Ever wondered how the circle of fifths works?
Well today I’m going to reveal all!
Music theory can sometimes seem confusing, as there’s a lot to learn.
But there are certain building blocks that can quickly open a new world to you.
The circle of fifths is a great example.
Once you understand what it is and how to use it, music suddenly seems a lot less mysterious and more structured.
So, let’s get into demystifying the circle of fifths.
What Is The Circle Of Fifths? Definition Revealed:
The circle of fifths is a clock-like diagram representing all the key signatures of music and their relationship to each other.
The reason it’s a circle and not another shape is because you can make a complete cycle around the clock and come back to the original key signature. More on this later.
In a clockwise direction, it moves up in fifths. In a counterclockwise direction, it moves up by fourths.
The key of C major, which contains no sharps or flats, appears at the top of the diagram.
When you move clockwise to the adjacent key of G, you’ll see that the key of G has one sharp. If you move to the next key, D, you’ll see that it has two sharps.
The number of sharps keeps increasing until you reach the key of C#.
When you move the other way, counterclockwise to F, you can see that the key of F has one flat. From there, if you go to Bb, you’ll see that the key of Bb has two flats.
And, the number of flats keep increasing until you reach the key of Cb.
Of course, this all depends on how the circle of fifths is represented but most diagrams show the same thing.
I’ve just described the circle of fifths using simplistic language, but if it still didn’t make sense – don’t worry. I’ll share the building blocks of the circle of fifths with you in a moment.
The History Of The Circle Of Fifths: Where & How Did It Originate?
Some texts and sources hold that Ukrainian composer and music theorist Nikolay Diletsky was the first to create the circle of fifths in the late 1670s.
Allegedly, Diletsky wrote a treatise on composition called Grammatika where the circle of fifths originally appeared.
Other sources suggest ancient Ionian Greek philosopher Pythagoras was the first to apply geometry to music to create the circle of fifths.
Which seems more likely to you?
This is just my opinion, but I think Diletsky was the one to invent the circle of fifths, because he had a direct connection to music.
Though Diletsky’s story is a bit of a mystery, Pythagoras’ story is mired in legend, mystery and speculation.
Plus, some of of Diletsky’s compositions live on, but his greatest contribution to the world would surely be the circle of fifths, if indeed he was the one to discover it.
Pythagoras is credited with discoveries in mathematics, music and astronomy, but let’s remember that he was a philosopher and not a musical expert or scientist.
I don’t know about you, but I think it is important to discuss where something originates from. Otherwise, history isn’t worth teaching.
Either way, the circle of fifths has lived on through the centuries, or millennia, depending on which story you believe.
Music Theory Basics: What You Should Know Before Delving Into The Circle Of Fifths
The circle of fifths won’t be of much benefit to you unless you already have a basic grasp of music theory.
So, here are the music theory basics you should know if you want to learn what the circle of fifths is and how to use it.
The 12 Notes In Music: What Are They?
Did you know that there are only 12 notes in Western music? If not, now you do.
Each note is either represented by an alphabetical value (like A or G) or an alphabetical character followed by a sharp (#) or flat (b).
The musical alphabet looks like this:
There are a few important observations to make here.
The first is that the order of notes doesn’t matter. I’ve simply presented them in alphabetical order.
The second is that while many of the notes have a sharp or flat note in between them, B and C, as well as E and F, do not. This is a convention in music, so your must get used to it. Commit it to memory.
The third is that the sharps are occupying the same space as the flats. How does that work?
For now, you can think of them as the same notes. So, A# is also Bb, D# is also Eb and so on.
Additionally, a scale that includes all 12 notes is called a chromatic scale, which is something to keep in mind.
What I’ve just shared with you is quite basic, but if you don’t have a hang of this, there’s no sense in getting into the circle of fifths.
The Major Scale: The Key That Unlocks The Mysteries Of Music
As I was starting to get into music theory, I was surprised to find how much of it is tied to the major scale.
If you wanted to, you could probably explain most if not all theory using the major scale as your starting point.
What you need to know about the major scale as we begin to explore the circle of fifths is that it is a diatonic scale, meaning it contains seven distinct notes.
And, each of those notes is a degree. So, the first degree of the C major scale, for instance, is C.
Speaking of the C major scale, it’s the perfect place to start as you’re beginning to learn about the major scale.
The key of C does not have any sharps (#) or flats (b). We’ll talk more about key signatures a little later, but for now all you need to know is that this scale only features natural notes.
And, when I say natural notes, in this context, I means notes that aren’t flat or sharp.
So, what seven notes is the C major scale made up of?
The C major scale features C, D, E, F, G, A and B.
The means the first degree is C, the second degree is D, the third degree is E and so forth.
But if you try playing that scale on a guitar, piano or any other instrument you happen to have, it will sound a little incomplete.
