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Circle of fifths: an in-depth explanation of how to use it

Circle of fifths

When reading music and looking at any sheet music, eventually you will start to wonder about why there are sharps and flats, why key signatures need them, and how do musicians know exactly which to use and when. Well, the answer to that question is not as intimidating as it seems – the answer is the circle of fifths. 

Musicians created a system where we can accurately and quickly move from any key to any other key by using sharps and flats in the key signature. However, if you move around randomly the music can end up feeling disconnected and confusing. The circle of fifths lets us use a set of organization to set our practicing to, and is also the order of sharps laid out on the key signature. Let’s learn about how to better utilize this concept, and master playing in all keys.

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What is the circle of fifths?

The circle of fifths is a beautiful and extremely useful pattern in music. Learning to recognize and understand the pattern will deepen your mastery and enjoyment of music and lead to new and interesting discoveries on the keyboard. Don’t be afraid! The circle of fifths is your friend and ally.

Click here to jump down to the interactive circle of fifths

Think of the circle of fifths like a music theory color wheel. The circle of fifths reveals information about the progression of key signatures, or how many sharps or flats are in a key, and their relationships internally and externally. Just as you can see relationships between primary, secondary, and complimentary colors on the color wheel, so too can you see the analogous relationships between groups of tones on the circle of fifths. 

Intervals on the piano

At the most basic level, an interval is the distance between any two notes. Piano intervals are how we relate notes on the keyboard to one another. Intervals are usually measured in semitones or half-steps. One semitone is equal to one key on the keyboard. For example, the distance from C to C♯ is one semitone as is the distance from E to E♭, or any time you move between adjacent keys. 

Practice counting some intervals on the keyboard. For example, a major third interval is equal to four semitones. Start on middle C, then count 1 (C♯), 2 (D), 3 (D♯), and 4 (E). C – E is a major third interval. Now use this same method to find a major third interval above D, F, and G. Don’t read on until you practice this.

  • A major third interval above D is F♯ (start on D and count 1 (D♯), 2 (E), 3 (F), 4 (F♯).
  • A major third interval above F is A (start on F and count 1 (F♯), 2 (G), 3 (G♯), 4 (A).
  • A major third interval above G is B (start on G and count 1 (G♯), 2 (A), 3 (A♯), 4 (B).

If you are still needing a little assistance finding these notes easily on your keyboard, you might be want to label your piano keyboard.

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Using intervals to build the circle of fifths

Intervals on piano are defined as the distance between two notes. We think about them in two ways: by letter name, and by half-step distance. This allows us to understand every piece of information we need about intervals very quickly, and lets musicians talk to other musicians very quickly. For instance, a second is when you move from one letter to the next letter, A to B. A perfect fifth then, is when we move 5 letters away. The easiest way to do this is to stick out your hand, and count from your thumb. This works for the even if you’re not in the same key signature, or in a new key.

A – B – C – D – E

A fifth up from A, is E.  

Understanding the perfect fifth

Now, you will use your knowledge of intervals to learn how to build the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths is a way to organize all twelve pitches so that they are equal distances from one another. Grab a piece of staff paper and let’s go!

First, you need to understand the perfect fifth. The interval of a perfect fifth is 7 semitones. Perfect intervals are called perfect because the ratio between the two pitches can be expressed as a rational number. For example, the ratio of frequencies between the two pitches in a perfect fifth interval is 3:2.

Let’s practice counting some perfect fifth intervals on the keyboard. You can quickly test this interval on the keyboard by the natural position of your first and fifth finger. For example, when your right hand first finger is on middle C, your fifth finger is naturally on G. If you count from C to G, you will find there are 7 semitones between the two pitches. This test does not work every time, but it is a good place to start.

Practice counting a perfect fifth interval from D, G, B, and E♭.

  • Beginning with D, count D♯ (1), E (2), F (3), F♯ (4), G (5), G♯ (6), and A (7). D to A is a perfect fifth.
  • Beginning with G, count G♯ (1), A (2), A♯ (3), B (4), C (5), C♯ (6), and D (7). G to D is a perfect fifth.
  • Beginning with B, count C (1), C♯ (2), D (3), D♯ (4), E (5), F (6), F♯ (7). B to F♯ is a perfect fifth. Here is an example where the first to fifth finger rule does not result in a perfect fifth.
  • Beginning with E♭, count E♮ (1), F (2), G♭ (3), G♮ (4), A♭ (5), A♮ (6), B♭ (7). E♭ to B♭ is a perfect fifth.

Building the sharp keys around the circle

Begin by drawing a comfortably large circle on your staff paper. It needs to be big enough to fit all twelve tones, so estimate correctly. Don’t worry if your circle is not perfectly round! After you have drawn your circle, mark twelve evenly spaced dots around the circle.

Circle of fifths

  • Begin by marking ‘C’ on the top of the circle. Once you understand the pattern, you can start the circle from anywhere. But, we often draw the circle from C to begin because the key of C major has zero sharps and zero flats – only the white keys. 
  • The circle of fifths gives us lots of information about key signatures, which we will dive into later. For now, just draw a C at the top of your circle.
  • Count 7 semitones above C. You can use your keyboard if you are close by, otherwise it might be helpful to write down all twelve tones in order. 
  • G is 7 semitones above C. Mark G one position to the right of C. You can also play with your left hand to make the circle of fifths bass clef work for you. Now you have two keys.

