Typical discussion about the Circle of Fifths is largely for beginners and intermediate music theorists, and the tricky part is there's no way to avoid using other technical jargon that a beginner may not know when explaining it. We're going to keep it as simple as possible with explanations of any new terms.
So get ready for a wild ride made easy as we work our way from the foundations to the purpose and finally to the methods of exploiting the Circle of Fifths in your songwriting and music theory endeavors.
Here's the honest truth: You may not use this initially. You'll find more isolated ways to understand key signatures, chord progressions, and other tricks to keep you on track.
But later, once you have a firm grasp on everything involved in our circular friend, there is no better organized way to sort it all out in your head on the fly than this.
The important part is exposure. Knowing this tool exists is half the battle. Seeing it and working with it over and over is how mastery occurs, just like playing your instrument and writing songs.
Apply that same energy here and everything else you do musically will benefit greatly.
Almost all Western music follows the following patterns, and even other cultural styles follow the same concepts in their own way. It can be used for tons of modes like your typical Ionian major scale, Lydion, Dorian, Phrygian, etc. Once you can manipulate it in your mind, the doors are blown wide open for sophisticated songwriting.
Quick History: The Circle of Fifths was invented by Nikolai Diletskii in his late 1670's treatise on composition called the Grammatika. In 1728, Johann David Heinichen improved upon the design to bring us the modern version we use today.
So how does it work? Perhaps the best way for this to be made easy is to explain the components and then describe the ways you can use it. Then the entire picture falls into place. Here is the entire Circle:
That's the web version. If you want to print out a full resolution version on paper, use the link in the caption above. The PDF file will fit right on your normal 8.5 inch by 11 inch printer paper while looking sharp and crisp! Laminate it and leave it on your desk, fold it up and throw it in your pocket, and make good use of it!
Below, we'll show you the best interactive circle (or click here: The Chord Wheel) that has a spinning transparency wheel you can use in your studio when writing songs.
The first of these patterns is the key signature. A key is a set of seven notes collectively called a scale. The scale is built by a specific relationship between the notes. These relationships are different depending on if you're in a major or minor scale, for instance (and it goes deeper!).
When you hit the eighth note, you're back to the start of the scale on the first note which is called the tonic. But now you are one octave higher. If you play the tonic and the first octave above it, you'll hear the same tone twice with one higher in frequency in unison. But they still sound great.
This is called consonance. Due to the mathematical relation between the notes they sound pleasing together to our ears. It's called dissonance when they seem to clash.
Chords are built with a grouping of notes played together that are all consonant and pleasing. The basic form of a chord is the root of the chord, plus the third above it, and then the fifth above the root as well. You can then duplicate a note, usually the root, to use as a bass note to form a bass melody, and you can even invert chords and other tricks.
The entire reason I built the conversation up to chords was to introduce the concept of the fifth. There are three types of fifths based on the number of semitones above the root the fifth lies:
In the Circle of Fifths, we only deal with perfect fifths going clockwise around the circle. If you move counter-clockwise you'll find the perfect fourth from the root.
This thing wouldn't have stuck around since the 17th century if there weren't real world uses for it. Let's take a look at some of them.
The most popular chord progression in the world, in which most pop music recycles over and over is the:
I - IV - V - I
When you look at the progression above, you'll notice two things... these are Roman numerals and they are all using capital letters. Roman numerals are used in music theory to indicate notes in a scale and chord and in this case the chords in the key. There are major chords and minor chords, which are denoted with capital letters and lower-case letters, respectively.
This means we are looking at the major chords of a key built on the tonic, the fourth, and the fifth. If you proceed through them one measure at a time in each of the main 12 major and 12 minor keys of Western music, you'll recognize each immediately.
Now, what's interesting is if you find the tonic of your key on the Circle, you've already found the 4th chord and the 5th chord in the key and can construct a catchy song in less than 10 seconds. Find the tonic of your key. In one example lets use the common folk key of G-Major. If you move one step clockwise, you find the 5th chord of the G-Major key. If you move one step counter-clockwise, you've found the 4th chord.
You can see how this works in C-Major below:
Each key only has 3 major chords in it. You just identified all three almost immediately with help from our friend, the Circle. You'll notice if you take one more step out in either direction you find the 2nd and 7th Chords. This half of your circle expands your chord choices in creating progressions. If you stick to this side of the circle you're guaranteed to have a nice, consonant chord progression for your song. Of course you can use others but it requires some study and skill to do it effectively.
Every major key has a relative minor key. What this means is that both keys use the exact same notes, including any accidentals (sharps or flats). The difference is they have a different tonic and the distance relationship between the notes is changed a bit. Since they are the same notes though, this distance won't impede you from using the relative minor.
Pro-Tip: One of my favorite ways to write a bridge to a song is to use the relative minor or major key. It will sound familiar due to the same notes being used but give you the opposite mood of the song. It's a nice juxtaposition that you can use as a surprise that leads right back into a chorus with the right lyrics.
In your mind, all you have to do to find the relative minor of a major key is to move 45 degrees to the right (or 3 steps clockwise) and you've found it. To move from a minor key to the relative major is the opposite. Move 45 degrees counter-clockwise (or 3 steps left) and you're done.