That’s why, when practicing scales, it’s common to start and end on the tonal center – in this case, C. That’ll sound much nicer.
Depending on where you went to school, you may have also learned the C major scale as Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. It’s the same thing.
It’s also good to know that there are 12 different major scales.
Why 12? Well, you may recall that there are exactly 12 notes in Western music. So, there are effectively 12 major scales too, just in different keys.
Understanding Intervals, The Distance Between Any Two Notes
As the heading in this section suggests, an interval is the distance between any two notes.
Since there are 12 notes in music, that also means there are 12 intervals, right? Wow, you’re sharp!
In realty, it depends on how you coun. Technically there are 12, but there is an argument for more.
Here’s a list of the names of musical intervals that exist:
- Minor second.
- Major second.
- Minor third.
- Major third.
- Perfect fourth.
- Augmented fourth or diminished fifth.
- Perfect fifth.
- Augmented fifth or minor sixth.
- Major sixth.
- Minor seventh.
- Major seventh.
Looking at the list, you may have counted 13 intervals. What’s going on here?
Unison refers to two notes at the same pitch and frequency.
You can’t play unison notes on a piano, but on a stringed instrument like guitar where some of the same notes repeat across the fretboard, you can easily play unison intervals.
Likewise, it’s possible to play unison with other instrumentalists. An argument could be made that unison is not an interval but since it is possible to play, you could also say it is.
Then, we have the octave, which is another troublemaker in this context of intervals.
An octave refers to a note that’s the same pitch but a different frequency.
Since there are only 12 notes in music, on a piano, those same notes just keep repeating across the keyboard. Some are higher, some are lower.
Stringed instruments are the same way. The same notes can be found at various positions.
You don’t necessarily need to memorize all the intervals or even their names right now.
But did you notice something about the list I gave you?
At the heart of it, there’s an interval called the perfect fifth. Does that relate to the circle of fifths? You bet it does!
If we were to go back to the C major scale, the notes in the scale are C, D, E, F, G, A and B, right?
So, which note would be the fifth degree? Would it be E? Would it be B?
All you need to do is assign a number to each note in the scale and count. Any guesses?
If you answered G, you’re correct! So, a G would be a fifth in relation to C. Is this starting to come together for you?
Key Signatures: What Are They & Why Are They Important?
At its core, the circle of fifths is a way to understand different key signatures.
There’s certainly more you can do with it, and we’ll get into that later. But one of the things the circle of fifths does is it gives you an easy way to see how every key relates to the other.
With that in mind, what is a key signature?
Earlier, we discussed what the C major scale is. I also shared that there are effectively 12 major scales because there are 12 notes in music.
Each of those 12 major scales represent a different key.
And, every major scale has a varying number of sharps (#) or flats (b) in it.
Although you may see flats and sharps together in standard notation (i.e. sheet music), they generally don’t go together with key signatures or scales.
Key signatures and scales either have sharps or flats, not both.
Again, we know that the notes in the C major scale are: C, D, E, F, G, A and B. So, the key of C would contain that specific set of notes.
We also know that there are still 11 other keys. So, let’s look at one sharp key and one flat key (we’ll talk about the different types of keys in more detail later).
First, a sharp key. The only key with one sharp is the key of G, which contains these notes: G, A, B, C, D, E and F#.
It just so happens that there’s an easy way to figure out how the key of G would be the only key with one sharp, as well as why the F would turn into an F# using the circle of fifths.
I’m jumping the gun a bit but understanding what I’m sharing can help you gain a better understanding of key signatures, so let’s keep going.
Go back to the C major scale again and look at the fifth degree. Can you see that it’s a G? So, a fifth above C would be G.
Also look at the fourth degree. It’s an F, isn’t it? So, the fourth degree turns into a sharp when you move to the key of G. You can keep following the same pattern to work around the circle of fifths.
Now, a flat key. The only key with one flat is the key of F, which includes these notes: F, G, A, Bb, C, D and E.
How do I know that? Go back to the C major scale and look at the fourth degree. It’s an F, right?
So, the only key containing one flat would be F. To know which note turns into a flat, we must look at the seventh degree of the C major scale, which is B.
And, from there, you can keep using the same formula to work your way around the circle of fifths in reverse (which is called something else, but we’ll get around to that later).
So, we’ve looked at the keys of C, G and F. There are still nine other keys in music, but you should be able to figure out the rest using the formula I’ve just shared with you.
You should have a better idea of how key signatures work now.
The Circle Of Fifths Revealed: Here’s What It Is & Why It Matters
Now that you’ve learned the building blocks of the circle of fifths, you’re ready to discover what it is and how it works.
If you’ve come this far, then you should already have a basic understanding of what it is, how it works and why it matters.
