he Circle of Fifths is an easy way to find out the key a
song is in. The Circle of Fifths tells you how many sharps or flats are
in a given key. C has no sharps or flats. It is called the Circle of Fifths
because as you go clockwise you go up a fifth. For example, the fifth note
of the C major scale is G. The fifth note of the G major scale is D, and
The Circle of Fifths can also be used to help to learn chords.
You already know that the Circle goes in Fifths clockwise. Now look at how
close the chords that are a fifth apart are together on the fretboard. You
might not use this too much, but it will give you a broader view of the
chords and how they are related to other chords.
The Famous Circle of Fifths
These Fifths Are Not
I've heard about the
"Circle of Fifths" since I was a teenager, but it never made sense until
recently. Another mental block knocked over. This is a very simple tool for
musicians of all stripes.
How Does the Circle of Fifths Work?
Look at the circle below, and we'll walk
through the basics. Think of a clock, with C occupying the 12:00 position.
First, everything starts from C,
since C is the key in which there are NO sharps or flats.
As we move clockwise from C, each note is a fifth above
the last. So G is the fifth of the C scale, D is the fifth of the G scale, and so
Starting with G, each new key going clockwise has one more
sharp note in its major scale. You can test if you wish, by building a major scale
on each note.
If we move counterclockwise from C, each
note is a fifth below the prior note. And, just as with sharps,
each scale to the left of C adds a flat note.
Note that at the 6:00 position, there are two notes -- F#
and Gb. These, of course, are enharmonic notes -- they sound exactly the same and
are the same. Their names are different only because they are reached from different
Does the Circle of Fifths Do for a Musician?
First and foremost, it gives us a quick visual
reference to a lot of information about all 12 keys in music. Again, watch the
Again, C is the reference point,
but these concepts will apply for any key.
know that G is the fifth of the C scale. In the Circle of Fifths, the fifth note of
the scale always sits just to the right of the root note.
And we already know that F is a fifth below
C. But we should also note that the fifth note below any root note is the same named
note as the fourth note of the key scale.
OK, sounds confusing, so let's break it down. Here's
the C scale in two octaves:
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
Using the middle C as number 1, count down (left) to the
fifth note. Is it F? Should be. Now count up (right) to the F note.
Is it the fourth note? If not, you miscounted. So now we know the
following is true:
5th below Root = 4th above Root
the Circle of Fifths to Find Notes and Chords in a Scale.
We know that notes in a scale correspond to
the chord scale in the same key, right? Here's how they line up:
C Major Scale
Find the Notes in a
Again, we are using the key of C as a
The Circle of Fifths can help us name the notes in any
major scale. Here's how:
Look at the C scale in one octave:
C D E F G A B C
Note on the circle that the 1st note is C. The 2
note, D, is two steps to the right of C. The 3 note, E, is two steps further to the
Now jump across the circle -- not quite straight across --
to the 4 note, which always sits to the left of the root note in the Circle of Fifths.
Once you have the 4 note, the 5, 6, and 7 notes are
respectively two steps to the right from each other.
That little pattern works with any key. If you were
to "spin" the markers for the 1st through 7th scale positions, so that another
note is the root note, the pattern works the same way.
Find the Chords in a
Once more, the key of C is our
Because the Circle of Fifths can help us name the notes in
any major scale, it can also show us the chords in a major chord scale. Here's how:
First, remember that any key has a set of chords which go
with it, just as it has a major scale of single notes. The major chord scale is
shown in the table above. Just like the notes, the chords are identified as 1, 2, 3,
4, 5, 6 and 7. The 8 chord is always the octave of the 1 chord.
In the major chord scale, the 1, 4 and 5 chords are all
major chords -- named the same chords as the 1, 4 and 5 notes. In the guitar world,
these are the "BIG THREE" chords of every chord progression -- the 1-4-5
progressions. In C, you've played it many times: C-F-G.
The 2, 3 and 6 chords in the chord scale are all minors,
and the 7 chord is a diminished or diminished 7th chord. Again, those are all named
after the note whose position they represent.
The minor chords add color to what we play, but one of them
is the primary minor chord -- often called the relative minor -- based on
the 6th note of the scale. In the case of C, it's the A minor chord.
A trick in using the Circle of Fifths to find the relative
minor is to move 90 degrees right from the root chord. So the relative minor of C is
A minor, since A is 90 degrees to the right of C.
Using the Circle of 5ths
To use the Circle of 5ths, you have
to figure out what key you are playing in. If you know
the key, at the very least, you know you know what chord to go back to. Then the hard
part is knowing only what chords are in that key.
The circle of fifths helps us identify that key and those
LESSON 1: SHARPS
C = 0 sharps CDEFGAB
G = 1 sharp
D = 2 sharps DEF#GABC#
A = 3 sharps ABC#DEF#G#
E = 4 sharps EF#G#ABC#D#
B = 5 sharps BC#D#EF#G#A#
F# = 6 sharps F#G#A#BC#D#E#
With the Circle of 5ths, you can see how many
sharps each key or major scale contains.
C = 0 sharps
Each key as you go down adds the 7th sharp:
G adds F#
D keeps F#,adds C# ...
