When you first start to learn music theory, it can seem daunting. We have all been there, and at times you ask yourself, can I do this? Is it all worth it? Or, What is a fifth, anyway?
The answer to the first two questions is yes, you can, but it just takes a little bit of effort and application. The answer to ‘what is a fifth’ will be explained very soon in this guide. What we are going to do here is look at something that can help you in your music studies and your songwriting.
That’s why it’s so important to know The Circle Of Fifths: A Complete Guide. And I will be taking an in-depth look at all the information and how to apply it that you will need to understand this piece of theory.
Where Did It Come From?
It was created in about 1670 by a Ukrainian musician, Nikolay Diletsky, who wanted to help musicians and songwriters in their work. It is a brilliant tool that has a variety of uses, all of which are relevant to your musical development.
But what will The Circle Of Fifths actually give you?
For a start, there are some basic things it will help you with, such as…
- Chord Progressions.
- What chords will sound good together?
- What are the key signatures and the sharps and flats for each?
- What is the relative minor for each of the 12 major chords?
What is The Circle of Fifths?
Although music can have plenty of improvisation and progressions, there is a basic structure to it. If you are serious about your music, then an understanding of the basic underlying structure of music is important.
There are plenty of structures, forms, and formats you will learn as you progress, but this is all about just one, The Circle of Fifths.
It Is What It Implies
It is a circle that on the face of it looks just like a clock face. It is a system that connects all of the twelve tones that we find that make up modern Western music.
And because it is visual in its presentation and representation, you can immediately see the relationship between these tones. You will be able to construct chord patterns that will sound good when played together and instantly see the key signature of any minor or major key.
This makes it an important tool to use for understanding and the application of some of the structures in music.
So let’s make a start in building your circle of fifths.
If you are very new to music, you may be thinking, what is a fifth? It isn’t complicated to understand. It is the fifth note of a diatonic scale. A diatonic scale, also sometimes called a ‘Heptatonic’ scale, is a scale with seven notes.
For example, if we take the scale of C, the seven notes in that scale are C – D – E – F – G – A, and B.
So to find the fifth note of the scale of C, we simply count the notes up to five-
C = 1.
D = 2.
E = 3.
F = 4.
G = 5.
Therefore, the ‘fifth’ of C is the note of G. In notation terms; it looks like this…
You will often see it referred to as a ‘perfect fifth.’ This rule applies to every key. A fifth of the scale of G is D, and so on.
All My Life’s A Circle
So sang Harry Chapin, and now that you know what a ‘fifth’ is, let’s ‘build’ our circle. There are twelve notes, and the letters are inserted into the twelve spaces on the clock face. However, a clock has a conventional placing of 1,2 3,4, etc. In the Circle of Fifths, the notes are all separated by ‘perfect 5th’ intervals and are not consecutive like a clock.
Let’s start by placing the ‘C’ where the ‘12’ would be on your clock. Moving to the right, we need to place the next note where the number ‘1’ would be. As we are moving up in fifths, this would be ‘G’ as we have already seen.
You can then proceed to enter all the notes on the clock face. Number 2 on your clock will be the fifth note of the diatonic scale of ‘G,’ which is a ‘D.’ For the number 3, we will enter the fifth note of ‘D,’ which is ‘A.’
Continue on until you have reached where number 6 would be on your clock. The notes you should have written in your ‘circle of fifths’ clock face are,
- 12 – C.
- 1 – G.
- 2 – D.
- 3 – A.
- 4 – E.
- 5 – B.
- 6 – F#
Each note rising as the perfect fifth in the scale of the note before. It should look like this…
From here, with half of the circle complete, you can do one of two things. You can carry on in the same pattern until you get back to ‘C’ or ‘12’ on your clock. Or you can stop at F# and go back to ‘C’ and then come ‘down‘ the clock face to the left as you look at it. The next insert would therefore be at ‘11’.
As you added the fifth note of the scale from ‘C’ upward to get ‘G.’ If you come down the other side of your clock, you enter downward. The number 11 on your clock would therefore go down a perfect fifth.
Working out what is perfect 5th below is a slightly different process. Let me explain two musical terms first. Half-Step, Step, and Enharmonic Equivalents.
A Half Step
Sometimes called a semitone, it is the smallest interval between notes. For example, C to C# is a half-step.
As you might guess, a step is two half steps, C to D, for example. That incorporates C to C# to D, two half steps.
There are notes that have the same meanings expressed in different ways; these are known as enharmonic equivalents. As an example, if you take the note of G and go up one-half step, the note becomes G#.
