The Circle of Fifths in Music Theory, Explained
The circle of fifths chart can look daunting, even to an aspiring musician. It’s one of the most important concepts in music theory, used predominantly by classical musicians. The circle of fifths basically describes the musical relationships between music notes and keys, represented in the form of a circle. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, it might not make much sense at first, but if you want to go deeper into your understanding of music theory, it’s worth trying to decode its secrets.
What is the circle of fifths?
The circle of fifths diagram shows the relationship between different keys in the form of a circle, with sharp keys appearing on the right of the circle, and flat keys on the left. Think of it as a clock that goes round and round; the key of C major doesn’t include any sharps or flats, so it sits at the center, playing the role of 12 o’clock, if you will. Going clockwise, each key that follows C major is like a number on a clock, but instead of moving one by one, it moves by five.
Basically, if C is 12 o’clock, then G would be 1 o’clock, because the circle of fifths moves up by five notes. The next note after G would be D, which is also five notes away, and so on. The circle keeps going around, adding one sharp to each key. If you’re moving counterclockwise, you take away one flat with each note as you go backwards.
In music theory, the circle of fifths organizes the 12 chromatic pitches as a sequence of perfect fifths. Looking at the diagram, you can see that the pitches corresponding to each key are a perfect fifth higher than the previous pitch in the circle. For instance, the distance between C and G is a perfect fifth, as is the distance between G and D, and so on - this is why it’s called ‘the circle of fifths.’
What is the circle of fourths?
The circle of fifths is also sometimes referred to as the circle of fourths. If you move around the circle counterclockwise, you notice that the progression moves by fourths instead of fifths, with a flat added with each key. For example, C major has no flats, F major has one flat, B♭major has two flats, and so on. Going counterclockwise on the diagram, you can see that each pitch is a perfect fourth higher than the previous one, instead of a perfect fifth when going clockwise.
What is the origin story of the circle of fifths?
An early version of the circle of fifths has allegedly been around since 600 BC, when Pythagoras is said to have been experimenting with music when he discovered the relationships between pitch frequencies. He came up with the Pythagorean Circle, which is now often considered ‘the grandfather’ of the circle of fifths.
In 1677, composer and theorist Nikolay Diletsky featured the first circle of fifths diagram in his treatise on musical composition ‘Grammatika.’ His work had a huge impact on Russian church composers and classical musicians, and was followed up by Johann David Heinichen’s revisions in 1728. The circle of fifths diagram was used heavily in musical pieces of the Baroque era, which often had songs modulated to a new key.
Basic building blocks of the circle of fifths
Like we’ve mentioned above, the circle of fifths is a diagram that organizes the 12 chromatic pitches as a sequence of perfect fifths, going clockwise, or a sequence of perfect fourths going counterclockwise.
The chromatic scale includes all the 12 notes on the Western musical system, organized as 12 pitches, all a semitone or half-step apart from each other. They are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet - A, B, C, D, E, F, G, followed by symbols for sharps (#) and flats (♭). Each note on the chromatic scale is played in succession, without skipping, so every note is separated by a half-step. For instance, the chromatic scale includes all the notes on a guitar fretboard and all the notes, both black and white, on a piano.
Musicians, especially classical musicians, use the chromatic scale and the circle of fifths when writing music, because it allows them to incorporate all 12 notes on the scale, and helps them harmonize melodies, create chord progressions, and modulate to different keys within a musical composition. But it’s not just classical musicians who can benefit from using the circle of fifths diagram; this concept can be useful to musicians in all kinds of genres, enabling them to make the best use of the chromatic scale and create beautiful harmonies and progressions.
Moving right around the circle
The C major key has no flats and no sharps, so it sits at the starting point, at 12 o’clock in the circle of fifths. Moving clockwise around the circle, up by a fifth, we reach the key of G major, which features one accidental, F#, and with each next move on the circle of fifths, we add a sharp. But how can you remember which sharps to add?
Many musicians use mnemonics to memorize the order of movement around the circle of fifths. To use the circle clockwise, we like to use the following mnemonic: Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle, which translates to F, C, G, D, A, E, B on the scale. You can use this FCGDAEB sequence to identify which sharp key you’re in: the first letter of each word is the last sharp of the key; then, you go up a half-step and the following note is the name of the major key signature.
Moving left around the circle
If you want to play music in B-flat major, for instance, you’ll need to move counterclockwise on the circle of fifths chart. You start the same way, at C major, moving to the left on the diagram, moving down a fifth and adding a flat with each step. There’s also a handy mnemonic for this, basically going in reverse: Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father (BEADGCF).
For instance, to find the B-flat major note, you move counterclockwise two steps, adding two flats to your key signature: B-flat and E-flat. You can keep going all the way to C-flat major, which has seven flats. The only standout here is the key of F major/D minor, which has one flat, B-flat. For every other flat key, you just go back one word in the phrase, add a flat to the first letter, and there’s your key signature!
You might be wondering how come there are 7 sharp keys and 7 flat keys, plus the neutral C major key, when the circle of fifths only features 12 steps. This is possible because three of the keys on the circle are enharmonic, meaning they have the same pitches, but have two different names and can be used differently in music theory. These three keys are B major/C-flat major, F# major/G-flat major, and C# major/D-flat major.
As a general rule, you use the sharp key names for the enharmonic notes when moving right on the circle (for instance, B major instead of C-flat major), and you use the flat key names when moving left (D-flat major instead of C#).
