What is the Circle of Fifths?
The Circle of Fifths is a visual representation of the 12 chromatic scale pitches, their major and minor keys, and their time signatures.
There is a lot of information packed into the Circle of Fifths, but its straightforward design makes this information simple to digest. That being said, understanding what each point on the circle means can take some time and practice. Once you have a grasp on it, you can use the Circle of Fifths for all sorts of music-related tasks. Gathering information on the Circle of Fifths is the first step toward unlocking new skills and abilities in music.
Musicians and composers have a great deal of memorization that they must do to be able to analyze, play, and write music. Especially for beginners, memorizing scales, keys, and time signatures is a daunting task.
The Circle of Fifths is an exceptionally helpful tool in memorization because it provides a straightforward visual that you can refer to quickly.
Image from MusicNotes.com
This diagram is called the Circle of Fifths because the interval between each tone marked on the circle is a fifth.
- The outer circle starts with C major in the “12 o’clock” position and goes up one fifth as you travel clockwise.
- The inner circle starts with A minor in the “12 o’clock” position and also goes up one fifth as you travel clockwise.
You may hear about the “Circle of Fourths”. This name comes from what happens when you move counterclockwise around the Circle of Fifths. Counterclockwise, the notes go down one perfect fourth. So, people may refer to it as the Circle of Fourths when the counterclockwise pattern is focused on. “Wheel of Fifths” is another common alternate name for the Circle of Fifths, so it’s used infrequently.
Image from MusicNotes.com
Simply put, the Circle of Fifths is one of the most practical, productive resources for growing your musical knowledge and skills, fast. For those aiming to advance in music quickly, check out our article How to Practice Piano Efficiently - Insanely Actionable Tips and Advice. It’s packed with insights on structuring an effective piano practice regimen for your individual needs.
Why Was The Circle of Fifths Created?
The roots of the Circle of Fifths can be traced back to the mathematical findings of Pythagoras around 600 BC. His Pythagorean Circle, based upon the ratios separating notes in music, is the foundation upon which today’s Circle of Fifths was built. Although, it’s important to note that the name “The Pythagorean Circle” may still be used interchangeably with “The Circle of Fifths” today.
Pythagoras quantified an octave by studying different pitch frequencies. He set various lengths of string into vibration to understand the connection between string length and pitch. From this, Pythagoaras learned that an octave has a ratio of two to one, as the note produced from the string vibration goes up one octave when its length is cut in half. The Pythagorean Circle has twelve points, each with a measured pitch.
The creation of the Circle of Fifths as we know it today can be attributed to Nikolai Diletskii. A composer hailing from Russia, Diletskii used the circle in an exposition to illustrate the link between keys in music and the 5th interval. Over time, the circle has become a building block of music theory in the West and is considered a crucial tool for music composition.
The Parts of the Circle of Fifths Explained
You’ll see on a Circle of Fifths chart that there are two main rings: an outer circle and an inner circle. Depending on how a Circle of 5ths is written, given that different musicians and composers have different ways of creating their circle, there may also be a third circle displaying the music notation version of any given key. Or, the additional outermost circle may show the number of sharps or flats for each key.
In the Circle of Fifths, every note is a perfect fifth away from its adjacent notes. A perfect fifth, or any perfect interval, has an especially pleasing sound when played. Perfect intervals are harmonious because of their even ratios to the full octave. A perfect fifth has a ratio of 2:3.
The Outer Circle
As we’ve already touched on earlier in this article, the outer circle displays the twelves scales in the major keys, each one a perfect fifth apart when you travel clockwise around the circle.
Starting with C major in the 12 o’clock position, the outer circle progresses clockwise in this order: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#/Gb/ Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F
The Inner Circle
The inner circle displays the twelve scales in the minor keys, which are separated by a perfect fifth, just like the outer circle.
Starting with A minor in the 12 o’clock position, the outer circle progresses clockwise in this order: a, e, b, f#, c#, g#, d#/eb, bb, f, c, g, d.
Sharps and Flats
C major and A minor are in the 12 o’clock position because these two scales don’t have sharps or flats. Then, as you travel clockwise around the circle, the number of sharps that each major and minor scale has rises by one. As you travel counterclockwise around the circle, the number of flats for each key rises by one.
At the bottom of the circle, you’ll see that three keys have alternate notations: B also has Cb, Gb also has F#, and Db also has C#. These are eharmonic keys, and while both notes have the same pitch, they vary in whether they are notated with sharps or flats. Basically, eharmonic notes are the same note when played, but they appear different on paper. Typically, musicians opt for spelling a key with flats.