But if you look at the notation, a G# is also the same as an Ab. Exactly the same note but a different wording to describe it. That is an enharmonic equivalent.
The Perfect 5th Below
To work out a perfect 5th below a note, let’s say C, you count down seven half steps or semitones. Starting at C, that would give you an ‘F’ or a fifth below.
The process can then be repeated from F, seven half steps down, gives Bb, and so on until you have your clock completed.
Should You Memorize Them All?
It would be useful to have them stored away in your memory banks, but after a while of using them, you will automatically know yourself.
You can remember the notes and other information in the Circle Of Fifths purely from memory, or you can create your own mnemonic device using the letters of the notes in the circle.
That is a phrase that is a sentence where the letters C – G – D – A – E – B – F, and C, are the first letters of the words in that sentence. You may already know mnemonics from learning the stave lines on sheet music, E – G – B – D – F, or using a mnemonic Every, Good, Boy, Deserves, Fruit’.
It is the same principle, and you can make up your own mnemonic that you can easily remember.
The Circle Of Fifths: A Complete Guide – What Else Can You Use The Circle of Fifths For?
There are a few other useful ways that the Circle of Fifths can be used. Let’s take a quick look at key signatures.
The Key Signature
If you look at the top of the circle, the C scale has no sharps or flats. As you look down the right side of your circle, you will notice that as you go down, you get more sharps for the key signature.
One sharp is added each time you move down a note until you reach F# (or Gb, whichever you prefer to call it), which has a maximum of six sharps (or flats).
Going down on the left side, you get more flats as you move toward the bottom. Again an extra sharp for every note
Relative Major and Minor Keys
The Circle of Fifths can be used to easily work out the relative minor of any key. As an example, take C (which is C major). To work out the relative minor for C major, move three spaces on your circle to the right.
That is from C to G to D and then to A. The relative minor chord for C is, therefore, A minor.
This applies to all major to relative minor chords. For instance, the relative minor of G major is E minor – three spaces going around your circle in a clockwise motion is from G to E.
Minor To Major
It works in reverse as well. If you have a minor key and want to work out the relative major key, just move three spaces to the left.
As an example, the C three spaces to the left gives you Eb. That is C – F – Bb and Eb. Therefore the relative major for C minor is Eb major.
The Circles of Fifths and Modern Music
There are exceptions, of course, but quite a high percentage of modern music uses four chords. Using the circle of fifths, you can determine what they are to use as a base for your composition.
If you were writing a song in the key of D, maybe you want to add a minor chord somewhere. The relative minor for D major is B minor, as we have already seen to find that you go three spaces down from your D, which gives you B.
The other base chords for your key of D sit on either side of the D in the circle, that is, G and A. So there you have the four chords that are most used, D, B minor, G, and A. That applies to any key. And now you know how to find them writing in any key is easy.
Finding tri-tones is also a much-simplified process using the circle of fifths. There is only one tri-tone for each diatonic key. It is made up of six half steps or semitones.
To find a tri-tone using the circle of fifths is a simple exercise. Just take your note and move six spaces around the circle. That will take you to a note opposite your starting point. On the chart below, you can see that the tri-tone for ‘A’ would be Eb.
Tri-tones are used to create a specific atmosphere in a song. George Harrison used them often in his writing. Here is an example in the song ‘Within You Without You’ from the Sergeant Pepper album,
Have you got any more Theoretical questions that need answers?
Then we may well have the answers, so find out about the Different Types of Rests in Music, Diatonic Scales, What Are Dynamics In Music, What Are Accidentals In Music, What Is Theme And Variation In Music, and everything you want to know about The Treble Clef, The Tenor Clef, and The Bass Clef.
And you might also be thinking of upgrading your instrument. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Digital Pianos, the Best Cheap Keyboard Piano, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Flute, the Best Alto Saxophones, or the Best Tenor Saxophones you can buy in 2023.
The Circle Of Fifths: A Complete Guide – The Structure of Music
How music is structured is a fascinating subject and one that will be important for your development. Music Theory can seem laborious at times, but it is important, so it is important to take your time and not rush the learning process.
The Circle of Fifths is one of those theories you will need to understand and appreciate. It is one of the most important things you will ever learn and use.
If you are interested in learning more about music theory, then a Circle of Fifths poster you can keep in your music workplace is a great idea, or either of these excellent books, Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert – The Ultimate Step-By-Step Guide to Understanding and Learning Music Theory Effortlessly (Essential Learning Tools for Musicians) or Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory: Complete, Book & 2 CDs.
Keep at it, and have fun.