Composing – How To Write A Song Or Piece, Part 5 expanding chords using the The Circle Of 5ths

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You may have heard of the phrase, The Circle of 5ths. It’s a useful tool for musicians to understand, and for composers and songwriters to use in their pieces. In Part 1 of this series on Composing and Songwriting, I suggested that you start by limiting your piece to just the chords which are built on the C scale (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim) and I provided you with a chart so that you could figure out the seven chords in any key. But perhaps you are now feeling that you want to step outside of the key. For example, if you are in the key of C and want to move to an unexpected B-flat major chord, you can use the circle of 5ths to help navigate your way back to the key of C.

I’m going to let my friend Fred Sokolow take it from here because he is the Circle of 5ths master. Start at 5:30 in the video below and continue on to the end if you would like to join him for his jam:

Fred is an crazy good multi-instrumentalist and has created a small vinyl cling decal of the circle of 5ths for $3 which you can purchase here. You can safely stick it to your piano because there’s no adhesive. (Fred also gives private online lessons in banjo, ukulele, guitar, mandolin and dobro if you are so inclined!) If you have a Paypal account would you consider “tipping” Fred to say thanks for today’s instruction here or search for Fred Sokolow on Venmo? Any amount even $1 or $2 would be appreciated! You can receive notice of Fred’s future mini lessons (there are a lot of great ones!) by joining his mailing list: sokolowmusic@gmail.com. For more jams and free lessons, follow Fred on Facebook.


In classical music there are many ways to structure a piece. Generally when you are starting out, you want to establish a primary theme, move to second theme, then come back to the first theme and end the piece. All of what I wrote about in Parts 1 (chords), 2 (melody), and 3 (melody and chords) are relevant to composing classical music, as well as the Circle of 5ths discussion above, as all melodic music is based upon chords. You can also add lyrics to your classical piece, as with an aria or operatic piece. Feel free to ask questions in our comments below, and please tell us how your songs and pieces are coming along! It would be great to emerge from the Covid quarantine with a few original songs or pieces under your belt!

With love and music, Gaili

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul

6 Replies to “Composing – How To Write A Song Or Piece, Part 5 expanding chords using the The Circle Of 5ths”

  1. Hi Gaili,
    I have watched the Fred Sokolow video right through and what a good video it is. I found it really useful so thank you and also thank you for all the other lessons (and books).

  2. Hi Gaili, I just had an enjoyable evening with Fred and Lynn(?) learning about the circle of 5ths and playing along with them! I’m finally beginning to understand its mystery, the role it plays in music, and how chords are connected to one another. Thanks so much for sharing his video and I tipped him.

    I recently got book 4 in your series and it’s right where I need to be. The classical pieces towards the beginning are a fun challenge. It’s been years since I’ve seriously read music and I can’t believe I’m able to create such beautiful harmonies, although I’m pretty rusty with getting my fingers to move smoothly and quickly. Keeping time is also challenging because I keep stopping and going back when I make mistakes or get stuck. I’m especially enjoying Chopin’s Prelude in E minor and After You’ve Gone. Regarding the exercise in the appendix, I’m starting with one key at a time because it began to feel overwhelming.

    I’ve nearly finished auditing the Berklee Music School’s theory course you posted on the blog, which has also been productive. All of this never would have happened had it not been for the pandemic. It’s so crazy.

    Most importantly I wanted you to know how much I appreciate the impact you’ve had on my returning to playing piano again. Words can’t express how much joy I have had just getting lost in playing. Thanks for all you’ve done. N

    1. Wow Nancy, thank so much for writing and for your kind and generous words. I’m glad you audited the music theory class. When the information is presented by different people you get a bigger picture of what it all means.

      I’m glad you are taking it at a comfortable pace in Upper Hands Piano BOOK 4. There is a lot to take in!

      Re: your timing, I suggest that twice per week you set an intention to keep going when you make a mistake or get stuck. Just move forward ’til you regain your notes and keep your tempo steady. The other times you practice you can go back and repeat the passage, but on those two days,keep going when you stumble, at least a few times.

      I’m so glad you are back at the piano! Stay with us!!

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