How to Use the Circle of Fifths
The Circle of Fifths outlines a high volume of information in a single diagram. Thus, it may be used for many purposes. The main uses for the Circle of Fifths are outlined in detail below.
The Circle of Fifths may be used to understand various characteristics of each of the twelve chromatic scales, namely the number of sharps and flats for a scale, the notes in each chord, and relative minor keys.
Finding Notes in a Chord
One reason why the Circle of Fifths is so helpful to songwriters is that is can be used to find the notes in a chord. This takes the guesswork out of finding complimentary notes to create the chorus or hook of your next song.
You can build both major and minor chords from a Circle of Fifths chart. To find a major chord, you would start with your root note on the outer circle. Then, go down to the corresponding minor note. Continue with the note directly to the right of it in the circle. You may create a longer chord by continuing to travel clockwise around the circle, adding each note in turn.
Creating a minor chord involves the same process, but you would just start with a minor root. Go up to the corresponding major note, then move clockwise around the circle to build your chord.
Determining Sharps and Flats
As previously mentioned, the number of sharps for any given scale grows by one as you move clockwise around the circle, and the number of flats in a scale grows by one moving counterclockwise. You can use this pattern to find the number of sharps and flats for a scale as you’re memorizing, composing, or analyzing music.
To use the circle for this purpose, always remember that the C major key contains just natural notes, no sharps or flats (this is a reason behind its position at the top of the circle). The maximum number of sharps or flats in a key is seven. So, B major has seven flats; E major is the key to the right of it, and it has no flats. D-flat major has seven sharps; A-flat major is the key to the left of it, and it has no sharps.
Relative Minor Keys
Each major key has a relative minor key. The relative minor key will share an identical time signature with the major key, meaning that it will also share the same notes. To find the relative minor key, you need to start with the major key tonic, then go up a major sixth up or a minor third down.
The Circle of Fifths provides a visual tool for finding relative minor keys. Just find the major tonic on the circle, then travel three notes clockwise around the circle. The key that you land upon will be the relative minor.
Find Harmonic Relationships Between Chords
The Circle of Fifths is a helpful and widely used tool in songwriting because it enables you to quickly find scales and keys that will pair well together. Scales that are adjacent on the circle are complementary because some of the notes that they include will overlap. For example, E major and B major are next to each other in the circle and share the following notes: B, C#, D#, E, F#, and G#.
The closer two scales are to each other on the Circle of Fifths, the more consonant they will be when played in succession. Conversely, the further two scales are from each other in the circle, the more likely they are to conflict in sound.
If you’re seeking out tips on playing piano chords to take your skills to the next level, read our article How to Play Piano Chords - A Beginner’s Guide. It will give you the guidance and detailed information that you need to start playing piano chords with confidence.
Find Key Signatures
You can find any major scale directly on the Circle of Fifths. This is a fantastic cheat for beginner musicians because it means that key signatures don’t have to be memorized. To read a scale, first locate the scale, then move one position counterclockwise. Starting with that position, count off seven notes moving clockwise around the circle. You can copy down any major scale with this method.
In piano, the seven notes that you count off that are included in the scale correspond with the white keys of the piano. Five notes will be left out, meaning that they’re not included in the scale. These notes correspond with the black keys on a piano.
Transpose Music From One Key to Another
Transposition requires you to change the notes in one scale to the notes of another. This maintains the harmonic pattern but alters the key in which its played to account for different instruments, musicians, etc.
The Circle of Fifths is highly useful in transposition because it helps you find the correct notes for a whole piece. Without the circle to refer to, transposition can become tedious, and the risk of making a mistake will be higher.
For example, consider that you need to transpose a piece with three chords: C - F - G. You need to change the piece from the key of C to the key of D, which is two half-steps up. To do this transposition, you would, starting with C, locate each note on the outer circle and move two places to the left. So, C would become D, F would become G, and G would become A for a transposition of D - G - A.
How to Memorize the Circle of Fifths
To fully enjoy all of the benefits that the Circle of Fifths has to offer, you should have it memorized. This is especially important for songwriters and composers, as being able to access the information off the top of your head will allow the create process to flow freely.
You don’t have to be an expert musician to memorize the Circle of Fifths. Here, you’ll find a comprehensive list of memorization tips to speed up the process and have you analyzing, transposing, and writing music in no time.
