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The 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 so on.

Circle of Fifths

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 Intoxicating

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 on.

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 directions.

What 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 clock.
Again, C is the reference point, but these concepts will apply for any key.

We already 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

Using 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:


Find the Notes in a Scale

Again, we are using the key of C as a reference.

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 right.

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 Scale

Once more, the key of C is our reference.

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 chords.

LESSON 1: SHARPS
circle of fifths

  • C = 0 sharps CDEFGAB
  • G = 1 sharp GABCDEF#
  • 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 ... freak”

LESSON 2: FLATS
circle of fifths

  • 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
  • DbEbFGbAbBbC
  • Gb has 6 flats
  • GbAbBbCbDbEbF

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,

“Cool 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

Sharps:
Take your key and the sharps will be each of the notes leading to that key from F. Include F
EXAMPLE:

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#
Flats:
Take your key and the flats will be the notes leading to that key from F again plus the next note. Don't include F
EXAMPLE:

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

SIMPLE RIGHT?

Find out what chords are in a key and what their flavor is.

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
circle of fifths circle of fifths circle of fifths

Guitar Theory: Summary of Circle of Fifths

So now we know that the circle of fifths shows us:

  1. the notes in every major scale and minor scale
  2. how many flats and sharps are in each key signature
  3. what keys share key signatures
  4. how to quickly see what relative minor belongs to what key
  5. what the dominant and subdominant of every chord / key and consequently where each dominant resolves
  6. 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.
C G D A E B F MAJOR KEYS and KEY SIGNATURE
a e b f# c# g# d# 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

6. Memorize how many sharps and flats each gets:

0 ... 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... 6 (respectively)

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.

circle of fifths

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 chords

OUTSIDE


INSIDE


Music Theory Circle of Fifths for Treble Clef Handout, Study Sheet, Reference Chart

As 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.


Use this Circle of Fifths for handouts or to study and learn the Circle of Fifths yourself. Use for teaching music lessons, for music theory classes, or other music learning and teaching needs.

Note that the copyright marks shown in the screenshot examples are NOT on the downloadable files.