Circle of Fifths – The Holy Grail of Music Composition 

 May 24, 2022

By  Zen Chung

The circle of fifths is the easiest way to understand key signatures that will be useful to you as a composer or a music student. Music theory has many approaches, and you can find your way into understanding the chord progressions in major and minor keys that you need for your daily playing. However, when you grasp the circle of fifths, some concepts will start coming to you naturally.

Your understanding of music theory will boost once you are done reading through it.



Music has been here with us for quite a while now. Nikolai Diletskii conceptualized the first version of the circle of fifths in 1670 in his attempt to make musical relationships easier to understand. He included the theory in his treatise on a composition called Grammatika. Johann David Heinichen improved on Nikolai's work in 1728 to make the version that we use today.

Music theory is applicable in countless ways, and the circle of fifths is here to stay longer. When you grasp the circle of fifths, you will see just how much you can do with the information you get, which is invaluable.

While you may not initially use the circle of fifths, it will unlock mind-blowing secrets.

The Circle of Fifths

The circle of fifths is the relationship between all twelve tones in the chromatic scale. If you do not know what the chromatic scale degree is, it is the set of 12 pitches. All the notes played in the pitch class are separated by a semitone, from C, C#, D... back to the higher C in the next octave or new key and vice versa. The circle of fifths explains the relationships between these notes.

Note that the circle of fifths works predominantly in western music. However, you can apply the circle of fifths to other exotic modes. Understanding the circle of fifths diagram will save you time when coming up with chord progressions. Many chord progressions fall within the architecture of the circle of fifths, which is an interactive circle once you get it down.

Activity: Draw a circle and divide it into twelve sections, just like a clock. You do not have to label anything yet.

1) The Diagram

You need to understand the circle of fifths diagram to know how to use it. The diagram might be confusing at first, but it has a few components that will not be hard to understand. The outermost elements in the diagram represent the key signatures of the progression you are playing. The letters in the middle are capital letters, representing the major keys. The major keys are the corresponding keys to the small letters next to the capital letters. Therefore the small letters are the minor keys.

It is important to note that the major key has a corresponding minor key throughout the circle. The two keys are relative keys. You will encounter terminologies such as the relative minor key or the major third interval. All these will be clearer the more you understand the circle.

Before we get deeper into the circle of fifths, here are some terminologies that we will use. As we discuss the circle of fifths, you need to understand what each terminology means to avoid getting lost in meaning.

2) Key Terminologies to Refresh Your Theory

a) Key Signatures

In a given scale, you have flat and sharp key signatures. A scale has notes within it. Instead of writing the flats or sharps next to each key signature, you can use a key signature to denote all the sharp or flat key signatures within the scale. The key signature is placed right at the beginning of each line next to the clef to remind the reader which key signature the piece is on.

b) Whole Tone

A whole tone is a full jump from one note to the next. For example, when you move from C to D, you have moved a whole tone. There are some cases where you move half-tone from one note to the next, as in the case you are moving from E to F, or B to C.

c) Semi-Tone

A semitone is comprised of half steps when dealing with tones. So, for example, instead of moving a whole tone from C to D, you can move half step to C#. Remember, we said that sometimes you could move a semi-tone from one note to the next. For example, when you move a semitone from C backward, you go to B., Meaning B is a semitone away from C and not a whole tone.

d) Flat

You get a flat note when you move a semitone a pitch lower. For example, if you move a semitone from D towards C, you get a Db (D-flat)

e) Sharp

When you move a semitone a pitch higher from a note, you get a sharp note. For example, when you move a semitone from D towards E, you get a D# (D-sharp).

These are enough to start us off and catch you up on some of the terms we will use. More will come up as we continue.

3) The Oder of Sharps/ Flats

The one important thing you want to memorize is the order of sharps. This will be key to helping you understand the circle of fifths faster than if you do not have them at your fingertips. The notes in the circle of fifths form the musical scale when put in a given order. For example, the notes are arranged on the circle of fifths in the following order.

F,C,G,D,A,E and B.

The order of sharps is in the specific order above and can be used to form musical elements such as chord progressions, scales etc.

The order of flats is simply the order of sharps arranged backward. When you memorize this, your work will be easier when dealing with the circle of fifths.

