What is Circle of Fifths? Explained

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Written By Tanya

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If you are willing to understand what they are looking at, the Circle of Fifths is a great shortcut for all songwriters. Once you are able to grasp the key signatures and chord variations, you can dance around them like you own private playground.

The Circle of Fifths discussion is mostly for intermediate and beginner music theorists. However, it’s difficult to avoid using technical jargon that may be unfamiliar to a beginner when explaining the topic.

We will keep it simple and explain any new terms as much as we can.

We will take you on a wild ride as we explore the meaning of the Circle of Fifths and how to exploit it in your songwriting and music theory efforts.

This is the truth. You might not use it initially. There are many ways you can understand chord progressions and key signatures. You will also find other techniques to help you stay on track.

Once you’ve got a good grasp of everything in the circular friend, there’s no better way to organize it all in your head quickly than this.

Exposure is the most important aspect. The first step in mastering this tool is to know it exists. Mastery is achieved by seeing it and using it repeatedly, much like learning to play your instrument or write songs.

You will find that your music and other musical endeavors will be greatly influenced by this same energy.

The following patterns are common to Western music. Other cultural styles may follow them in their own ways. It can be used in tons of modes such as the Ionian major scales, Lydion and Dorian, Phrygian, and many others.

The doors to sophisticated songwriting are open once you understand how to manipulate it in your head.

Quick Histories: In his 1670’s treatise about composition, the Grammatika, Nikolai Diletskii invented the Circle of Fifths. Johann David Heinichen, a 1728-based chemist, improved the design and gave us the current version.

How does it all work? This can be simplified by first explaining the components, then describing the uses for them. This will make it easy to see the whole picture. This is the complete Circle. Click Here to Download the Printable Full Resolution Circle of Fifths

This is the web version. You can print a full-resolution version of the web page by following the link in the caption. You can print the PDF file on regular 8.5×11 inch printer paper, and it will look sharp and crisp. It can be laminated and left on your desk. Once it is folded up, you can put it in your pocket and make great use of it.

We’ll show you below the best interactive circle (or you can click here: The Chord Wheel). It has a spinning transparency that you can use in your songwriting studio.

The basic building blocks of the Circle of Fifths

The key signature is the first of these patterns. A key is a group of seven notes, collectively known as a scale. A specific relationship between the notes creates the scale.

These relationships can be different depending on whether you are in a major scale or a minor scale. It goes deeper but we’re staying with the diatonic scale! ).

You’ll reach the eighth note when you hit the scale. This is the tonic. Now you’re one octave more. You’ll hear the same tone if you play the tonic and then the first octave higher. They still sound fantastic.

This is consonance. Because of the mathematical relationship between the notes, they sound harmonious together to our ears. This is dissonance if they appear to clash.

Chords consist of a series of notes that are all in consonance and are pleasing. The root is the basic form of a chord. It includes the third and fifth above it.

To create a bass melody, you can duplicate a note (usually the root), and invert chords or other tricks. It is all built around chords, and it’s much easier than it sounds.

To introduce the fifth, I had to build the conversation to chords. Based on how many semitones are above the root of the fifth, there are three types:

  • Perfect fifths (7 semitones)
  • Diminished fifths (6 semitones).
  • Augmented fifths (8 semitones).

The Circle of Fifths only deals with perfect fifths that are oriented clockwise around the circle. You’ll find the perfect fourth from the root if you go counterclockwise. This is why the Circle of Fourths is sometimes referred to.

Rotating to the right makes it more intuitive and allows you to think in the perfect fifth interval. This is how clocks work. It uses the Western equal temperament tuning system that we all use for tonal music.

If you are still not sure what a fifth interval means, take a look at a picture of a piano keyboard with Middle C. Next, count seven white keys to your right. You’ll be back at C on the 8th count.

Now you have an octave. Consider each count as a “half-step” and add the black keys. You’ll now have a perfect fifth.

It is “perfect” because it doesn’t have major or minor chords, and can be used in both major and minor scales. You’ll find yourself landing on each scale degree by counting in seven half-steps and referring to the Circle of Fifths image.

This is how fretted instruments and the piano keyboard work. The fretboard’s frets are also laid out in this manner, with a different explanation of how they travel around the circle.

A QUICK MUSIC THEORY DETOUR

The circle does not include all 12 tones on the chromatic spectrum, even though I am referring to the 7 scale degrees. A few will also include the key signatures of all major and minor keys.

You can dig deeper by looking up pitch-class space or pitch class. They are both built on the same chromatic circle.

It is a great way to use geometry to visualize the relationship among tons of musical concepts.

It works perfectly even in equal temperament tuning systems, by slightly flattening a perfect fifth to a 3:1 interval ratio (with regard to its just intonation).

It is true that without this flattening, it misses closing circle by 23.46 Cents. This is approximately 1/4th of a semitone.

You might enjoy this journey so far. If you are interested in Pythagorean and the Wolf fifth tunings, which are extremely dissonant intervals, please visit our website. This is a great way to learn, even in non-equal systems such as the quarter-comma meantone tuned system, 5-limit tuning and 53 equal temperament.

