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Practicing the Cycle of 4ths

More on the Cycle of 4ths (the Wisdom of Charlie Banacos, part 2)

Eric Ostling

May 5, 2016

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In our last post about about the great music educator Charlie Banacos, we reviewed the importance of playing a musical line or motif in the 'Cycle of 4ths,' in all twelve keys. 

Here again is this mysterious chord progression known as 'The Cycle':

C  F  Bb  Eb  Ab  Db  F#  B  E  A  D  G  (...and back to C)

It's a progression by 4ths. If you play the C major scale, the 4th note is F.  If you play your F major scale, the 4th note is B-flat. And so on, and so on. If you know how to play chords, try this progression out on your instrument. Or, just play the individual notes, that's okay too. Don't worry about whether to do major, minor, dominant 7, etc... just pick one and go with it.

But why is this sequence so important and so fundamental to Charlie Banacos' approach? (see Lefteris Kordis' dissertation on Charlie, for which I was interviewed, on this point). 

Because it's in every song that you will ever learn.

You don't believe me. I can picture it - the blank looks, scratching heads, I get it. Let me show you something. Let's take a simple example: Who's Crying Now, a song you might think perfect to disprove me, and an old favorite of mine. If you had to write out the basic chord structure for a band chart, you could do it like this:

Amin  |  Amin  |  Fmaj  |  Fmaj  |  Dmin  |  Gmaj  |  Amin  |  Amin

Or an even more simplified (and if you're a bass player you could get away with this on a gig):


A    |   A    |   F   |    F     |   F    |    G    |   A    |    A   

If I play through that whole thing 16 times in a row, I guarantee someone 'older' walking by will say, "hey, he's playing Journey right now". But, there's not much going on there that seems to resemble a progression by 4ths, right?

What's the Secret?

Here's the secret: there are hidden chords going on in this sequence. You don't hear them, you feel them. A well-trained classical music theorist knows this. And great musicianship is all about feel. So now, let me re-write that chord progression again, still without worrying about Maj/Min etc, but using some of the hidden chords:

A   |  G  C  |   F   |  E  A  |   D    |  B  E   |  A    |   B  E  

And then, take it a step further:

A  D | G C  | F  B |  E  A |  D  C  | B  E   | A  F# |  B  E

First, look at those pieces from out of the Cycle above, getting copy-pasted into that chord progression!! And there’s more we could have done! It's mind boggling, actually. Now play that on a gig, and you'll get stares, people might look at you funny. But a seasoned jazz musician will hear it and say, "hey, that dude's jazzing up Who's Crying Now. Can we trade solos?"

Make going through the Cycle of 4ths part of your practice routine. It will show your ear the way.

Eric Ostling is a piano instructor at the Real School of Music Burlington location. Learn more about Eric here.