If you have a Circle labeled like ours, then you can find the relative minor key on the inside of the circle, where C-Major's relative minor is A-Minor, G-Major's relative minor is E-minor, and so forth:
There is one snag to this method that solves itself as you work with the Circle of 5ths. The naming convention for major keys will usually use a flat accidental, such as Eb (to be read as E-flat), except for F# (F-sharp). Minor keys largely use sharp accidentals to name the keys except for Bb. The reason has to do with the count of semitones when constructing the chords.
So for instance, D-flat major key may have Db as it's root, but the minor key C-sharp major does as well. Because C# and Db are the exact same note, just named differently. Once you become more familiar with the 12 major keys and 12 minor keys you'll know which name to use (and thus which key signature you're using).
If you know the melody of a song and just need to plink out the chords on a piano or strum them on a guitar so your group of non-musician friends can sing along, you can transpose a song quickly if needed, all in your head. A common use for transposition is when a song is a bit out of range for a vocalist.
All that you need to do is find the tonic of the key you want to use (usually one or two steps above or below the current key) and you can snag the chords right off of the circle.
This is just like with our chord progression example above. If you know the song is a I - IV - V - I, then all you have to do is find your new key, and the tonic is I, one step left is the IV, and one step right is the V.
Let's switch from a C-Major song with the I - IV - V - I progression to the same in B-Major:
So by rotating the Circle you can immediately jump to another key!
You memorize this quickly after doing it a few times. But there's nothing wrong with having the circle printed and folded up in your pocket either.
It's a crazy task to try to memorize which of these major or minor keys has what number of flats or sharps and on which notes! The Circle of Fifths helps us with this task.
Starting at C-Major (or 12 o'clock on the watch face of the circle), which is natural with no accidentals, every step you move clockwise adds one sharp to its key signature. In this example that means G-Major has one sharp, D-Major has two sharps, A-Major has three sharps, and so on. This continues for seven steps until you're back to no sharps.
Using the same method but moving counter-clockwise will add a flat for each step. So starting with the natural C-Major, one step brings us to F-Major with one flat. Another step takes us to B-flat Major with two flats. This continues to seven until you're back to keys with no flats.
This works with the major keys on the outside of the Circle and their minor keys in the inside of the circle, with the understanding that you always start at "12 o'clock."
Although we've provided an easy to read chart at the bottom of the poster, as seen below, you can memorize the pattern of how many sharps and flats each key has and the order of their appearance on the staff.
The first clue is that the order of accidentals cycles around the Circle clockwise for sharps or counter-clockwise for flats. They both follow this pattern, which is easy to memorize thanks to the word "bead" being in there:
That is the exact order of the addition of flats. Run it backwards and you have the order of sharps!
That's useful if you've got time to count your way around the Circle, but here's another shortcut to save you time. If you're transcribing or someone asks you not only the number of accidentals but what they are for a particular key, you can use this trick...
For sharps, all you have to do is take the tonic of the key and subtract a semitone (a half-step). This leaves you with the last note in the key that has a sharp. When we say last, we mean in the order of FCGDAEB. Here's an example:
Sharps: For B-Major, we start with B and subtract a semitone, which lands us on A#. Now we cycle through the Circle starting at F. This tells us that B-Major has 5 sharps, which are F#, C#, G#, D#, and finally A#.
There's also a trick for flats! Take the tonic of the key and jump backwards a fifth on the Circle by moving counter-clockwise one step. This again will be the last note in the key that has a flat. For flats, we mean the last note in the order of BEADGCF. Here's the example so this makes sense:
Flats: If we need to formulate the key signature for D-flat Major, we start with Db. We move backwards a fifth to Gb. According to BEADGCF, this key has five flats. Now we cycle around the Circle counter-clockwise starting at B and add E, A, D, and finally G. These are our five flats.
These kind of tricks are unbelievably helpful, and eventually you'll find that you begin to memorize them and no longer need the shortcuts.
There have been a lot of attempts out there to make interactive charts in the form of wheels that you can spin around to help you visualize the Circle better for whatever key you're in. I've seen them for guitar and keyboard that make no sense.
In the end, the tried and true is still and likely will always be The Chord Wheel by Jim Fleser:
Called The Ultimate Tool for All Musicians, it expands even on our own Circle of Fifths Chart above in two ways:
What you'll notice is that it's re-stacking the rest of the Circle above the I, IV, and V in a way that keeps you from having to do mental gymnastics rearranging it in your head. For less than the price of lunch, you can beat it.
What you get is the wheel on the front of a 12 page booklet that teaches you how to use it beyond what's obvious just from looking at it. It's just a short rehash of what we've talked about in this article. But this format is nice because it keeps the wheel heavier and stiff as you use it and then can be neatly stored with the rest of your music theory books when not in use.
The best studio monitors and best studio headphones might bring you audio clarity, but they won't help you know what keys and chords you're hearing. But the Circle can... Whether you need a chord progression, to transpose a song, help transcribing music, or remember which keys have which accidentals, the Circle of Fifths is the catch-all tool to get the job done. It's worth having The Chord Wheel book around at home, our printable PDF in your pocket, and finally having the Circle memorized and in your mind and ready for action... and you've taken the first step by reading The Circle of Fifths Explained!