The Circle of Fifths is an incredible memorization tool for budding pianists, but it’s not the only resource available to you. Check out our article Easy Ways to Memorize Piano Notes for an in-depth exploration on memorization techniques to benefit aspiring pianists.
Use an Acronym or Other Mnemonic Device
Mnemonic devices are some of the best memorization tools that we have. A mnemonic device is simply a learning tactic designed to aid in memorization. A classic example of this is ROY G BIV to remember the colors of the rainbow, or “I before e, except after c” to remember a grammar rule in the English language. Mnemonic devices are easy to memorize and remember - when you’re trying to recall information, you can use the device to spur the memory of more complex, tricky-to-memorize concepts.
Mnemonic devices are one main way to answer the question of how to memorize the Circle of fifths. There are plenty of existing acronyms that you can use to memorize the order of the notes around the circle. The classic example is “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle”. This acronym will help you recall the order of the sharps by taking the first letter of each word. To list out the flat keys, this acronym may simply be reversed: “Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles”.
While there are many established acronyms to remember the Circle of Fifths, you can also make up one of your own! Creating your own acronym is often more effective for memorization because it will come naturally to you. Always remember that C marks the first major key in the 12 o’clock position. Start here, and the rest will follow.
Write, Write, Write
Copying down the order of the major and minor keys on paper is a good memorization tactic. Often, writing down the information that you’re trying to memorize will help you retain the information, as it forces you to repeat the order to yourself again and again. The great aspect of this memorization trick is that it doesn’t take much time or effort, but it’s highly effective.
Have a Physical Copy
Print out a few copies of a Circle of Fifths PDF so that you always have one within reach when you need it. You can put one on your desk at home, one at the office, carry one in your backpack or briefcase, put one beside the piano, etc.
When all is said and done, frequent and consistent studying of the circle is the best way to deeply ingrain new information in your brain. So, encourage yourself to look at the Circle of Fifths as much as possible by keeping a copy of it nearby every place where you may work on music. You’ll find that when you look over the circle at least once per day, the information will start to become like second nature.
Study the Circle Before Bed
You may have heard it before: studying before bed is one of the most effective ways to learn new information. Compared to staying awake for several hours after studying, research shows that sleeping after learning boosting both memory and information retention. So, before you go to bed at night, pull out a copy of the Circle of Fifths and reviews the order of the notes, the flats and sharps, etc. By making this a habit, you’ll be able to memorize the Circle of Fifths incredibly quickly and efficiently.
Applications of the Circle of Fifths
Music composed in the Western region of the world is rooted in the Circle of Fifths. Past and present musical legends have based pieces of their music on the circle, from Beethoven to Beyonce, Schubert to Johnny Cash. The prominence of the Circle of Fifths in popular music is unsurprising considering its melodic pattern.
The Circle of Fifths Progression
There is a classic eight-note progression made up of the notes of the Circle of Fifths, in the order that you get when you travel clockwise around the circle. Since each note is a perfect fifth apart and are naturally ordered to complement each other, the Circle of Fifths progression is especially harmonious.
The Circle of Fifths progression was mainly used during the Baroque musical era. Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel are three of the most well-known composers to use it in their works. But, it’s not a progression of the past; successful artists in the modern music world have incorporated it in their work, too, including Lionel Ritchie, Lin-manuel Miranda, Gloria Gaynor, and Armin Van Buuren.
Circle of Fifths chord progressions have been used throughout history by the world’s greatest composers, and it will continue to be used by future generations. Its harmonic, complementary sound provides an ideal starting point for epic compositions. As a beginner songwriter, consider utilizing a Circle of Fifths progression to help spark your creativity. It’s hard to go wrong with this tried-and-true succession of chords.
If you’re seeking additional piano chord progressions to help improve your songwriting skills, read our article on that here. This article provides useful tips and a huge selection of chord progression examples to give your skills in music composition a boost.
A remarkable tool for musicians, the Circle of Fifths contains the information needed for the memorization, composition, notation, and analysis of music. No matter what age you are, how much experience you have, or what instrument you play, the Circle of Fifths presents distinct benefits as a sidekick to your musical endeavors. Even the best, most accomplished musicians throughout history have used the Circle of Fifths in their work - as an aid to develop beautiful, harmonious combinations of notes, the ability of this chart is virtually unmatched.
With time and practice, the Circle of Fifths will become second nature. So, practice, practice, practice! When you’re passionate about music, memorization of the circle will come easily. With the insights of the circle under your belt, you’ll have the tools that you need to soar as a musician.