If you play a musical instrument like the guitar in its standard tuning, you will notice some things. For example, the violin also has a standard tuning based on the circle of fifths. Here are the tunings.

Guitar- E-B-G-D-A-E. Notice the G-D-A-E are in order in the circle of fifths. E and B also follow each other in the circle of fifths.

Violin-G-D-A-E. These are notes ascending in a perfect fifth interval beginning from the G right below the middle C.

Viola- C-G-D-A-E. These notes are a perfect fifth below the standard violin tuning.

Activity: Try and locate these notes in the circle of fifths and look at how far or close they are to each other.

You read the order of sharps in a clockwise direction on the circle of fifths, and you would read the order of flats moving counter clockwise. When moving counter clockwise, you are using the circle of fourths because you are using a perfect fourth interval in this case.

TAKE NOTE: A perfect fifth descending is a perfect fourth ascending. For example

4) Resolution

We can say the resolution is the opposite of suspense. It gives an ending that sounds perfect while suspense leaves you hanging. Resolution is important to the circle of fifths right there in the name "circle of fifths." The circle is made of a repetition of fifth and tonal, as in V-I. For example;

F-C, where F is the tonal center and C would form the fifth chord. C-G is the same case. G-D and so forth.

You will always be moving to a fifths progression whenever you are moving up the order of sharps in the circle of fifths.

Remember, we have the counter clockwise direction. The same rule applies when moving in the opposite direction in the circle. You will be moving to a fourth chord every time you move on the circle of fourths. For example;

C-F, where F is the fourth chord, and C forms the tonal center in that situation. The same applies to the rest of the notes in the circle.

Activity: Pay attention to how songs end, especially in live performances. Do you notice anything? The song feels like it ends because it resolves, thanks to the tonic.

Using the Circle of Fifths

The circle of fifths can be used in several ways, including finding the relative minor keys, knowing how many sharps there are on a scale or getting almost any information in music theory that will be helpful to you. For example, you will know what adjacent keys are next to each other and how they complement. Here are some easy ways you can use the circle of fifths.

i) Chord Progression

When creating music, you need to have a chord progression. This is movement from one chord to the next to create musicality. The chord progression will be in a given key with a chord as its tonal center, which other chords compliment or revolve around with notes that are complimentary or in the scale.

Depending on what you want to play, you can have keys like the c major or the g major key. You can then have relative major or minor keys. Here is how the circle of fifths comes in with regard to keys.

Remember, you do not have to use the whole circle of fifths in one song alone. Instead, please think of the circle of fifths as a periodic table or the mathematical table; it only guides you on the combinations you need to create to come up with correct formulae.

You have probably seen some common chord progressions in popular music like the I-IV-V-I or in jazz, such as the II-V-I in very popular jazz in that genre.

Back to the circle of fifths. We use the Roman numerals to denote chords. The major chords are made of the tonic (the key you choose), the fourth and the fifth progression. The fifth circle saves you time when creating chord progressions of a given song because you can see the relationships right in front of your eyes.

Major scales like the C-major scale help you know where the chord placements are. For example, you can know exactly where the 5th or the 4th is. The tonic is the main key you are playing in. Minor scales work the same way. When you are playing any scale, the first note is the tonic or the keynote.

So while the I, IV and V will be the major chords in a given key, the II, III, VI, and VII will most likely be minor chords. No chord has to be a minor chord, and you can assign the chords the notes you want to hear and the feeling you are going for. For instance, in an overwhelming sequence where you want to give the feeling of triumph, you are more likely to replace the minor chords with their major alternatives.

Here is some useful information. On the circle of fifths, the fifth chord is in front of the tonic, while the fourth note is on the immediate back. You have composed all country music songs and most popular songs with that alone.

Activity: Listen to some simple country music and look up the chords and how they relate.

Right after the fifth chord, you have chord II and right behind chord iv on the circle, you have the seventh. You can use the same musical method to find chord number three, right beside the seventh on the circle of fifths. The information you can use from the circle clockwise will give you an easy time creating progressions on the sharp keys.