But to summarize, the circle of fifths is a circular, clock-like diagram that displays all the key signatures in music.
At the top of the circle, we have C. As we’ve already discovered, the key of C has no sharps or flats.
If you keep moving in a clockwise direction, you first rotate through G, D, A, E, B, F# and C#. With every key you pass through, the number of sharps increases, until you get to Ab, which is a flat key.
From there, the number of flats decreases, as you move through Eb, Bb and F. After F, you make a complete circle to return to C.
So, the circle of fifths allows you to easily identify how many sharps or flats are in a specific key.
As we’ve talked about earlier, there are 12 notes in music. So, there are also 12 keys in music. That 12 number sure comes up a lot!
The circle of fifths is also great for helping you identify related keys, relative minor keys, scales, chords and chord progressions, opportunities for modulation and more.
We’ll get into that in a minute, but first:
Free Circle Of Fifths PDF
So you’ve got your own copy, here’s a free downloadable circle of fifths PDF (coming soon).
You can use it to download and print up, so you’ve always got it easily at hand for practice.
What Is The Circle Of Fourths?
Did you notice how in my previous explanation, the rotation through the clock didn’t make a whole lot of sense after the key of C#?
As you’re probably beginning to recognize, there are sharp keys and flat keys in music.
In the circle of fifths, the sharp keys are on the right side of the circle, while the flat keys are on the left.
The bottom three (B/Cb, F#/Gb and Db/C#) are kind of “in between” keys because they can either be sharp or flat keys depending on how you look at it.
As I’ve already explained, the major scale is a diatonic scale, meaning it has seven notes in it.
So, the maximum number of sharps or flats you can have in any key is seven. After that, there’s nowhere else to go.
That clears up a bit of the confusion, but there’s something more.
You can also rotate counterclockwise through the circle. On the left side, the flats keep increasing by one as you move through the keys until you reach the key of E, which is exclusively a sharp key.
When you rotate in this direction, effectively what you have is the circle of fourths.
Look at the C major scale again: C, D, E, F, G, A and B.
What’s the fourth degree of the scale? F, right?
And what’s the fourth degree of F? Bb!
So, you can just as easily rotate through the key signatures in a clockwise direction in an orderly fashion. That’s one of the cool things about the circle of fifths.
How To Apply The Circle Of Fifths
I’ve already offered a few clues as to how to apply the circle of fifths.
Here, we’re going to take more of an in-depth look and see what we can do with this circular diagram.
Find Key Signatures Quickly & Easily
By now, I don’t think I need to ramble on about key signatures. I’m sure you get the idea.
You can easily identify all 12 keys and how many sharps or flats a specific key has just by looking at the circle of fifths diagram.
Alternatively, you can work it all out in your head, which can be a helpful exercise:
“What’s the fifth of C again? Right, it’s G. So, G has one sharp. Where do we go from there? What’s the fifth of G? Ah, it’s D. So, D has two sharps.” And so on.
No matter how you go about it, the circle of fifths makes your life easier as it pertains to key signatures.
What Are Enharmonic Keys?
There are a few keys that are the same as each other but have different names.
Again, looking at the circle of fifths diagram, you can see that Db and C# are the same. So are F# and Gb, as well as B and Cb.
By the way, Cb is a weird one, because technically there is no Cb note. It’s just a B. But I digress.
By extension, we can also say that the minor equivalents are different names for the same keys.
That includes Bb minor and A# minor, D# minor and Eb minor, G# minor and Ab minor.
So, Db, C#, Bb minor and A# minor are basically all enharmonic equivalents! Clear as mud?
For better or worse, you need enharmonic keys for all of this to work, because the sharp and flat notes of music feature enharmonic equivalents too.
Remember how F# is the same as Gb, G# is also Ab, and so on? That’s what I’m referring to.
So, there’s a quick and dirty explanation of enharmonic keys.
What Are Sharp Keys?
The sharp keys dominate the right side of the circle and end at the key of C#.
These include G, D, A, E, B, F# and C# because these keys use anywhere from one to seven sharps.
The number of sharps increases as you go clockwise from C around the circle.
What Are Flat Keys?
The flat keys dominate the left side of the circle and end at the key of Cb.
These include F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb and Cb because these keys have anywhere from one to seven flats.
The number of flats increases as you go counterclockwise from C around the circle.
What About Relative Minors?
So far, no mention has been made of minor keys, but this is another area where the circle of fifths can be immensely helpful.
If you’re well-versed in theory, then you already know that the sixth degree of the major scale represents the relative minor key.
So, let’s look at our friend, the C major scale again. It’s C, D, E, F, G, A and B. What’s the sixth degree. It’s A, isn’t it?
So, A minor would be the relative minor key to C major. And honestly, there’s no difference between the two keys. At least not when we’re talking about natural minors.
