Every student of classical music theory is familiar with the “Circle of Fifths”, but its usefulness extends way beyond the hallowed halls of the conservatory to rock, pop, dance, and every genre of music. So why and how does this arcane symbol so improve the musicality of all those who learn it?
It’s because the Circle generates every chord and every scale using the 12 tones of the western music system. Furthermore, it reveals exactly how they relate to each other.
There are so many ways for you to use the Circle of Fifths! With the Circle of Fifths you can work out any major or minor scale, but that’s not all. Ever wanted to predict the next chord in a progression? Understand how major and minor keys relate to each other? Or pump up your awareness of why certain sequences of notes and chords sound “more musical” than others? The Circle can reveal it all…
In this tutorial we’ll explain what exactly the Circle of Fifths is, how to learn it quickly and some of the benefits it can bring to your musical life. Read on, and add this powerful asset to your musical toolkit!
What is the Circle of Fifths?
Simply put, the Circle of Fifths is a series of notes in fifths, moving round it like a clock and eventually ending up where it began:
While it may sound like some kind of summoning circle from a horror movie, the Circle of Fifths (a.k.a. “Cycle of Fifths”, “Circle of Fourths”, “Cycle of Keys”) is in fact a concept in music that connects every single musical key together. Before we go into how it works, here are the essential terms to know first.
You may have heard of sharps and flats before—those little symbols that raise or lower the pitch by a half-step. Sometimes they are called accidentals, but we will see that their appearance is no accident!
What is a key? The word “key” can have several meanings in music. For example, “key” refers to the mechanical controls on a musical instrument: the keys of a piano or a saxophone.
In music theory, key refers to the tonal center of a particular piece, or section, of music. The melody and harmony of the music gravitate around that tonal center, which is a specific pitch known as the key note, or tonic.
A scale, or sequence of eight notes (seven notes plus a return to the tonic one octave higher) is built on the tonic. The scale is the set of pitches most used to build the melody and harmony in the specific key.
The most common types of scales are major and minor. Each type of scale reflects a specific pattern of intervals. So this means that all the major scales, no matter what note they start on, share the same intervallic structure. The same goes for the three types of minor scales.
When these intervallic patterns are worked out starting on any given tonic, a unique number and pattern of sharps or flats emerges, which is known as the key signature.The only exception is C major, which has no sharps or flats.
What is a Fifth?
A fifth, or a perfect fifth as it’s sometimes called, is a gap, or interval of five notes based around the major scale pattern.
To find the fifth, start on the key note (so if you were playing the scale of C major this would be C) and count up five notes in the major scale. See that the fifth up from C is G. We always count the first note in every single interval.
If this is unfamiliar to you, you might like to brush up on how to spell intervals.
How to Learn the Circle of Fifths
There’s a lot more to the Circle of Fifths than just that sequence of notes. In fact, when you encounter the full Circle of Fifths and all its uses, it can be overwhelming!
Fortunately there’s a simple way to quickly memorise the underlying pattern instead of memorising each detail on the diagram individually.
- Notice that it repeats. The left-hand side (from G♭ around) is just a repetition of the right hand side (from G around), adding sharps/flats.
- In fact, include the enharmonics (notes with different names but the same pitch), shown in brackets on the diagram, plus: B♭=A♯, F=E♯ and C=B♯. Now you can see that actually the whole sequence repeats!
- So just memorise the 7-letter sequence: F, C, G, D, A, E, B.
Recite that sequence several times a day for a few days and you’ll never forget it. It sort of rhymes – can you make up a way to sing it? Then use the repetition rule to remember that after the “B”, you just say it again with sharps.
Easy! Now let’s see why this memorisation is worthwhile…
Benefits of the Circle of Fifths for Ear Training
The Circle of Fifths is hugely versatile and has a variety of practical uses for the modern musician. Here are a few of the benefits you can start to explore once you’ve understood the basic Circle:
- Increased Knowledge of Scales: When you learn a melody you’ve never heard before, the key signature that you derive from the Circle of Fifths will give you a better idea of what notes to expect.
- Relative Pitch: The fifth degree is the second most important note in the scale, so a good grasp of the Circle of Fifths will improve your ability to produce pitch from memory.
- Improvisation and Playing By Ear: The Circle of Fifths is all about how pitches relate to one another. So not only will you start finding it easier to come up with new chords, but also what melody best fits over the top!
- Songwriting: Chords and melodies will come to you more easily. You will also find that complex shades of character and shifting moods are easier to convey—way beyond the old major-happy, minor-sad paradigm.
Dive Into the Circle
Now that you know what the Circle of Fifths is, and how to memorise the underlying pattern, stay tuned for the next article in which we will explore more hands-on practical uses for this master musical tool, unpacking the benefits listed above.
Yes the Circle of Fifths looks scary and complex, but a little study reveals the both the simple reality and infinite depth behind it. With regular use, this circle will soon become second nature. Its secrets will open up in the music you learn, listen to or compose, and will give you a lot more versatility in how you see keys, scales and pitch in general.
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