The Circle of Fifths

The circle of fifths is an almost magical tool for musicians!

Magical in its simplicity. Here is an ingenious invention to help you find major and minor key signatures, scales, chords and more.

First Things First...

Before we look at the picture of the Circle of 5ths (below), you first need to know what it is made up from.

Maybe it seems a bit confusing at first, but it is actually rather easy:

  • First, remember that we have only 12 different pitches?
Piano keys Layout

On the piano keyboard you can easily see them as:

  1. The 7 white keys with the basic notes: A,B,C,D,E,F, and G.
  2. And the 5 black keys with note names derived from the white keys: C# or Db etc. (7+5=12!)
  • Second, remember what a perfect fifth was? No?

A perfect fifth is the interval between two notes that are exactly 3 1/2 steps or tones apart.

(If you'd like to learn more about music theory, I recommend The Essentials of Music Theory. It's great for self study.)

Lets Take a "Walk" on the Piano Keyboard!

Start from the lowest C on the keyboard (to the left). Play a perfect fifth up... G. Right.

Continue another perfect fifth... D.

You've got it!

Cicle of fifths on the keyboard

Now continue like this and you will get: C-G-D-A-E-B-F#... What?!

-Why a black key?

Remember that between B and F there is a diminished fifth, only 3 steps, so we have to take F up 1/2 a step. OK?

Let's continue, where were we? Here we go:

Circle of fifths on the keyboard

F#/Gb (the same key!)- C#/Db-(eh..let's call them "flats"(b) from now on) - Ab- Eb - Bb - back to the white keys now...

F - and...yes! We are back on C again!!

You just traveled around the piano on all the 12 different keys, all a perfect fifth apart!

The Circle of Fifths

The clock has 12 hours. Neat! We can use the clock as a template! Start at 12 o'clock. Let's decide that C is here. Going to the right, around the clock and you will return to C again.

Circle of Fifths

OK. Now How on Earth is this Useful?

  • You can use the circle of fifths to get an overview over all the 12 tonalities or key signatures in major- and if you look at the inner circle also the relative minor!
  • You can easily learn how many sharps or flats a scale or key signature has: 1 o'clock (G) has 1 sharp, 2 o'clock (D) has two and so on....

-Hey- wait a minute! I can't see any 8,9,10 or 11 sharps or flats?

Yeah, that would be unnecessary. Instead of having one circle with only sharp key signatures and another with only flats, which would then give us an awkward key signature with 11 sharps or flats at 11 o'clock...

...We use the fact that the black keys can have two names, and rename them after 7 sharps/flats. (There is a little overlap as you can see.)

So the circle of fifths you see here is "merged" with what could have been a circle with only sharps and a circle with only flats. One side is with sharps, and the other with flats. C is "natural" since it uses only white keys.

  • In this way- going to the right from C until about 7 o'clock gives you 7 key signatures with sharps. And going to the left of C, again 7 "hours" backwards- gives you 7 Key signatures with flats. Cool!
  • You can easily see what chords work well together: Pick one, let's say F major. The neighboring two, Bb and C together with F are the most important chords i F major- AND you can easily change them with their relative minor chords right underneath! So, in F major you can use: F, Bb and C major plus d, g and a minor chords for a "smooth" harmony! Go to the piano and try it out!!
  • Plus- if you work with functional chord analysis- there are your Tonic (I) (Pick any note), Sub dominant (IV) (To the left of the one you picked), and Dominant (V) (To the right), chord functions.

And finally, for all the music theory geeks like me- isn't the Circle of Fifths just beautiful?

My recommendation: You can learn more about music theory with Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory, perfect for beginners.

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