With this information, you can experiment with writing progressions by using an enharmonic equivalent where you write the same key signature or pitch but flat instead of a sharp. For example, B is the same as a C-flat. However, writing music this way ends up having double sharps or more accidentals that are troublesome to think about. So instead, we are trying to make writing songs a simple and fun process.

ii) Relative Minor and Major Key Signatures

The circle of fifths is all about musical relationships. When doing your music practice, one of the things you will want to get used to is the relative minor keys and their major counterparts. This way, your musical composition will improve, and the circle progression will be easier for you to understand.

All major keys have relative minor keys to them. Interestingly, both keys use the same notes, including some accidentals in some instances. The main difference between the relative major and minor scale is they have different tonics. The distances between the notes are also slightly different from each other. While instruments have non-equal tuning systems, this method applies. Note that the main difference is the starting note that would be different.

The relative keys form an interesting pattern. For example in circle, if you want to find the relative minor key, all you need to do is move 90 degrees to the right from the major key, and you will have your minor key. This method is easy and a useful trick to help you master the circle of fifths. Instead of cramming things, methods like these help create formulas and relationships to help you come up with these keys.

Think of arithmetic. Instead of memorizing each calculation and its answer, you can master formulas to give you answers to any calculation that is before you.

Activity: The relative major key of C is A. Take a look at the circle and calculate 90-degrees from C. What did you find? It is that simple.

Take note of the places where sharp or flat accidentals are used. You need to use them correctly when labeling the notes. In addition, the twelve pitches need to be organized in a way that is helpful to you when creating progressions and harmonies from one key to the next.

Remember that one note can have more than one name. For example, C-sharp major and D-flat major are the same note. D major and C major are a whole tone from each other and share the semitone between them. I mentioned that the circle of fifths could work as a formula. In algebra, two sets can intersect as the area where the two circles meet in a Venn diagram. If both circles each represent a note, the intersection is where you can find the sharp or flat. If you get the formula, you will understand everything.

You can use the relative keys by using the relative minor chords in the bridge sections of songs to bring a different mood and create dynamics within a composition.

The relative minor circle has diatonic chords included within them. Remember that arranging notes in a specific way in a given key signature will give you scales such as the minor, major or diatonic scale.

iii) Transposing

One commonly used technique, especially in performances and bridges, is transposition. Transposing a song raises the anticipation and creates a mood that will have a more satisfying resolution when starting a progression in the new key. You can do magic when you master the seven notes and their accidentals. Musical alphabet aside, transposition is one technique anyone can notice without a music theory background.

When moving from one musical key to the next, you need to do it correctly. For example, when moving from an F major to a G major, you need to know what chords to play in the new key. The circle of fifths works like magic to save you time, especially when doing it on the fly.

There are other reasons you want to transpose the music you are playing. For example, you can transpose to accommodate a vocalist whose vocal range has limits. In addition, some keys are not favorable for everyone.

Activity: Find out the vocal range of different celebrity musicians. Do you notice any difference in their ranges' higher and lower limits? A range is a difference between the highest a note a vocalist can hit and the lowest note they can hit. Have you heard of people who can make whistle notes? An example is Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey.

When you transpose to a new key, you will use a similar chord progression as the old key. This makes it easier for you in the new key.

iv) Counting Accidentals Correctly

It is important to know formulas because you can apply them. It might be harder having to come up with the accidentals each time you want to compose some music. When you know how notes relate to each other on the circle of fifths, you will know where the notes fall without much hassle. Whether using the ascending perfect fourths or the perfect fifth interval, you need to know where all twelve tones have a sharp or flat.

You will know where to put the accidentals once you master the circle of fifths. You can draw your circle and study it keenly. Look at the patterns and the relationships, as that will make many things easier, especially when you are trying to save time or are on the fly.

Do not confuse the circle of fifths with the chromatic circle.

Final Take

Music theory is beautiful and fun. One of the fun ways to learn is to master and understand the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths bridges the gap between anyone who has a classical music background and one who does not. Anyone who has a classical music background will have an alternative way of viewing composition.

With a circle of fifths in your toolbox, your understanding of music will be more wholesome and being part of a band will be easier. The circle will accelerate your learning curve almost exponentially. Understanding scales will be easier, and music will be more enjoyable.

Image Source: musicnotes.com

Zen Chung

I'm Zen Chung, a piano and violin teacher based out of Plano, Texas. I started this blog because my students (and their parents) kept asking about the best musical instruments to buy online. Look no further I'm here to save the day! 

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