A minor key generally sounds dark, sad, serious and/or incomplete compared to a major key.
You would likely play a different kind of progression to create that minor sound than you would in a major key (maybe starting with the ii, iii or vi chord).
There are other types of minor scales like the harmonic minor and melodic minor scales, which are kind of their own beasts and are beyond the scope of this lesson.
But it’s fair to say these would have a different sound than a natural minor scale.
In other words, just as you can rotate around the circle by identifying the fifth degree in any key, you can also identify your relative minor in any key if you know what the sixth degree of the major scale is.
Depending on the circle of fifths diagram you’re looking at, you’ll probably see minor keys notated in addition to major keys. That makes it easy to know what your relative minors are.
One other way to find your relative minor is to move three keys down in a clockwise direction. So, from C, if you move three spaces, you’d arrive at A. Of course, A minor is the relative minor of C major.
Likewise, if you move three spaces down from G, you’ll find the E on the chart. So, E would be your relative minor for G.
I think this is kind of a less commonsense approach, but it does work, and if it works for you, more power to you!
Is There A Surefire Way To Know Whether A Song Is In A Major Or Minor Key?
Differentiating major and minor keys can sometimes be tricky business.
As I already mentioned, it doesn’t make much difference if we’re dealing with relative minors. Playing in a major key is effectively the same as playing in a minor key.
The main observable difference is the chord progression being used in a song.
A song starting on the I, IV or V chord is usually major. A song starting on the ii, iii, vi chords is typically minor.
Now, just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking about the chords relative to the major scale, not the minor scale.
This is not a rule and doesn’t apply 100% of the time. The key being that a song in a major key has a happier, more upbeat sound to it. Songs in minor keys have sadder, darker or more serious tone.
The chord progression is what makes the difference.
I’ve once heard that songs ending on the vi chord is in a minor key 99% of the time. I’m not convinced of that observation.
Take, for example, Harem Scarem’s “No Justice.” I happen to know that this song ends on the IV chord (again, relative to the major scale). Does that mean it’s in a major key?
Nope, the song is clearly in a minor key.
How about Weezer’s “Island In The Sun”? It starts on a minor chord, so that must mean it’s in a minor key, right?
Unfortunately, we can’t assess it based on the chord it ends on, because on the album version it just fades out.
I’ve heard the band end it on a minor chord while performing, but that doesn’t seem surprising based on the progression, which is vi – ii – V – I.
Where else would you end it? Ending it on the I would provide a sense of finality, but the progression in this song feels like one that just goes on forever, so vi seems more logical.
I think you know what I’m getting at. “Island In The Sun” is not in a minor key at all. It’s in a major key.
Taking a theoretical approach to analyzing the songs you know won’t always yield results. My suggestion would be to rely more on your ears to figure out whether a song is in a major or minor key.
And, if you’re a lead player, you can sit pretty knowing that it doesn’t make a difference. You can use the same scale to fill and solo assuming you’re mindful of what note you end your lines on.
Identify & Read Scales Off The Diagram
By using the diagram, you can tell exactly how many sharps or flats are in any key.
So, all you need to do to identify and read scales off the diagram is choose what your tonic center is going to be.
It might seem anti-climactic, but that’s all there is to it.
If, however, you can’t read standard notation or don’t understand the placement of sharps and flats, that’s something you’re going to want to study.
Looking at the diagram, we know that G has one sharp, which is F#. As it relates to the C major scale, G is the fifth degree (the tonal center you’re moving to) and F is the fourth degree (the note you sharp).
You can follow this exact formula as you move around the circle – start on the fifth of the previous scale and sharp its fourth.
Moving in the other direction, we know that F is the fourth degree of C. And, B is the seventh degree, which is the note you’re going to flat.
So, here’s your formula to work your way clockwise around the circle – start on the fourth of the previous scale and flat its seventh.
Now, there is one other little trick we can use to read scales off the diagram. If you start left of the tonic center and count seven notes, you’ll have identified the notes in the scale.
That means, in the key of C, you’d have F, C, G, D, A, E and B, which is correct, but you’d have to reorder the notes. After all, scales do not go up in fifths.
It’s a funny trick but it can work.
Build Chords Using Music Theory
What is a chord? A group of three or more distinct notes played together.
Chord construction mostly relies on the major scale, which means we can also use the circle of fifths for building chords because it is closely connected to the major scale.
There are plenty of different types of chords out there. Here we’ll be focusing on some of the more common chord types – major, minor and dominant seventh.
This is where knowing your intervals can also pay off.
How To Build Major & Minor Chords
First, back to the major scale again. The C major scale is (you should know this by now)…
C, D, E, F, G, A and B.
A chord is built in thirds. First, we’ll build a C major chord.
