The Circle of Fifths


The circle of fifths is a very useful thing. Really, really useful. If you get your head around it, it will help with lots of things. Trust me.

It’s also really simple. Look…

The scale of C major uses all the white notes.

If we go to the fifth note of the scale, G, and start to play all the white notes, it will nearly sound like a major scale, right up until the last note, F, which we need to change to F# in order to make a major scale. This creates a “rule”. The rule is that if you take one major scale, the major scale built on the fifth note of that scale will be almost the same, apart from the last note will need to be sharpened.

Now, it just so happens that if you start on C, move up a fifth to G, move up a fifth to D, etc, and carry on indefinitely, you will eventually land back on C, having been through every key.

That’s basically it.

So, why is this useful?

Well, for a start, it allows you to have a way of working out what notes are in every key for yourself, rather than just learning them parrot-fashion.

Secondly, you may notice that in the key of C, G is the fifth, and in the key of G, C is the fourth. So, if you know the circle of fifths, you will automatically know the fourth and fifth chord in any key.

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, it allows you to feel the relationship between the keys.

There is a special kind of very subtle modulation between keys.

For example, listen to the sound of a major chord moving through the circle of fifths.

It is a very comfortable, musical sound.

This is because the first chord C is (obviously) in the first key. When we move to G, we feel like we’re still in the key of C because the notes of G are in the key of C. So, when we move to D, that’s the first suprise note, but it doesn’t feel so crazy because it’s in the key of G, which is a chord we’ve just heard. This can carry on all around the cycle and lots of great songs are based on the idea of moving around the keys like ths.

You can also move around in fifths whilst staying in one key, changing the chord to major/minor according to the notes in the key. Here’s an example:

C, G, Dm, Am, Em, Bdim, F, C

(I know Bdim to F isn’t a 5th, but we need to cheat a little to get back to C quickly! Also, B has no 5th in the key of C… it’s F#. You could experiment by going there and doing a key change or something).

Many songs are written by finding a pattern like this and “jumping off” at an arbitrary point into some other idea just at the point where it sounds too much like a pattern is developing.

You can move around the circle of fifths playing 7th chords. C7, G7, D7, A7, E7

The song “Hey Joe” is a circle of fifths. If you don’t know this song, you probably should. YouTube it.

Anyway, this thing is exceptionally useful, so don’t skimp on the time spent with it. Don’t make it a chore, though… explore it and have fun with it. Experiment.

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