The Circle Of Fifths


Theory And Uses Of The Circle Of Fifths Diagram

If you don't know anything about the musical Circle of Fifths, this page will shed some light on it for you.

Diagram of the Musical Circle of Fifths image 500 x 604px

The circle of fifths is a diagram invented to portray the relationship between the 12 keys of the chromatic scale.

As a beginner with little or no knowledge of music theory, the circle of fifths will not mean that much to you at this stage, later on, particularly if you want to have a go at writing your own songs you will find this tool invaluable.
It can also help with chord building and key modulation, if you want to play Jazz where key changes are used frequently.

Why is it called a circle of Fifths?

Well it's arranged in a circle haha, but most importantly each step going clockwise, is actually the fifth pitch (note) in the scale of the preceding step.

The alternative name for fifths circle is 'the circle of fourths' because moving anti-clockwise around the circle each step is a fourth.

Confused? let's look at an example.

Here's the A Major scale

A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, and G♯

Starting from and including the A note as one, count up five steps, that gets us an E right?

Now look at the A on the circle of fifths diagram, and move clockwise one step, you will see that is also E, cool eh?

Here's the E Major scale

E, F♯, G♯, A, B, C♯, D♯

Count up 5 notes as before, and we get a B note

Now look at the E on the circle of fifths diagram, and again move clockwise one step, you will see that is also a B

This of course works for every step with every Major scale.

How to Read the Circle

It is called the Circle of Fifths because each note is a perfect fifth away from another.

A perfect fifth is a distance of 5 notes: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E.

Going clockwise around the circle a step at a time, you are "going up a fifth". and going counte-clockwise is "going down a fifth".

(It may also prove useful to know an alternative name for this diagram is the 'Circle of Fourths', because going up a fifth is the same thing as going down a fourth, conversely going down a fifth is the same thing as going up a fourth.)

Making Use of the Fifths Circle

Another use of the circle is for finding chords that sound good when played together in any order, if you don't know them yet.

Just to illustrate this, cast your mind back to the part about Major chords we covered on another page. Remember the simple Blues/Rock chord progression A,D,E. and the fact that G,C, and F chords always sound great when played together?

This is no co-incidence

Take a look at A on the circle, then look at the letters either side of it, then look at the C and note the letters either side, see how they fall together? there you have it!

A similar idea can be applied for Dominant 7th chords. After the starting chord, what is a good chord to play next? find the answer in the circle by going anti-clockwise one fourth or step. For example after starting on B flat, a good following chord to play would be E flat.
In other words the closer together two chords are on the circle, the better they will sound together.

The Circle of Fifths also shows you the sharps or flats that occur in any key.

Note the Circle of Fifths always begins on C, because the C Major key has no sharps or flats at all, therefore it has a value of zero in the diagram, so it is the reference point for all other keys shown.

The outer letters represent the musical key, and the corresponding inner numbers show the amount of sharps or flats contained within that key.

To find out how many sharps are in each key, count clockwise from C at the top of the Circle.
Move counter-clockwise to count flat notes in a key.

You can see at a glance for example D Major contains 2 sharps and B flat Major contains 2 flats.

The Circle of Fifths diagram can also be used to find the key signature for all the relative minors keys of the Major keys.

Beginning with the key you want to play in from the outside of the circle move anti-clockwise three steps and use the key signature for that major key.

For example, to work out the key signature for E minor, go to the letter E on the outside of the circle, three spaces counter-clockwise puts you on a G.

Therefore this tells you that E minor uses the same key signature as G major, but of course the notes are played in a different order for the minor scale.

You will see at the bottom of the circle, everything becomes as confusing as hell with the B, F# and Db notes having dual names depending on the scale, either flats or sharps.

You will also see a C flat note WTF?
There aren't any of those in the Chromatic Scale!!!

This is a very good example of why music theory is seemingly too complicated and why beginners don't want to learn it!

The best thing to do now is to stop, you are now entering the realms of heavy-going theory, that the average guitarist does not need to know about.

If you really want to delve deeper into it this Wiki page may help, but don't say I didn't warn you! Your time will be better spent practising unless you want to be a professional musician or composer.