How to use the circle of fifths in your music
As a musician, you can use the circle of fifths to enhance your musical composition, experiment with different keys and pitches, and ultimately create more dynamic and original music. There are different ways to incorporate the circle of fifths into your music, it’s all about experimenting and trying new things; you never know what might come out of it.
You can use the circle of fifths to better grasp the notion of chord progressions, since chords that are adjacent on the diagram tend to go well together. For instance, if you’re in the C key, the chords next to it (G and F) can be used in chord progressions with the C chord, as they will more than likely sound good together. If you follow the circle to build a string of diatonic chords, in any key, you can easily create chord progressions that will sound good, and that could set the foundation for your next great song.
You can also use the circle of fifths for modulation, which means switching from one key to another within a musical composition. The circle allows you to determine which keys are closely related, enabling you to build a smooth transition, or modulation, into a different key.
For example, in popular music, you’ll notice that the final chorus verse of a hit song switches to a different key, up either a half-step or a whole step. This is done by modulating to a new tonal center, or moving to the next key, or fifth, on the circle of fifths.
Musicians can use the circle of fifths as a reference to experiment with different keys, chord progressions, modulations, and come up with original song structures and catchy compositions that could become a hit.
You can also use the circle of fifths as a guide to build song structures, moving through different keys and modulations to give your composition a boost. By experimenting and moving up or down around the circle, you can create ascending or descending melodies and come up with unusual breakdowns that will surprise and delight the listener.
The diatonic circle of fifths
If you want to dig even deeper into how the circle of music can be used, you can look into what is called the diatonic circle of fifths. Each of the 12 pitches in the circle of fifths can be a tonic of a major or minor key, and these keys can be organized on a diatonic scale. The diatonic circle of fifths is similar to the original, complete circle, but it only features members of the diatonic scale. This means it includes a diminished fifth, in C major between B and F - also known as the circle progression.
The circle progression is basically a succession through all the seven diatonic chords on the diatonic scale by fifths. It includes a progression by diminished fifth, and also one diminished chord, then at the end returning to the tonic. Below is an example of A vi–ii–V–I progression in C major, with inverted chords.
The chromatic circle
The chromatic circle shows all the notes one can play using a guitar’s fretboard or piano keyboard, and it looks very similar to the circle of fifths. However, they are quite different. The chromatic circle shows all the possible notes that can be played in a musical composition, while the circle of fifths represents the relationship between different notes on a key or scale. The chromatic circle is truly continuous, as each point on the circle corresponds to a possible music note, and vice versa.
Memorizing the circle of fifths
It can be hard to keep track of all the different keys on the circle of fifths, but luckily, you can use mnemonic devices to help you easily memorize how the circle works. These devices are basically phrases that tell a logical story that’s easy to remember, and the first letter of each word represents the notes moving either left or right on the circle.
The most popular mnemonic device to memorize the circle of fifths is this one: Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle (FCGDAEB). This one is the most commonly used mnemonic, because you can use it in reverse to move counterclockwise on the circle: Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father (BEADGCF).
These mnemonics make it easy to memorize the order of the sharps and flats for major scales on the circle of fifths. But you can come up with mnemonics to create easy-to-remember phrases for the minor scales, as well, which move in the same order but begin at a different starting point.
Why is the circle of fifths important?
The circle of fifths is a great tool for beginners or aspiring musicians who want to deepen their knowledge of music theories and experiment with different key signatures. Using mnemonics to memorize the order of keys, the circle is easy to use, showcasing how keys related to each other. Getting familiar with the circle of fifths can help with songwriting ideas, song structure, harmonies and melodies, chord progressions, modulation, key changes, and more.
There are quite a few well-known songs that have used the circle of fifths in chord progressions. One example is the iconic ‘Hey Joe’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1966), which starts on a C major chord, going into a G major, D major, A major, and E major, before repeating the circle.
Other examples include ‘I got Rhythm’ by George & Ira Gershwin, Santana’s ‘Europa,’ as well as songs by Beyone or Amin Van Buuren. If you want to look at how the circle of fifths can be used in music composition, you can also analyze Baroque-era classical composers like Bach, Romantics like Schubert, or the legendary Beethoven.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the circle of fifths?
The circle of fifths is a tool used in music theory that shows the relationship between the 12 different notes in Western music. The circle is arranged in a clockwise pattern, with each note being a perfect fifth above the previous note. The circle starts with the note C and continues around the circle until it reaches the note B, which is a perfect fifth above F#.
Who invented the circle of fifths?
The first iteration of the circle of fifths was created in 1677 by Nikolay Diletsky, in his music treatise Grammatika. Johann David Heinichen improved on that design in 1728, in his treatise, "Der Generalbass in der Composition." Other music theorists, such as Simon Sechter and Hugo Riemann, further developed and expanded upon Heinichen's work.
Why is it called a perfect fifth?
A perfect fifth is a musical interval that is formed by playing two notes that are seven semitones (or half-steps) apart. The interval is called a "perfect" fifth because it is considered to have a particularly pleasing or harmonious sound.
How does the circle of fifths work?
The circle of fifths is a tool used in music theory to understand the relationships between the 12 different notes in Western music. The circle is arranged in a clockwise pattern, with each note being a perfect fifth above the previous note. By moving around the circle, musicians can easily determine the notes that are in a particular key, create interesting chord progressions, and transpose music to different keys.
Should I memorize the circle of fifths?
Memorizing the circle of fifths allows you to easily determine the notes that are in a particular key, create interesting chord progressions, and transpose music to different keys. You can use mnemonic devices to help you memorize the circle of fifths, like Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle (FCGDAEB) going clockwise, or, going counterclockwise on the circle, Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father (BEADGCF).
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