The circle of fifths is one of the most useful musical tools around. It’s a diagram connecting all twelve tones (or twelve pitches) in Western music. This interactive circle can help you to figure out what sharps and flats are in a given key signature. It can also help you to write new and interesting chord progressions. Let’s take a look at the circle of fifths diagram and how it can improve your understanding of music.
The Circle of Fifths: a Guide
1. What’s A Perfect Fifth?
Before we dive into this tool and how it can help you understand musical relationships, it’s important to understand what a perfect fifth interval is.
“Perfect fifth” refers to the fifth note on a major scale. For instance, if we want to find the perfect fifth in relation to C, we need to first look at the C major scale:
C D E F G A B
The perfect fifth would be the fifth note in the C major scale — in this case, that would be G.
Another way to find the perfect fifth of a given note is to move forward seven semitones. A semitone is equal to a half step or movement of one fret on a guitar fingerboard.
If you’re interested in the more technical definition of a perfect fifth, it refers to a pitch ratio of 2:3 on an instrument with just intonation (like a guitar). On an instrument with equal-tempered tuning (like a piano), the pitch ratio is 1:1.5.
This interval is especially important because it is regarded as one of the most consonant (or stable) musical intervals. As a result, it is commonly used in musical compositions across genres. If you want to learn more about musical intervals, including the perfect fifth, check out this helpful video lesson!
2. What’s The Circle Of Fifths?
This circle shows you the relationships between the twelve tones in Western music. It can help you create new chord progressions from diatonic chords (chords built on notes of a given musical scale), and it also can help you understand the sharps and flats present in a given key signature. And as we’ll see in a moment, this helpful tool has several other uses.
On the circle, each note is represented by a capital letter. As you go around the circle, each note is a perfect fifth interval away from the one next to it. It’s a handy way to identify the perfect fifth of any given note quickly.
If you’ve ever seen a circle surrounded by letters (where the numbers on a clock face might be), there’s a good chance it was one showing perfect fifth intervals. In the next section, we’ll discuss how to create this valuable circle. But for some extra information on the circle and how to understand it, check out this helpful video.
3. Creating The Circle
This tool can sometimes work as an interactive circle. But to make it work for you, it’s a good idea to engage with it consciously. One way to do so is actually to draw out the circle yourself.
To create this tool, first, draw out a circle on a piece of paper. We’ll start with the note of C at the very top — where the 12 would be on a clock.
Going around the circle clockwise, we’ll go forward one perfect fifth at a time. Since we already established that G is the perfect fifth of C, put G to the right of C (where the 1 would be on a clock). The perfect fifth of G is D, so we’ll put D where a 2 would be on a clock.
From there, place an A where the three would be, an E where the 4 would be, a B where 5 would be, and an F# (or Gb) where a 6 would be.
Now we have covered half of the circle. The easiest way to fill out the rest is to return to that C at the top. Moving counter-clockwise, we’ll go down one perfect fifth at a time.
To go down a perfect fifth, you can start with C and go down seven semitones (or half steps) to F. Then go down another seven semitones to Bb (A#), another seven to Eb (D#), another to Ab (G#), and another to Db (C#). Now the 12 tones are distributed around the circle.
Before going forward, make sure you understand enharmonic equivalents. An enharmonic equivalent is a note that is the same pitch as another note but has a different name.
For example, you might see “F#/Gb at the bottom of some circles of fifths.” That’s because F# and Gb sound like exactly the same note. But depending on the musical context, that note may be written as F# or Gb. Check out this helpful video if you’d like to see someone draw out this circle. Let’s now take a look at memorizing it.
4. Remembering The Circle
You might not always have the entire circle right in front of you, so you may want to work on memorizing it. That might sound pointless, but being able to instantly recall the perfect fifth of any note or chord is an impressive skill to have if you play music with other people or write songs.
If you want to try and learn the circle progression by heart, a mnemonic device might help. When you first learned to tune the six guitar strings, you may have had an instructor who suggested you use “Edgar Ate Dynamite Good Bye Edgar.”
You can learn the circle using the same method, although it may take a little more time. Starting at the C and moving clockwise, you can memorize the first seven notes with the phrase “Charles Goes Dancing At Every Big Fun Celebration.”
There is a bit of a catch here, though. The last two notes in the phrase are actually F# and C#. Remember that these notes also have enharmonic equivalents, so you may see them written as Gb and Db.