Not surprisingly, C is the first note in a C major chord. E is a major third in relation to C, and G is a perfect fifth above C. That means C is made up of C, E and G.
At this point, we could just dust our hands off and call the matter settled. But we haven’t used the circle of fifths to build the chord yet, so we should do that.
Fortunately, this is also quite straightforward, because we know that if we move one space clockwise around the circle, we’ll arrive at the perfect fifth.
So, after that, it’s just a matter of finding the major third. What was it again? Right, E. E can be found by moving four spaces down.
This might seem a little arbitrary. But if you draw a triangle between the notes we’ve identified, and move it around the circle, you can easily find other major triads.
A minor chord is also built in thirds. But if we’re looking to build the C minor scale, it’s not going to work if we use the major scale as the starting point because we’ll just end up with the same chord. We’ve already established that C, E and G create a C major chord.
Fortunately, there is a simple way to figure out how to build a minor chord using the major scale.
What we need to keep in mind is that when we’re build a minor chord, the major third turns into a minor third. So, you would simply turn the third degree into a flatted note.
That’s right, C, Eb and G make a C minor chord. So, using the circle of fifths, all you need to do is draw a triangle between these three notes and you’ll see how they’re connected.
You’ll notice that the Eb is three spaces to the left of C. So, again, we have a working formula that can apply to any minor chord.
How about F minor? As we know, the fifth is just one space to the right, making it C. The minor third is three spaces to the right, making it Ab.
So, that would mean an F minor chord is made up of F, Ab and C.
Now you should be skilled in identifying and building major and minor chords using the circle of fifths.
How To Build Dominant Seventh Chords
If you can build major and minor chords using the circle fifths, naturally you can build other types of chords too.
A dominant chord is a special type of chord that’s neither major nor minor but can sometimes replace a major or minor.
It has a bluesy, mischievous sound to it and it is often used in blues and jazz.
In the key of C, there’s only one naturally occurring dominant seventh chord.
As with other chords, it is also built in thirds. But to create a dominant seventh chord, we also need the minor seventh.
Now, certainly, if you added a Bb to the C major triad, you would get a C dominant seventh chord: C, E, G, Bb.
But Bb is not a naturally occurring note in C. The C7 chord would be naturally occurring in F.
But that also provides us with a bit of a clue. C is what degree of the F major scale? Care to take a guess before I tell you the answer?
C would be the fifth degree of F. So, what’s the fifth degree of C? G, right?
That means G7 is the only naturally occurring dominant seventh chord in the key of C.
Let’s have another look at that familiar C major scale:
C, D, E, F, G, A and B.
To create a G7, we need to use G as the first. So, the third would be B. What about the fifth? Just look at the circle of fifths. It’s D, isn’t it? That means the seventh is F.
So, G7 is made up of G, B, D and F.
This is just another way of thinking about the same process we used with C to create major, minor and dominant seventh chords.
It’s relatively easy to identify other chords in the key of C doing the same thing.
Let’s create an A minor chord. So, we’d use A as our starting point. Jump a note and we’ll arrive at our third, which is C. Jump another note in the scale and we’ll find E.
So, A, C and E must be the notes in an A minor chord, which they are!
Using The Circle Of Fifths To Identify Effective Chord Progressions
If a song isn’t made up of notes, scales, arpeggios or chords, it probably isn’t a song at all.
And, in most cases, songs have a chord progression, even if it’s only implied.
Here’s an example of a simple chord progression in the key of C:
C, F, Am, G7
There’s nothing special about the chord progression (I – IV – vi – V7), but it’s a common one, and it could work just fine for a singer-songwriter tune.
The major scale is already a great tool for helping you identify effective chord progressions, but the circle of fifths could certainly be used for the same purpose.
As I’ve already shared, keys situated next to each other are basically relatives. The closer they are on the diagram, the more closely related they are.
But as you’ve already discovered, it’s not just that the key signatures are closely related. Adjacent keys on the circle of fifths are always a fifth or fourth apart, depending on which direction you’re moving in.
So, how does that help us?
Well, it’s fair to say that the I, IV and V chords are the most important in any key, along with the vi chord, which is used a lot in Western music.
Once you’ve chosen your tonal center – for this example, let’s say D – all you need to do is look to its left to find your IV chord and to the right to find your V chord. It’s magical, isn’t it?
Again, it’s just a matter of understanding the intervallic relationship between your tonic and the notes surrounding it.
So, in D, your IV chord would be G and your V chord would be A.
What about the vi chord? Well, don’t forget that the vi is always the relative minor. So, when looking at the circle of fifths diagram, look at where the relative minor is notated.
Did you figure it out? The vi chord in D is Bm.
