ramifications of any new system of notation before "running off nilly-willy" (how's that for a phrase you grandfather might have used ?).

    None of this takes away from what is a quality piece of programming.

    cheers,
    Last edited by Jed; 09-28-2007 at 07:45 PM.

  10. #10
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RandomS
    Part of my motivation to build this Interactive Circle was that most discussions of the circle of fifths focus on the Major mode, and neglect the other modes. (They might mention that the relative minor is three steps around the circle and leave it at that.) I found this ironic, because the circle of fifths is the structure that (to my mind) ties the seven modes together into a single whole.

    (Admittedly, it's hard to show more than one mode on a "paper" circle of fifths without the diagram becoming very confusing, but that's one of the advantages of doing it in software...)

    Because of this emphasis on the other modes, using a Major-centric naming system would (IMO) be somewhat confusing for the user.
    I think my perspective is somewhere between yours and Jed's.

    It's not the modal aspect of your chart that interests me, but the display of the 7 chords within one major key.
    I realised the chordal application of the circle myself a while back, but I was using a circle which had the relative minor keys on a concentric inner circle. This meant that the six main chords in any major key were in a 3x2 segment of the circle: IV-I-V on the outer circle and ii-vi-iii on the inner circle. (Eg C-G-D and Am-Em-Bm for key of G.)
    The fact that the vii was missing was of no account, because it's basically never used. (The diminished triad, or rather it's half-diminished extension, is used as a ii chord in jazz minor keys, but hardly ever as a vii in major keys.)

    But your method is lot neater, because it includes the vii, and the interactive design simplifies a visual pattern which would be complicated to lay out without that easy way of selecting the keys. (I also like the colour coding! I'd also have chosen red for major and blue for minor - and probably green or yellow for diminished.)

    However, while the modal options make theoretical sense, and are a worthwhile addition to the tool (easy enough to put them all in! ), most of the music we play, in whatever style, is still largely based on the major key, even if modal sounds and practices have been absorbed to a large extent. We still tend to think of music as being "in a key" - even when it's predominantly modal - and the major key is our base reference.
    (OK, it may be an older generation that continues to think this way predominantly, but you can still approach and understand contemporary music from this angle - I mean all popular music including rock and jazz.)

    In addition, for all but 2 or 3 modes, chords other than the tonic are not really usable in practice.
    In mixolydian, you can use quite a few.
    In dorian, you can use IV, v and bVII at least (as long as IV isn't followed by bVII...).
    In phrygian, you can use v and bII, but others are riskier.
    In lydian, basically any chord other than the tonic risks disturbing the tonality.
    And locrian, of course, is practically unusable - even the "tonic" is not a tonic in any musical sense.

    I think, for the kind of user who will benefit most from your tool, you need some explanation of these common practices (similar to what I suggested for the minor key). Otherwise, when trying to apply the tool, they will keep coming up against actual music that doesn't seem to "follow the rules". Or they will, perhaps, try to compose music in one of the trickier modes and then wonder why it doesn't work (why it keeps sounding like the relative major key...).

    An extra complication (that maybe isn't worth you attempting to address! ) is that even a simple major key will often use chromatic chords, especially those borrowed from the parallel minor key.
    I realise your tool isn't supposed to be a complete guide to how music is composed - . I'm sure you recognise its limitations as much as we do. But I think it's important to point out to less experienced users that while it will be a huge help with the ground rules of chord usage (at least in major keys, and to a certain extent in aeolian and mixolydian too), it's a foundation only. It will set you on the right path, but it won't lead you very far down all the side paths that branch off once you're under way.

    But - as Jed says - a quality piece of programming all the same. I've already recommended it on another forum site. It ain't perfect - but it's way better than anything else of this kind I've seen (so far... ).
    In any case, there can be no such thing as a "perfect" desciptor of chordal usages. While there are common practices and less common ones, there's no rule in music that is never broken.
    The one rule in music is: "All the rules are flexible - even this one."

    (Yes, even that old rule "if it sounds good it is good" can be broken...)
    Last edited by JonR; 09-29-2007 at 08:43 AM.

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    Jed and JonR,

    First, thank you for taking the time to give me such detailed and extensive feedback. I really appreciate it.

    It's taken me a while to read (and re-read) your postings and (hopefully) understand what you're saying, and I'm in a bit of a quandary. I don't have a huge amount of time to spend on this stuff (like most of us I imagine), so I have to be pretty selective about what changes I decide to undertake. On the other hand, the last thing I want is to put something out there that is incorrect or misleading, and if I've done so, I'll do whatever I need to do to correct it.

    In that light, I'm planning to:

    - Add a prominent Note to the User's guide explaining (in brief) the different kinds of "minor" and how they relate to Aeolian mode. (If this means that the Circle isn't really useful in the minor mode as it is conventionally used, I'll have to live with that.)

    - In the Losing My Religion (Aeolian) example, refer to the above note, and mention that most songs in minor mode are not pure Aeolian.

    - Change my composition example from Minor to Major mode to avoid potential confusion (by dodging the issue entirely...).

    - Add a Note to the composition section explaining (again, in brief) that once you go into the other modes, the "rules" (such as they are) become more complex, and that a detailed study is beyond the scope of the Guide.

    (Jed, I'm sorry but I just can't get my head around the notation you described. I see how it adds more information, but to me, it also adds complexity. Maybe it's just a question of what I'm used to, but I don't feel that I could get comfortable enough with that style to do it justice.)


    I think the above set of changes is in line with what you guys have suggested, without increasing the (limited) scope of what I'm trying to do with the Circle. If you have other suggestions for (relatively straightforward) changes, I'd love to hear them!

    And thanks again.

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    The set of changes described in the prior post is now available on the site: http://randscullard.com/CircleOfFifths

  13. #13
    bitter old fool Jed's Avatar
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    I went looking for a Cycle of 5ths to link for someone learning about keys. I started to send him to your site but I could not see where you describe the most common use of the Cycle of 5th - as a way to visualize the number of sharps or flats in the various keys.

    Did I miss this some where or do you only approach the cycle of 5ths relative to the diatonic chords in each key?

    cheers,

  14. #14
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    On the other hand, the last thing I want is to put something out there that is incorrect or misleading, and if I've done so, I'll do whatever I need to do to correct it.
    RandomS -- I found your Interactive Circle of Fifths to be a great training tool. Have it bookmarked and will refer to it often.

    Appreciate your efforts.

    Malcolm

    P.S. As to the sharps/flats -- notice how they line up on the left hand side of the screen -- neat.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 11-17-2007 at 02:05 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jed
    I could not see where you describe the most common use of the Cycle of 5th - as a way to visualize the number of sharps or flats in the various keys.
    Please check out the section of the User's Guide (near the end) called "Reading Key Signatures".

    There are a few other places where the Guide points out that as you rotate clockwise, you add sharps, and counterclockwise, flats. I leave it to the user to actually count 'em up...

    Glad to hear you're thinking of sending people my way!

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