Understanding The Circle Of Fifths

“The Circle Of Fifths” is a phrase and concept which is familiar to most musicians. However, it is not uncommon to hear the words, I wish I understood the Circle Of Fifths, or even, I don't get the Circle of Fifths!

This could be due to the fact that not all musicians are theoretically inclined, it could be due to the fact that the circle can seem a little daunting upon first glance.

Whatever the reason for the gap in understanding and applying the Circle of Fifths, any fear that precedes its exploration is unnecessary. It's been used for over 300 years for a reason! This geometrical representation of musical keys' relationships with each other will benefit your songwriting, your learning of others' songs, and your general musical understanding.

And it will make you smile!

Circle of Fifths

The Circle Of Fifths takes its name from being a circle, which goes round in fifths!

If you hold your left hand out and call your little finger 'C', then count to 5 like: C, D, E, F, G: Voila! G – your thumb – is the fifth. Try this starting on G and you will be counting: G, A, B, C, D: Woohoo! D is the fifth of G.

As you can see in the image above, the outer layer of the circle goes round, in fifths, like: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#/Gb, C#/Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F. These are all of your major keys!

As you go from C, to G, to D, to A... the amount of sharps in the key also increases by one. If you look at it like a clock, that's one sharp per hour. Until you reach 8pm. At this time, if you start looking at the clock backwards, and count from 1 to 4 where you'd normally see the numbers 11 to 8, you will see that the amount of flats per key coincides with the 'time'.

You might be wondering: but which sharps and flats are they? Well, thankfully, the order they are added is the same as the order they go round... fifths! So G – which is 1 o' clock – has F sharp in it. The fifth of F is C, so D – which is 2 o' clock – has the 2 sharps: F and C in it!

Can you work out which sharps will be in the 3 o' clock key: A major?

If we now look at it the backwards way – adding flats – we can see the pattern: FB flat E flat A flat D flat

'Bead' is easy to remember, and 'F' is what the word 'Flat' starts with! So, the key of F contains Bb, the key of Bb – now 2 o' clock on our backwards clock – contains both Bb and Eb, and the order continues.

The key of Eb at 3 o' clock contains Bb, Eb and Ab, can you work out which four flats will the key of Ab will contain?

On the inner layer of the circle we have relative minors, also going round in fifths. They are in the same order, just three 'hours' before the majors. Relative minors are keys which have the same sharps/flats as a major key, but with the emphasis in a different place.

For example, you might want to play a piece with no sharps or flats – like in the key of C – but you might not want it to sound happy! Simply switch your emphasis/starting note from C to A, and you'll get a completely different feel. Keys are not just the notes themselves, but the order in which we play them.

How Will It Help My Instrumental Learning?

Guitar chords

Guitar Chords. Image Source

If you're a contemporary musician, you might wonder why/how all of this theory stuff will actually help you to learn. Especially if you're a guitarist who usually learns to play pieces from reading TABs, or a drummer who has no use for harmonic knowledge.

However, a grasp of the Circle of Fifths speeds everything up in instrumental learning, no matter what instrument it is you're on the way to mastering.

If you can instantly spot keys from the number of sharps, this makes for speedy learning and understanding.

Not only this, but it makes transposition much more doable. If you're playing a piece in C major, but it's proving a bit tricky for you/your singer to sing, why not shift it to G major and see if that works? Just use your fingers to turn all chords into their fifths... and remember to make any Fs sharp!

Drummers, you might still be wondering how this is relevant to you. Granted, for your playing itself it might not be, but in a band situation, a knowledge of how the other instruments' harmonic structure works will enable you to be a more active band member, and maybe to apply your knowledge to your second instrument...

This knowledge is instrumentally transferable, and an understanding of it will make you a more rounded musician.

How Will It Help My Songwriting?

Songwriting

Writing Notes. Image Source

There are many ways the Circle of Fifths can help out songwriters, including some cool tricks!

If you circle three notes at any time, for example C plus – to its left – F, and – to its left – G, you have the first, fourth and fifth!

This is the most common chord progression in rock and pop music! Songs like 'Wild Thing', 'Louie Louie', and of course the twelve bar blues, are made up of these chords, in different keys.

Pick a key, circle it and the notes to its left and right and there's your new catchy chorus! You can, of course, embellish this to get something more original. But it's a great starting point, and always sounds good.

Another songwriters trick is switching from a major key to its relative minor. You can do this by going from the outer layer of the circle, to the inner layer. This can make for a cool bridge/middle 8, which has a different 'feel' to the rest of the song.

The way the Circle of Fifths goes round like a clock means that it is also easy to quickly play in any key. Say you want to start on a D chord – oh! That's 2 o' clock! So this song will have 2 sharps throughout: F and C.

Fancy a key change towards the end of your song which currently goes F – Bb, C (I IV V in F)? Try moving it... How about G – C – D (I IV V in G)? 🙂

How Will It Help My General Musical Understanding?

Music Sheet

Music Sheet. Image Source

Thinking about music in a theoretical or mathematical way encourages a deeper understanding of your craft and will lead to more satisfaction in your musical experiences.

Not only will it enable you to – on demand – do things like key changes, shifts to relative minors and speedy sight reading, but it will make you think about the gaps between notes and why and how they invoke different moods and vibes.

If you're a musician who reads sheet music, this information is invaluable when it comes to reading and learning pieces, and if you're a songwriter this will speed your process up and ensure that you don't get stuck for ideas.

If you don't read music, but would like to learn songs more quickly and understand why the songs work, this Circle has your answers. You'll start to see that the songs you are playing really do have the amount of sharps/flats that match with the key that your starting chord was on, very often. Our ears have developed to become pleased by certain intervals, and artists who aim to be listenable write in a way which pleases the ear.

Conclusion:

Whatever your instrument, and whatever your musical aims, the Circle of Fifths has something to offer you.

If you wish to develop your sight reading, it offers a speedy way to know exactly what all those sharps or flats mean! If you want to play the 12 bar blues in a multitude of keys, you can find your I IV V by drawing a quick circle within the circle! And if you would like to know relative minors, for your songwriting, you can just jump from the outer layer to the inner layer.

Delightfully, this circle works like a clock and – even more delightfully – you can buy an actual clock to remind you of the circle at all times:

However you use the circle, it is sure to treat you well, and guarantees several 'aha' moments as you go round and round.

Happy Playing / Thinking / Creating 🙂

Roz is a music teacher and our go-to person for anything music theory! When she’s not teaching or writing for Zing, Roz writes and plays in alternative/ psyche /art rock band The Roz Bruce Infusion.

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