If you view this in context of the D major scale, it should make perfect sense:
If I wasn’t clear on the fact that the major scale can help you identify what chords belong in that key already, now it should be coming into view.
So, the order of chords in any key is:
Major, minor, minor, major, major, minor and diminished. That never changes no matter what key you’re in, so it’s worth memorizing.
Once you know how the formula works, you can apply it to other keys and explore various chord combinations on your own.
You’ll probably find that there is a logical limit to the number of progressions that sound pleasing to the ear, but it’s worth playing around with this concept until it has solidified in your mind.
In particular, the use of a diminished chord can be tenuous in most musical contexts, but it does have its place.
Modulation & The Circle Of Fifths
It’s fair to say today’s popular music doesn’t feature much by way of modulation.
But modulation was a common occurrence in classical compositions.
And, more recently, it was used quite a bit in 80s and 90s music, and in my opinion, to great effect. This doesn’t mean modulation isn’t still used in popular music, mind you.
Modulation essentially describes the transition from one key signature to another.
As you can imagine, a sudden change can be jarring and weird for the listener. If that’s the effect you’re going for, fine, but transitioning smoothly between keys requires a more thoughtful approach.
Let’s look at the key of C, which has F and G as neighboring keys. For the purpose of this example, we’ll say your song is in the key of C, and you’re looking for a way to transition to F.
C and F are closely related, so shifting between them should prove easier than moving from C to Ab, as an example.
There are several ways to create a smooth transition from one key to another.
One way is to gradually introduce that Bb note or maybe even a well-placed Bb chord into your song.
I could see this working quite well if you’re cautious about using that B note to begin with.
If you never introduced it in your chord progression, melody or harmony, then technically the key of the song is still open ended until you bring that Bb into the picture.
Another way is to utilize common chord modulation. We know that the keys of C and F have several common chords, including C, Dm, F and Am.
So, as you’re moving to a different key signature, you could linger on a few common chords before introducing a chord belonging to the target key, which will make the transition flow.
At other times, direct modulation can work too. This involves jumping from your home key to your target key, usually without a lot of context.
But let’s say the whole band hits a shot and comes to a complete stop for a measure. Then, they pick up in another key, maybe a whole step above where they started.
This wouldn’t seem too jarring and it has been done.
And, you can certainly take artistic license when it comes to modulation. If it sounds good to you and you can work with it, it’s fine.
Example Of A Song Featuring Modulation
Have a listen to Def Leppard’s “Animal”. The intro to this song starts in F major (although I’ve seen it mistakenly transcribed as Bb, presumably because the song starts on a Bb chord).
The pre-chorus suddenly changes to F# major.
This jump is kind of a big one looking at the circle of fifths. But what’s interesting is that F# is just a half step away from F, and on guitar, that’s just a one fret difference.
The one thing the two keys have in common is the Bb (or A#) note, but the similarities mostly end there.
A pianist would probably cringe at a change like that, but a guitarist who knows barre chords wouldn’t have any trouble with it.
The chorus retains a little bit of that F# sound, but the only natural note in the key of F# is B. So, the F#5, E5, B5, A5 chord progression doesn’t make much sense. The E5 and A5 are out of place.
A case could be made for this section being in the key of F#m, thus making it an altered common chord modulation (turning the F# into an F#m, which is only implied to begin with).
Sneaky, Def Leppard. But cool.
The change from F# to F#m is quite subtle, and it works great.
This is also known as borrowed chords or modal interchange, if we want to get technical.
And, of course, there’s one more section deserving of comment, which is the bridge or pre-solo section. Based on note choice, we can say that this section is in Em with a fair bit of certainty.
This section is a drastic jump from F#m to Em. Again, there’s only one common note, which is F#, but at least they’ve got that.
The good news is it comes after a shot like the one described above, so that kind of clears the way for that shift.
Listen to the song and I think you’ll agree – it might seem a little weird, but it all sounds great.
How To Transpose Songs Quickly & Easily With The Circle Of Fifths
There’s barely any need for exposition if you have a firm grasp of the concepts discussed in this guide already. But here’s how the circle of fifths can help when you’re transposing songs.
Transposing simply means moving the song from one key to another. Sometimes you’ll find yourself needing to play the song in a different key than it was written in.
Note: this is different from modulation. Modulation is about introducing a different key in the same song. Transposing is about playing the same song in a different key from start to finish.
It could be to adjust to the signer’s needs (which might be you), or it could be to make the song easier to play. There are various reasons for transposing.
Admittedly, transposing can sometimes be a bit of pain because it means shifting all the riffs, licks and chords to different positions, fingerings, etc.
But if you’re playing in a band (especially a church band), the need to transpose will periodically arise.
Plenty of musicians can relate to this scenario:
You go to practice well-prepared. You know exactly how to play your parts.