Each of these new sharps just happens to be a perfect 5th
from the first sharp, F# ... f# g
a b c d e
To remember the order of these, remember this quote or make
up your own,
“Cool Guitarists Do Absolutely Everything Better
LESSON 2: FLATS
C has no flats CDEFGAB
F has 1 flat FGABbCDE
Bb has 2 flats BbCDEbFGA
Eb has 3 flats EbFGAbBbCD
Ab has 4 flats A bBbCDEbFG
Db has 5 flats
Gb has 6 flats
This is basically a continuation from the sharps side. Gb
and F# are the same notes, just different names. We switch
to flats to make life simpler, because we'd get into
double sharps and all that nonsense.
So instead of adding more sharps we take away flats. Let's
look at F# and Gb
F# ... F#G#A#BC#D#E#
Gb ... GbAbBbCbDbEbF
See, they're all the same notes.
Now go up a 5th from Gb to Db.
Now we take the flat 7th away, which would be “Cb.”
Next we move up another 5th from Db to Ab and take
away the 7th flat, which is Gb
Next we move up another 5th from Ab to Eb and take
away the 7th flat, which is Db
Next we move up another 5th from Eb to Bb and take
away the 7th flat, which is Ab
Next we move up another 5th from Bb to F and take
away the 7th flat, which is Eb. That leaves us with Bb only.
To be honest with you we could analyze the hell out of this
thing for hours and hours and still be digging deeper and deeper.
We'll look at this a few more times in its entirety and
make a few observations.
Now for another cheezy little quote to remember the order
of the flats from the c counter-clockwise,
freakin' BEAD g”
Yeah, I know, but it
helps to remember the order of the keys. If
not just make something up.
Guitar Theory: Uses of the Circle of 5ths
Find out how many sharps and flats are in each key: ALWAYS
START on the F and REMEMBER THE ORDER
OF THE NOTES ON THE CIRCLE
Take your key and the sharps will be each of the
notes leading to that key from F. Include F
Key of A (we know that A has 3 sharps)
From F we have F, C and G (counting 3 from F) so the sharps
= F# , C#, G#
Take your key and the flats will be the notes leading
to that key from F again plus the next note. Don't include
Key of Db (we know that Db has 5 flats)
From F we have B, E, A, D, G so those will be the flats Bb,
Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
Find out what chords are in a key and what their flavor
Take the G major key. In that key we know that there is one
sharps and that is F#. We know that F# is the 7th of
the G because it's the letter that precedes the G alphabetically.
So it is diminished.
Finding major and minor keys in the Circle of 5ths
Looking at the Circle of Fifths: the left and right hand
man of the key you want are major. After that, the next 3 chords
are minor.Then you arrive at the 7th, which we know is diminished.
There you go.
So for G = (G C D) (A E B) (F#) are what we get ... G C D
are Major, A E B are minor, and F# is diminished.
Put them in order = G a b C D e F#
remember that the outer circle is major
Guitar Theory: Summary of Circle of Fifths
So now we know that the circle of fifths shows us:
the notes in every major scale and minor scale
how many flats and sharps are in each key signature
what keys share key signatures
how to quickly see what relative minor belongs to what key
what the dominant and subdominant of every chord / key and
consequently where each dominant resolves
the more we study it, the more we will understand the movement
and relationship between chords and notes
So where do we start?!! That's a ton of info!
1. Let's start with memorizing the notes and where they
are on the Circle of Fifths:
MAJOR KEYS: STARTING WITH C
KEYS WITH SHARPS: down the right side CGDAEBF
KEYS WITH FLATS: down the left CFBbEbAbDbGb
2. Memorize how many sharps and flats each gets: 0123456 (respectively)
3. Memorize how to remember what's flat and sharp:
START WITH F ...
Sharps = count the number of sharps your note has clockwise
and those are your sharps. Include F as a sharp.
Flats = count the number of flats your note has counterclockwise
from F and those are your flats. Don't count F as a flat.
4. Where the relative minor is in relation to the MAJOR keys
and consequently what Keys share Key Signatures.
MAJOR KEYS and KEY SIGNATURE
minor keys that share key sig. above
5. Where the minor keys lie in the Circle of Fifths:
MINOR KEYS: STARTING WITH Am
KEYS WITH SHARPS:
down the right side: Am ... Em ... Bm ... F#m ... C#m
... G#m ... D#m
KEYS WITH FLATS:
down the left side: Am ... Dm ... Gm ... Cm ... Fm
... Bbm ... Cbm
7. Where the tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant,
submediant and leading tones occur on the
circle and what their flavor is for Minor keys and Major keys.
(major / minor / diminished)
8. Realize where tonic category chords are, subdominant chords
are and dominant chords are on the circle.
CLOCKWISE: every degree separated by 5ths
COUNTERCLOCKWISE: every degree separated by 4ths
OUTSIDE: major scale, major chords forms, major keys, key signatures
INSIDE: minor scale, minor chord forms, relative minor to key
relative minor chord
Music Theory Circle of Fifths for Treble Clef Handout, Study Sheet, Reference Chart
shown below, this version of the Circle of Fifths with treble clefs is
designed to use for study, as a handout, or even as a reference chart.
It includes the major and minor key signature names and the
corresponding sharps and flats.