When you aren’t familiar with music theory, the circle of fifths and key signatures may fill your mind with intense boredom or confusion.
However, the truth is, tackling music theory concepts will only make you better at what you do. With tools like the circle of fifths, they do not have to be complicated either…
Hearing music is one factor, however, seeing music via the circle of fifths turns something complicated and messy into something condensed and simple to follow.
In this article, I will show you how the circle of fifths diagram works and help you understand the way to apply it to your songwriting.
What you’ll need to know the circle of fifths
To get the most out of this article, you will need a solid understanding of what chords are and how they operate in music.
When you are up to speed, be sure you have a pencil and sheet of paper available. The best way to memorize the circle of fifths is to draw it by yourself and take notes. Ready?
First, let’s look at key signatures.
What are key signatures?
Key signatures are unique sequences of sharps, flats and natural notes in music. A key signature is all of the accidentals found in a key’s scale.
Sharps (#) (not to be confused with hashtags) are symbols that represent notes positioned a semitone or half-step above another note. For instance, a C natural could be found on a white key on a piano, a C# is located a semitone above C on the black key:
Flats (b) (not to be confused with cute little b’s) function in the opposite method as sharps. For instance, A natural is represented by a white key on the keyboard, so Ab would be the black note directly below it.
The important thing of C major is comprised of all natural notes, so no sharps or flats: C – D – E – F – G – A – B
In contrast, a key like C# major has seven sharps: C# – D# – E# – F# – G# – A# – B#
Oh, also, flats and sharps could share similar note locations. Confused yet? I am..
No sweat! understanding everything I just said is why we have a nifty little factor called the circle of fifths!
Let’s find the circle, write out some key signatures, and use it to build some chords— Soon everything will begin to click.
The circle of fifths [Infographic]
The circle of fifths is a visual representation of the keys you hear in music. Beginning at the top with the important thing of C major. The circle is split between the sharps (right side) and flats (left side) we encounter as we travel around it.
Use middle C on your keyboard to follow along.
Start on the right side
Let’s begin with the major keys on the suitable side of the circle.
It is called the circle of fifths because each key signature is separated by the distance of a fifth interval (for instance C to G on the circle above represents a fifth).
Begin at C major. Since there aren’t any sharps in the key of C major, the notes in the key are: C – D – E – F – G – A – B
Now move one space to G, the next key. You will notice in the outer ring of the circle that a new sharp (teal box) comes along with it.
So the notes in the key of G major are: G – A – B – C – D – E – F#
The key of C has no sharps, G has one sharp, D has two sharps,… around the circle.
Since you understand D major has 2 sharps, attempt writing out the notes in the key of D using the circle to figure out which notes are sharps.
A sharp is added for every new fifth until we attain the bottom of the circle with the key of F#. The key of F# may also be interpreted as Gb.
Moving to the left side
Now let’s tackle the left side of the circle. Instead of beginning at the top, we will begin where you left off at the bottom with Gb.
Moving clockwise, the flats (yellow boxes) move in order of fifths again similar to the sharps. However, instead of including a flat every time it does the opposite and removes one with every new key.
For example, The key of Gb has six flats and Db has five, Ab has 4 and so on.
The pattern continues until we get back to the top of the circle with C major, which again has no flats or sharps. Attempt picking a note on the left side of the diagram and write out all of the flats.
Moving with the minors
Now that you have a grasp of the major keys, the minor ones are a breeze.
Begin back at the top of the circle with A minor. The pattern of fifths and the addition of sharp works the same as major keys.
The key of A minor is what’s known as C major’s relative minor. Which means both major and minor keys share the same exact notes but begin in different places.
Pretty neat, right? When you are ready, attempt drawing your own version from memory.
Building chords with the circle of fifths
The circle of fifths is not just helpful for finding the flats and sharps in each key either. It gives an easy method to build basic chords as well.
Let’s build some basic chords using the circle of fifths as our reference.
You already know from our chord building guide that major chords are built on the root note, the major third and the perfect fifth.
Since we are looking at the circle of fifths, your good fifth will be one spot clockwise from your root.
For instance, The perfect fifth of C is G, one spot away from C on your diagram. So you already have 2 notes nailed in your C major chord: C and G.
However, how do you discover that major third?
Simply move diagonally down from your perfect fifth to find your major third—an E.
So your C major chord is C – E – G. The same trick works all the way around the circle for major chords.
Building minor chords are simply as easy, however, the pattern is a bit different. For this instance, I will build a C minor chord.
Minor chords begin with your root and its perfect fifth, so one spot clockwise on the circle—a G. Again, you already have two notes nailed in your C minor chord: C and G.
The third note in minor chords is a minor third. To search out the minor third on the circle simply draw a line diagonal and down from your perfect fifth. So in the case of C minor, it’s Eb.
There you have it, your C minor chord is: C – Eb – G
Select a note on the circle and try building your own basic chords using this technique. This is just one of many ways to use the circle of fifths for all types of quick theory help.
When you are comfortable building chords, begin using them to form your own chord progressions.
How the circle of fifths can help your songwriting
The circle of fifths adds a strong new context to the way you make and interpret music.
A major issue every songwriter eventually encounters is writing the same old things over and over again because it is safe.
The circle of fifths provides you a net to fall back on if you want to take some risks with your songwriting. It is a good way to search out new places to push your music.
Like so many other things in life, seemingly complicated music theory concepts are not so intimidating once you take the time to fully perceive them. The circle of fifths provides you a method to make it there quicker.