The leader or singer suddenly announces the key is too high or too low. Cue the groans as the band realizes what that means – the need to transpose.
Depending on what instrument you play, that’s going to mean different things.
But let’s say you’re the guitarist. Transposing will likely mean moving everything up or down one or more frets.
If you’re already playing in the open position, however, it will probably mean moving the position and shapes of the chords too.
If you have a capo, that makes transposing up easy, but transposing down can be a different matter.
What does it mean for a pianist? It usually means adjusting the number of black keys being used in the song. I can imagine that being a pain too, especially if you’ve already learned all the riffs a certain way.
I say “usually” because some keyboards have a transpose button on them, allowing keyboard players to shift from one key to another without having to change how they play the song.
Well, ultimately, the circle of fifths can’t help you with your positions or fingering. But it can help you quickly identify how many sharps or flats are in a certain key.
And, if you understand the major scale well, you already know what chords belong in any key you’re moving to.
That’s where the chord numbering system comes in handy – I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii. You won’t just know what notes are in the scale, but also the corresponding chords.
For example, if you know that the song’s progression is I, IV, ii, V, all you need to do is identify the corresponding notes in the new key and fit them in.
See, there is order to the universe!
How To Memorize The Circle Of Fifths
As you’ve already discovered, the circle of fifths is a convenient diagram you can refer to whenever you need to.
Of course, you can’t necessarily bring it to band rehearsal or a live performance.
I don’t think it’s necessary to memorize the entire diagram assuming you know how to find the fifth in any key and have a good understanding of how many sharps or flats are in each.
But there are ways to memorize the circle of fifths that can be helpful, and it can further ingrain the concept in your mind.
First, let’s go back to the basics.
If you start at the top of the circle with C, and move one space to the right to the next key signature, what happens? You add a sharp, right?
And, this continues until you can’t add any more sharps.
There are only seven notes in the major scale, so you can’t have any more than seven sharps in a given key signature. That’s why we can’t add another sharp after reaching the key of C#.
Here’s a table showing all the key signatures up to C# and how many sharps are in each:
But we also need to remember that there are flat keys on the left side of the circle.
After C#, we arrive at the key of Ab. How many flats does Ab have? Six? No.
The key of Ab has four flats. We can’t forget about the enharmonic keys, which make things a little messy.
So, the keys of B and Cb, as well as Db and C# are the same, but the number of sharps and flats they contain is not.
The key of B has five sharps, but the key of Cb has seven flats.
The key of Db has five flats, while the key of C# has seven sharps.
Fortunately, the key of F# has six sharps and the key of Gb also has six flats, so at least the bottom of the circle is clean and simple.
The bottom of the circle is the trickiest part, but once you get it, the rest is a breeze.
And, there is a way to memorize which notes become sharps as you move around the circle.
I’ve already shared that you can determine which note is going to become a sharp in the next key because it’s always the fourth degree (keeping in mind that you also need to keep the sharp from the previous key).
But in case that’s too much to remember, here’s a table that shows you which notes become sharps in what key:
Key of G
Key of D
Key of A
Key of E
Key of B
Key of F#
Key of C#
Well, isn’t that interesting. This is essentially the exact method we used to figure out the notes in the C major scale using the circle.
Start at one key signature to the left of the tonal center and count to seven.
In this case, starting at the left of C shows us that we’re going to need to turn the F into an F# in G major. Then, we’re going to need to turn the C into a C# in D major. And so on.
Now, all we need to do is turn F, C, G, D, A, E and B into a mnemonic device.
There are many of them out there, and I don’t think one is better than the other. It just depends on what’s easy for you to remember.
Here’s one example:
Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle
Here’s what’s great about this mnemonic device. We can also use it to determine which notes become flats in what key.
It just so happens that the mnemonic device works in reverse, too. Have a look:
Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Farther
So, again, we know that C has no sharps and no flats.
But based on what you’ve just learned, you should be able to figure out what note becomes flat in the key of F. It’s B, isn’t it?
Then, in the key of Bb, the E becomes flat. And so on.
Once you’ve gotten that, there’s nothing more to get.
So, if this didn’t all make sense to you, be sure to go back to the beginning of this section and review it until it sinks in.
What About The Modes? How Do They Relate To The Circle Of Fifths?
First, a brief introduction to modes.
Modes are essentially derivatives of the major scale.
Once more, we’ll use the C major scale as an example to show you how this all works.
So, the C major scale is…
C, D, E, F, G, A and B.
How many notes are in the C major scale again? Right, there are seven.
The relative minor of C is A. You may recall that the A minor scale contains the same notes as the C major scale, only in a different order.
So, the A minor scale would be:
A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
But hold on a second. Doesn’t that mean there are five other variations we haven’t even covered yet?