Circle of fifths

  • Count up 7 semitones from G. If you have done it correctly, you will reach D. Mark D one position to the right of G on the circle. 
  • Count up another 7 semitones from D to reach A. Mark A one position clockwise around the circle from D.
  • Count up 7 semitones from A to reach and mark E 
  • Count up 7 semitones to reach and mark B.

You should now have 8 positions marked on the circle of fifths.

Circle of fifths

These 8 positions are the sharp key signatures.

  • At the top, the key of the C major scale has zero sharps and zero flats.
  • The key of G major has 1 sharp, F♯.
  • The key of D major has 2 sharps, F♯ and C♯.
  • The key of the A major scale has 3 sharps, F♯, C♯, and G♯.
  • The key of E major has 4 sharps, F♯, C♯, G♯, and D♯.
  • The key of B major has 5 sharps, F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, and A♯.
  • The key of F♯ major has 6 sharps, F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯, and E♯.
  • And finally, the key of C♯ major has 7 sharps, F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯, E♯, and B♯.

Notice how the new sharp in each key is a fifth above the previous sharp. This is an important pattern to learn to know how to use the circle of fifths.

Building the flat keys around the circle

Now, mark the enharmonic equivalent of B. Remember, enharmonic equivalent means the same pitch written with a flat instead of a sharp. The enharmonic equivalent of B is C♭. We do this because if we continued around the circle with sharp keys, we would end up marking double sharps, which are important to know about, but a bit of a headache to think about. Mark this C♭ on the inside of the circle.

Circle of fifths

  • Count up 7 semitones from C♭ to reach and mark G♭
  • Count up another 7 semitones to reach and mark D♭ 
  • Count up another 7 semitones to reach and mark A♭
  • Count up another 7 semitones to reach and mark E♭ 
  • Count up another 7 semitones to reach and mark B♭
  • Count up another 7 semitones to reach and mark F
  • Count up another 7 semitones to return home to the key of C major. 

You have now constructed the entire circle of fifths! These eight positions represent the flat keys. Moving clockwise around the circle, the key of C♭ major has 7 flats, B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭, and F♭.

Circle of fifths

Some basic patterns on the circle

Knowing what the circle of fifths diagram is, and how to count it isn’t really the point. We are here to learn how to make music, not how to do math and make graphs. The circle of fifths as a concept is interesting, but the application of the concept is what makes it powerful. We use the circle as a simple and effective organizational tool for practicing, so we know that when we’ve played an idea or scale pattern, we can move to the next key in the circle. Then we can play all 12 keys, and soon we’ll be more flexible than ever before.

  • The progression of sharps and flats – the circle of fifths is a useful method for organizing key signatures and the progression of sharps and flats. The progression of sharps and flats follows the circle.  We begin at the top of the circle with C major (zero sharps and zero flats). As we progress clockwise around the circle, we add 1 sharp. As we move to the left around the circle, we add 1 flat. Moving clockwise the key of G major adds F♯, the key of D major adds F♯ and C♯, a fifth above F#. This pattern continues as you move to the right.The progression of sharps is F-C-G-D-A-E-B. To remember this pattern, you can use the acronym:Father Charlie Goes Down And Ends BattleAs you move counterclockwise, the pattern reverses. This is not only a major key. We start our flat keys with the F major scale, moving counterclockwise. The key of F major adds B♭, the key of B♭ adds B♭ and E♭, and the key of E♭ adds B♭, E♭, and A♭. The progression of flats is B-E-A-D-G-C-F. You can use the reverse acronym:Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles FatherThese acronyms can be helpful but most musicians and teachers generally skip these acronyms. It is easiest to remember FCG-DAEB for Sharp Keys, and BEAD, G-C-F for Flat Keys.
  • The pentatonic scale – one more interesting pattern is formed by the minor pentatonic scale. The minor pentatonic scale is a five note scale.
    Remember, the formula for the minor pentatonic scale degrees are 1 – ♭3 – 4 -5 – ♭7. In the key of C, this spelled C – E♭ – F – G – B♭. Find all of these pitches on the circle and then draw lines to connect them. On the circle of fourths these notes all connect to form a circle. This pattern appears for every minor pentatonic scale, no matter the key.

Interactive circle of fifth

For a nice visual representation of the circle of fifths that includes the relative minor keys as well as key signatures on the staff, check out this interactive tool from Pianolit:

How it all connects

The circle of fifths is a remarkably deep tool. It reveals many secrets of music theory, the relationships between different kes, and the relationships between scales, understand key signatures, Additionally many chord progressions follow the circle of fifths, and it can be helpful writing songs. The circle also allows works for relative major and relative minor keys.

Learning the circle of fifths will also help you to shrink the size of your keyboard, as sooner than later you will realize there are only twelve notes, and that playing piano is within your grasp. Skoove is the best way to learn to capture the power of the circle of fifths, and start your free trial today! 

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Author of this blog post


Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.