It just works. It is one of the most beautiful tools ever made. It can even be translated into the diatonic chords, as the circle progression. It’s incredible, I swear.

Examples of how to use the Circle of 5ths

If composers didn’t have practical uses for this thing, it wouldn’t have survived past the 17th century. It clearly outlines diatonic function.

Richard Franko Goldman, a musical theorist, maintains that the Circle of 5ths applies from J. S. Bach through Richard Wagner. The circle can accommodate all of the work of greats throughout history.

The entire common practice period, which began with Baroque music and continues to the Barbershop Harmony Society and Carlos Santana use it. It is not something to be dismissed. They just don’t want it.

But don’t panic. It’s unlikely that you will ever use the entire circle in one song. Let’s look at some of these harmonic functions, which are the fundamental elements of any musical composition.

CHORD PROGRESSIONS

The:

I – IV- V – I

You’ll see two things when you examine the progression. These are Roman numerals, and they all use capital letters to denote each degree of scale.

Roman numerals can be used in music theory as a way to denote notes in a scale or chord, and in this instance the chords in a key. Major chords and minor chords are distinguished by capital letters and lower case letters.

We are now looking at the major chords in a key that is built on the fourth, fifth, and fifth. You’ll be able to recognize each one if you go through them in the 12 main major and minor keys of Western music. It’s likely that you will also hear a familiar cadence. Praise tonality.

It’s also interesting to note that if you find your Circle’s tonic, you have already found the 4th and 5th chords in the key. You can then create a catchy tune in under 10 seconds.

Find the tonic for your key. Let’s take, for example, the G-Major common folk key. You will find the 5th chord in the G-Major Key if you move clockwise. You’ll find the 4th chord if you move counterclockwise.

Below, you can see how it works in C-Major

Each key has only three major chords. With the help of our friend, The Circle, you were able to identify all three within seconds. If you move in any direction, you’ll find the 2nd or 7th chords. This part of your circle expands the range of chords you can use to create progressions.

Sticking to this side will ensure that you have a consistent chord progression for your song. You can also create cadences or even harmony if you follow the rules. You can also use other people, but this requires some skill and study.

Remember how I spoke of harmonic function? You can hear and see musically that the dominant chord V is closer to the tonic than the supertonic chord ii, even though you might think otherwise if you examine the musical staff. This is yet another example of the utility of the Circle of Fifths, especially when it is explained.

This means that an authentic cadence such as I – ii–V – I feels more resolved (has greater resolution) than a plagal one like I ­ IV – I.

This is because, although the V chord and the IV chord are “one step” from the tonic on the circle, you can see that the IV chord is further away when you look at the distance clockwise around it. Interesting stuff. This diagram was created by a genius.

FIND THE RELATED MINOR OR MAJOR OF a KEY

Each major key has a relative key. This means that both keys use exactly the same notes, even any accidentals such as flats or sharps.

They have a different tone and the distance between them has been altered. The relative key can still be used because they are the same notes.

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Pro Tip: I love to use the relative minor and major keys to create a bridge for a song. The song will sound the same, but it will give you the opposite mood. This is a great juxtaposition you can use to surprise your audience and lead into the chorus with the correct lyrics.

To find the relative minor of the major key, you only need to move 90 degrees to your right or 3 steps clockwise. You can move from a minor to the relative major by doing the opposite. You’re done!

If your Circle is labeled as ours, you will find the relative key on the circle’s inside. C-Major has a relative minor of A-Minor, G’Major has a relative minor of E-minor and so forth.

This method has one problem, but it is easily fixed by using the Circle of 5ths. Major keys are usually named with a flat accidental such as Eb, which can be read as E-flat except for F# ( F-sharp).

To name minor keys, minor keys use sharp accidentals mainly except for Bb. This is due to the number of semitones used in chord construction.

D-flat major key might have Db as its root, but C-sharp minor does. C# and Db are exactly the same note, but they’re named differently.

You’ll be able to identify which name you should use and which key signature to use once you are more familiar with each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys.

TRANSPOSING SONGS TO THE FLY USING A CIRCLE

You can quickly transpose songs if you know the song’s melody and can just play it on a piano, or strum the chords on a guitar for your non-musician friends.

Transposition is used when a song is too difficult for a singer to sing. It is very similar to modulation. People often confuse the words and use them interchangeably.

You just need to find the tonic key that you wish to use. This is usually one or two steps above the current key. Then you can grab the chords straight off the circle.

Similar to the chord progressions example, this is also true. You know that the song is a I-IV – V-I, so you can find your new key. The I is one step down, the IV is one step up, and the V is one step ahead.

Let’s move from a C Major song with the I-IV-V – I progression to the exact same in B-Major.

You can instantly jump to another key by rotating the circle!

After practicing it several times, you will quickly be able to remember this. You can also keep the printed circle in your pocket.

COUNTING THE FLATS & SHARPS IN EACH KEY

It is a difficult task to remember which major or minor key has which number of flats, sharps, and which notes. This task is made easier by the Circle of Fifths.

