How to Use the Circle of Fifths | Easy Ear Training

In our previous article we introduced the amazing Circle of Fifths, and discussed some of the theory behind it. The Circle of Fifths gives you an easy way to quickly tap into all kinds of musical knowledge, from melodies and chord progressions to key signatures and relative minors. Now that you know how to learn the Circle of Fifths let’s roll up our sleeves and put it to good use!

First, a quick recap: the Circle of Fifths is a tool you can quickly learn by memorising the sequence of letters: F, C, G, D, A, E, B. Then remember that the sequence repeats (with some notes being renamed to equivalents, e.g. B♭=A♯).

The Circle of Fifths - Notes Only

Using the Circle of Fifths to find Key Signatures

Let’s say you are learning a song that is in F major and you want to know which sharps or flats to use. The Circle of Fifths has the answer!

Imagine the Circle of Fifths as the keys on the piano twisted into a circle. Middle C is at the very top, where 12 on a clock would be. Why is it at the top? Because C major has no sharps or flats so it is almost like a “neutral” key.

Remember that keys can only have either sharps or flats in them. Think back to the piano again and how it has been twisted into a circle. This would mean that if we wanted to move clockwise round the circle, we would be moving up the piano; if we wanted to move anticlockwise round the circle, we would be moving down the piano. Every time you move round, either way, you move round by a perfect fifth and adjust the key signature by one sharp or flat.

So let’s go back to our F major dilemma. In order to work out how many sharps or flats are in F major, we need to find it by moving round the circle of fifths. Remember we always start at C. If we were to head round clockwise once (or up the piano), we would land on G. This has one sharp in its scale. If we head round once more, we would land on D. This has two sharps in its scale. So far F is not coming up, which is what we need.

Let’s try moving the other way. Go back to C, then move anticlockwise once (down the piano). A perfect fifth below C is F. This is what we want! Because we’ve moved round anticlockwise once to land on F, F has one flat.

If you kept moving round you would eventually cover all the major keys and figure out their key signatures until you landed on C again.

The Circle of Fifths - Key Signatures

Notice that the Circle has another treat in store for us, shown at the top of this diagram: Not only do the key signatures line up around the circle in the order of how many sharps and flats they have, but the Circle’s sequence also tells you the order of those sharps and flats!

For example, you can see at a glance that A Major has three sharps (because it’s three steps on clockwise from C) and the sequence you memorised tells you that those three sharps will be F♯, C♯ and G♯

Minor Key Signatures

If you need to find a minor key signature, you just find the major’s twin (or the relative minor as it’s usually called). Here are two ways to do this:

  1. Work out the major scale on paper or on your instrument. The relative minor tonic will be on the sixth degree of the scale. In other words, a major sixth up or a minor third down.
  2. Using the Circle of Fifths, simply move three positions clockwise around the to find the relative minor. So, starting from C, count 1 (G), 2 (D) and then 3: A is your relative minor.

Once you work these relative minors out, you will see that they actually form a second Circle of Fifths, following the same pattern, but with A minor sitting at 12 o’clock!

The Circle of Fifths - Relative Minors

Using the Circle of Fifths to Play Chord Progressions By Ear

Some chord progressions are a lot more popular than others, and certain chords within a key are also more important than others. Chord I is the most important, but chords IV and V are also very popular, since they are so closely related to I.

Our handy Circle of Fifths also show us the relationships between these chords. The closer they are in the circle, the more closely they are related.

So it’s easy to find out chords IV and V of any key: just pick any letter around the circle and treat that as I. The letter to the left is V, and the letter to the right is V. So chord IV of C is F, and chord V is G.

Any other roman numeral chord will have its own relationship in the circle, so once you work out that relationship, you can always use it to find that chord for a given key.

For example, another important chord is vi. The reason for this is because I, IV, V and vi are used in a lot of four-chord progressions. One common chord progression is I, vi, IV, V which can be heard in literally hundreds of famous songs. Another is I, V, vi, IV – in fact the Axis of Awesome even exploit this in their infamous sketch:

Chord vi is a little harder to work out, but all you have to remember is that chord vi matches the relative minor which you already know you’ll find three steps clockwise on the Circle of Fifths. So if you wanted to find the vi chord in C Major, count along three and you’ll find that it would be A Minor.

Learning songs with these chord progressions is a great starting point! As you play the chords and get used to those combinations, you will hear them in other songs a lot more easily. Whether you’re playing the piano, guitar or pretty much anything, chords always work in the same way. So have a go—there’s plenty of songs to choose from!

Improvisation and Songwriting

When you get good enough at using the Circle of Fifths to identify chord progressions, you can start predicting what comes next and if you’re writing songs you will know which chords will work well together.

Chords that are close together on the circle are closely related, and tend to flow with each other. Using combinations of more distant chords tends to produce a more pronounced musical shift. You can use these principles to create innovative chord progressions that reflect the emotion in your lyrics.

The Melody is in the Circle Too!

The melody in music is very often based on the underlying harmonic structure, meaning that the majority of melody notes come straight from the chord tones.

Triad chords are made up of a root, third and fifth. So with the Circle of Fifths, you can easily identify individual notes that make up the melody. The root and fifth you already know how to find. You can find the third easily too: Take your root and then count four around the circle clockwise. So the third of C would be E, the third of E♭ would be G, and so on:
The Circle of Fifths
Similar patterns can be worked out to derive melody notes from minor chords, or whatever chord you want. Remember, once you find a pattern on the circle, it holds true all the way around, for any starting tonic!

Endless Possibilities

Start to use the Circle of Fifths for each of the purposes above: Working out key signatures, finding the relative minor, understanding chord progressions, and deciphering melody notes by ear. The more often you use it, the more fluent you will become, and soon each of these areas will be available in your mind on instant access as you play and listen to music.

These are just a few ways you can put the Circle of Fifths master tool to work. As you play with the circle, you will discover many other patterns and relationship, and perhaps even invent your own. The possibilities are as infinite as the endless Circle itself!

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