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The Famous Circle of Fifths

These Fifths Are Not Intoxicating

I've heard about the "Circle of Fifths" since I was a teenager, but it never made sense until recently.  Another mental block knocked over.  This is a very simple tool for musicians of all stripes.

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How Does the Circle of Fifths Work?

Look at the circle below, and we'll walk through the basics.  Think of a clock, with C occupying the 12:00 position.

First, everything starts from C, since C is the key in which there are NO sharps or flats.

As we move clockwise from C, each note is a fifth above the last.  So G is the fifth of the C scale, D is the fifth of the G scale, and so on.

Starting with G, each new key going clockwise has one more sharp note in its major scale.  You can test if you wish, by building a major scale on each note.

If we move counterclockwise from C, each note is a fifth below the prior note.  And, just as with sharps, each scale to the left of C adds a flat note.

Note that at the 6:00 position, there are two notes -- F# and Gb.  These, of course, are enharmonic notes -- they sound exactly the same and are the same.  Their names are different only because they are reached from different directions.

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What Does the Circle of Fifths Do for a Musician?

First and foremost, it gives us a quick visual reference to a lot of information about all 12 keys in music.  Again, watch the clock.

Again, C is the reference point, but these concepts will apply for any key.

We already know that G is the fifth of the C scale.  In the Circle of Fifths, the fifth note of the scale always sits just to the right of the root note.

And we already know that F is a fifth below C.  But we should also note that the fifth note below any root note is the same named note as the fourth note of the key scale.

OK, sounds confusing, so let's break it down.  Here's the C scale in two octaves:

C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C

Using the middle C as number 1, count down (left) to the fifth note.  Is it F?  Should be.  Now count up (right) to the F note.   Is it the fourth note?  If not, you miscounted.  So now we know the following is true:

5th below Root = 4th above Root

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Using the Circle of Fifths to Find Notes and Chords in a Scale.

We know that notes in a scale correspond to the chord scale in the same key, right?  Here's how they line up:

C Major Scale

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

Scale Position (Degree)

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8 (octave)

Major Chord Scale 

C

Dm

Em

F

G

Am

BO

C

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Find the Notes in a Scale

Again, we are using the key of C as a reference.

The Circle of Fifths can help us name the notes in any major scale.  Here's how:

Look at the C scale in one octave:

C D E F G A B C

Note on the circle that the 1st note is C.  The 2 note, D, is two steps to the right of C.  The 3 note, E, is two steps further to the right.

Now jump across the circle -- not quite straight across -- to the 4 note, which always sits to the left of the root note in the Circle of Fifths.

Once you have the 4 note, the 5, 6, and 7 notes are respectively two steps to the right from each other.

That little pattern works with any key.  If you were to "spin" the markers for the 1st through 7th scale positions, so that another note is the root note, the pattern works the same way.

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Find the Chords in a Scale

Once more, the key of C is our reference.

Because the Circle of Fifths can help us name the notes in any major scale, it can also show us the chords in a major chord scale.  Here's how:

First, remember that any key has a set of chords which go with it, just as it has a major scale of single notes.  The major chord scale is shown in the table above.  Just like the notes, the chords are identified as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.  The 8 chord is always the octave of the 1 chord.

In the major chord scale, the 1, 4 and 5 chords are all major chords -- named the same chords as the 1, 4 and 5 notes.  In the guitar world, these are the "BIG THREE" chords of every chord progression -- the 1-4-5 progressions.  In C, you've played it many times:  C-F-G.

The 2, 3 and 6 chords in the chord scale are all minors, and the 7 chord is a diminished or diminished 7th chord.  Again, those are all named after the note whose position they represent.

The minor chords add color to what we play, but one of them is the primary minor chord -- often called the relative minor -- based on the 6th note of the scale.  In the case of C, it's the A minor chord.

A trick in using the Circle of Fifths to find the relative minor is to move 90 degrees right from the root chord.  So the relative minor of C is A minor, since A is 90 degrees to the right of C.

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