C-Major, or 12 o’clock on a watch face of the circle, is the starting point. Every step that you take clockwise adds one sharp towards its key signature.

This means that G-Major is one sharp, D–Major two sharps and A-Major three sharps. You can continue this seven more times until you have no sharps.

You can continue the same process, but move counterclockwise to add one flat for each step. Starting with the natural C Major, we will move one step to F Major with one flat. We move on to B-flat Major, which has two flats. Continue this until you reach B-flat Major with two flats.

This is done with the major keys outside the Circle and the minor keys inside the Circle. It is important to remember that you start at 12 o’clock every day.

KNOWING WHERE TO PUT THESE INCIDENTALS ON THE CIRCLE

We’ve included a simple to read chart at bottom of the poster. Below, you can remember the pattern of how many flats and sharps each key has, and their order on the staff.

First, notice that the order in which accidentals are placed around the Circle is counter-clockwise for flats and sharps. Both follow the same pattern. This is because the word “bead”, which is in the Circle, is there.

BEADGCF

This is the exact order in which flats were added. You will see the order of sharps if you turn it around.

KEY SIGNATURE TRICK TO ACCIDENTAL LABELING

This is useful if there’s not much time to count the Circle. But here’s another way to save time. This trick is useful if you are transcribing, or someone asks what the accidentals are for a specific key.

To make sharps, you just need to take the tonic of a key and subtract one semitone (a step). You will now have the last key note that contains a sharp. We mean last in the order FCGDAEB. Here’s an example.

Sharps To find A#, we need to start with B, subtract one semitone, and then move on to B-Major. We now cycle through the Circle, starting at F. This shows us that B-Major contains 5 sharps: F# C# G# D# and finally A#.

There is also a trick that works for flats. You can also use the tonic of a key to jump backwards a fifth onto the Circle by going counterclockwise one step. This will again be the last key note that has a flat. Flats are the last note in the BEADGCF order. This example will help you understand:

Flats To create the key signature of D-flat Major we must start with Db. We go backwards five times to Gb. BEADGCF states that this key contains five flats. We now cycle around the Circle clockwise, starting at B, adding E, A and D, and then finally, G. These are our five flats.

These tricks are so helpful that you will eventually be able to remember them without the need for shortcuts.

Mnemonic Devices to Remember the Circle of Fifths

A mnemonic device can be used to store information in your memory. To help you remember the order of your notes, there are several for the circle. These cases allow us to create a phrase with imagery. The first letter of each word represents one of the notes that moves around the wheel in either clockwise or counter-clockwise.

  • Father Charles Ends the Battle and Goes Down
  • Father Christmas gave Dad an electric blanket
  • Fat Cats Eat Bacon in Alleys
  • Fair Cinderella goes down at Every Ball
  • Funky Chickens Dance and Eat Burgers
  • Good Dogs Eat Before Furry Cats
  • Five Large Elephants Drag Garbage Cans (flats)
  • Big Elephants Drive Fast Go Carts
  • The Battle is Over, and Charles Father Goes Down

You can see that there are many mnemonic devices, even dirty ones, to help you remember. You can choose one of the ones listed above, or create your own.

Two of the above are bolded. These two mnemonic devices also represent the order of sharps (GDAEBFC), and flats (FBEADGC), for major scales. For minor scales, you can also make them. They are the same order but come from a different starting place.

Interactive Circle of Fifth Chart with Minors/ Majors & Flats/ Sharps

There have been many attempts to create interactive charts using wheels. These wheels can be spun around to help visualize the Circle for any key. They are useless for keyboard and guitar, I have seen them.

The tried-and-true The Circle of Fifths Chord wheel by Jim Fleser is the final and most reliable. The Chord Wheel is the Ultimate Tool for All Musicians

The Ultimate Tool For All Musicians is also known as . It expands on our Circle of Fifths Chart in two ways.

  • It is interactive and has transparent overlays that help you stay on track.
  • You have two additional outer rings, which give you more chord progression options.

You’ll be able to see that it’s rearranging the remainder of the Circle above the IV, V and I in a way that doesn’t require you to do any mental gymnastics or rearranging it in your mind. It’s a great way to practice quickly for less than the cost of lunch

You can also see enharmonically similar chords and keys. This is useful if you have memorized it differently than how we display it. F# / Bb is an example of enharmonic equivalents. They are located at the 6 o’clock position on circle.

Both keys are identical, but they are written differently. F-sharp minor contains six sharps, while G-flat major has six flats on various notes. These notes create the same key.

You get the wheel at the front of a 12-page booklet. It teaches you how it works beyond what you can see. This is a brief summary of the information we have discussed in this article.

This format is great because it makes the wheel more rigid and heavier as you use it. It can also be stored together with your music theory books when it’s not being used.

This is the Circle of Fifths explained!

While the best studio monitors or best headphones may improve your audio clarity, they will not help you identify the keys and chords that you are hearing. The Circle…

The Circle of Fifths can help you with chord progressions, transpose songs, transcribing music or remember which keys have what accidentals. practice is all you need.

It is worth keeping The Chord Wheel book and our printable PDF handy. Finally, you will have the Circle in your head and ready to go.

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