You’re right. Because there are seven notes in the scale, there are also seven modes. Here’s a table with the names of each mode:
So, Ionian (major), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian (minor) and Locrian are the modes of the major scale.
So, what? Aren’t they all the same but in a slightly different order? That’s exactly what I thought when I was first learning the modes.
Sure, if you played any of these scales over a C major chord progression, there wouldn’t be much difference.
Depending on what note you started or ended your runs on, it would sound a little more consonant or a little more dissonant, but that’s about it.
But what if, for example, you played the F Lydian scale over an F major chord progression.
Gasp! You can’t do that! B doesn’t belong in the key of F.
Well, that’s kind of the point. The raised fourth gives the scale a certain dreamy quality.
And, each mode has a specific tonal quality to it. The right modal progressions can bring out the unique characteristics of whatever mode you happen to be playing.
So, there’s a basic overview of modes. But what’s the connection between the circle of fifths and modes?
Starting at the top of the circle with C, let’s assign it the number one. Move clockwise and count each space (each key) until you’ve counted seven.
If you did it right, you should be left with the notes C, G, D, A, E, B and F#.
Although you would need to reorder the notes, that just so happens to be the C Lydian mode. We’d organize it and present it like so:
C, D, E, F#, G, A and B.
And, based on the presence of the F#, we can conclude that the C Lydian mode is a derivation of the G Ionian mode (G major scale).
Essentially, you can start at any note, count seven spaces clockwise and end up with the tonic’s Lydian mode.
If you know how the Lydian mode connects to other modes of the major scale, you can easily identify all the modes in that key.
Use the chart above to see what discoveries you can make for yourself. I can tell you right now – you’re bound to uncover many interesting patterns.
Using The Major Scale To Work Your Way Around The Circle
The circle of fifths can be made into a great major scale exercise.
Learning your scales is an important step in your musical journey, and it’s important to spend plenty of time practicing your scales until you’ve got complete control over them.
There’s nothing complicated about this exercise. We’re just going to play the major scale all around the circle.
Do you know what happens when we do that? Eventually, we return to the key we started at!
So, starting at C, you would simply play the C major scale forwards and backwards.
Then you would do the same with G, D, A, E, B, F#, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb and F.
The entire time you should be mindful of where the fifth degree in the scale is. That way, you can play this exercise without even looking at the circle of fifths.
So, that’s a great way to give your fingers a workout. But we’re not done yet!
Now, you should try this in the opposite direction. That’s right, it’s time to play the circle of fourths.
Start with C and play the major scale forwards and backwards.
Do the same with F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, F#, B, E, A, D and G.
You can play this exercise every day, several times per day, until you feel comfortable with each scale.
After that, you can continue using it as a warmup exercise.
How To Use The Circle Of Fifths As A Songwriter Or Composer
All you need to do is put together everything we’ve already covered in this guide and begin experimenting with various note, scale or chord combinations.
For me, learning the above demystified music in a significant way.
But I soon discovered that knowing what notes and chords go together doesn’t instantly make you a great songwriter.
It makes you a better songwriter to be sure, because you’re more aware of the rules.
But the rules can sometimes be constraining. And, if you stay in that space long enough, you might get into a rut.
Here’s the good news. Knowing the rules allows you to break them consciously.
Now you should have a better idea of when you’re changing keys, introducing new notes or chords, switching to a different mode and so on.
The rules are meant to be broken. They offer a great starting point, but where you take it from there is entirely up to you.
That’s a great piece of songwriting advice all its own.
Also remember that the circle of fifths gives you easy access to all related keys. It makes it easy to know which keys you can transition to and from without much effort.
You can identify scales using the circle of fifths too. And, as I’ve already shown you, if you know your scales, you can easily identify and build chords.
Another way to use the circle of fifths is to create progressions or songs that ascend or descend in fifths. You could use it to write songs that ascend or descend in fourths too.
That’s going to get tired after a while, but once you’ve mastered it, it’s a tool you can pull out at will when writing songs.
Let’s not forget that identifying minor keys is also made easier with the circle of fifths, so you should now be able to use it to write songs in both major and minor keys.
Finally, don’t rely exclusively on theory to compose or write songs. Rely on your instincts and your ears too.
Circle Of Fifths Conclusion
I find there have been times in my career when I have relied more on music theory, and times when I have relied less on it.
Once you have a firm grasp of theory, you’ll find you won’t have to think about it as much.
But if you move from a genre like rock to jazz, you’ll find yourself revisiting theory (and expanding your knowledge) in a significant way.
In jazz, you’ll see all kinds of chords you’ve never seen before, interacting with notes you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to.
And, it’s safe to say there’s a great deal more to jazz theory.
But regardless of where you are on your journey now, just enjoy every step. You don’t need to know all there is to know about music to play it. That’s one of its great qualities.