Circle of Fifths & Bluegrass

How The Circle of Fifths Is Used In Bluegrass
Since 1994, the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association has been promoting today’s Bluegrass musicians so that local fans can enjoy jam sessions, concerts and open mics by outstanding performers. Ever wondered what makes these Bluegrass performances so compelling though? Aside from their natural stage presence, a lot of it comes down to the songwriting which uses a winning Bluegrass chord formula in both new tunes and familiar favorites alike. Here, we discuss more precisely, the role that the Circle of Fifths plays when composing or playing Bluegrass.

A little bit of history
Before addressing the major chords in Bluegrass and how this music genre makes use of the Circle of Fifths, let’s see what the phenomenon of the Circle of Fifths actually is. To give you a bit of a historical background, the circle of fifths is a term used in music theory that refers to an organized chart, or more precisely the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.

The very first version of the Circle of Fifths came about in the 1670s in the form of a treatise under the name of Grammatika, which was written by the composer and music theorist Nikolai Diletskii. The composer wrote the piece with the aim to teach how to write polyphonic a cappella, which was predominantly used for liturgical texts. Thus, it was in Diletskii’s Grammatika that the first Circle of Fifths was portrayed and became a guide for compositions.

What are the most common chords in Bluegrass?
When you hear someone say “the Circle of Fifths” in the Bluegrass context, know they refer to a cycle of 1-6-2-5, or 1-3-6-2-5. In the Bluegrass music genre, the main or most commonly used chords include the combination of 1, 4 & 5, yet there are times, however, when a 2 and a bluesy 7 are added. Also, 1-4-5 or 1-4-1-5 are also very common sequences. Additionally, given that a song is written in a major key, (#–being the sign for major), the chord references are in most cases major chords, unless specified otherwise.
Beloved tunes like ‘I’ll Fly Away’ or ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ remain all-time favorites to this day. There is something inexplicably soothing yet uplifting about these special Bluegrass tunes, so make sure to join the fun and stay updated on the latest shows and events through the HVBA.

Sally Perkins

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