To memorize the rest of the circle, you can start at C and go counterclockwise. You can use Charles Falls Behind Everyone At Disc Golf Courses with this one.
If you go this way, C & F are not sharp or flat, but the rest of the notes are flat. So this mnemonic covers C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb.
For more suggestions on memorizing and using the circle, check out this helpful video!
5. Using The Circle Of Fifths: Relative Majors And Minors
If you’ve done any work on major scales or minor scales, you’re probably used to the concept of relative majors and minors. A relative major and relative minor key have the exact same key signature, so they contain the same notes.
That’s why you can use scales in relative minor keys to play over songs in major keys. The reverse is true as well. If a song is in a minor key, you can play using the relative major scale.
It’s hard for most people to recall relative minor keys off the top of their heads. But luckily, you can use the circle to help. If you need to know the relative minor key of a major key, find the major key on the circle and then move three spaces to the right.
For example, if you’re in the key of C major, the relative minor is A.
If a song is in a minor key, you can find the relative major by moving three spaces left. If you want to learn more about relative majors and minors, check out this great video!
6. Using The Circle Of Fifths: Key Signatures
Knowing how many sharps and how many flats are in a given key signature is quite useful. And when it comes to sharp key signatures and flat key signatures, a good general rule is this” the further you go down on the right side of the circle, the more sharps are in the key signature. As you go further down on the left side, you have more flats in the key signature.
When you look at the circle, remember that the C at the top has no sharps or flats in the key signature. As you move to the right, your key signature gets one more sharp each note. This holds true for the first seven notes (no key signature will have more than seven sharps or flats).
The left side works similarly; you get one more flat in your key signature per note as you go counterclockwise.
Of course, to really understand key signatures, you need more than just the circle. But in many cases, it’s a valuable tool for differentiating closely related keys! If you’d like to go more in-depth with using the circle as a key signature tool, check out this helpful video!
7. Using The Circle: Four-Chord Songs
We mentioned earlier that the circle is a great tool for creating chord progressions. You can go very in-depth with this topic, but we’ll focus on using diatonic chords to create four-chord songs. Many folk songs and pop songs use four simple chords.
If you’re stuck in a rut while writing music and want to try writing in a new key, using the circle is a great way to do so. First, pick your key. We will use D major as an example.
Our first chord is the key the song is in, so it’s D major. The next chord is the relative minor (three spaces right). That would be B minor. The other two chords are the ones to the immediate left and right of your first chord. These would be G major and A major.
This pattern works for major and minor key chord progressions. Of course, if you have an interesting pattern in mind that doesn’t fit a formula, use it! In writing music, it’s a good idea to let your ear be your guide.
If you want an even more specialized tool for songwriting, a chord wheel will show you the chords corresponding to various scale degrees. This tool starts with a circle of fifths, but there is a transparent, movable overlay that you can turn to the relevant key.
From there, you will have an instant understanding of some of the most logical chords to use in a chord progression (as well as how to use them).
Check out this video to learn more about chord wheels and how to use them.
8. Using The Circle: Tritones
This use of the circle is probably not quite as common as some of the other uses. But you can use it to find out the tritone interval of any given note.
But what’s a tritone? This is a note that is six semitones (three tones) away from the root note. Tritones are sometimes called the “devil’s interval.” And if you check out this informative video, you’ll understand why! Tritones don’t make an appearance in music too terribly often.
But if you’re working on a composition where you need to cultivate a sense of unease, one of these bizarre, sinister intervals might be just what you need.
To find the tritone, all you need to do is select a note and then move directly across the circle. For instance, if you want to know the tritone interval of G, you just move straight across the circle to Db. So, G and Db have a tritone interval between them — there’s a reason these chords don’t appear together in songs all that often!
Want to Learn More?
Whether you want to work on your major scales, understand scale degree relationships, or build your understanding of any given key signature, an online music course can help. Many of these courses go pretty in-depth with music theory for those who are interested. They also can teach you almost any genre of music. If you’re self-motivated and really want to learn on your own time, it’s worth giving them a shot!
Now that you’re more familiar with this circle of capital letters, we hope that you’ll be able to use the circle of fifths as a tool to improve your own understanding of music. Do you have any tips or insights for those who might just be learning about this tool for the first time? Let us know in the comments, and please don’t forget to like and share if you found this article useful!