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Circle of Fifths explained, and easily mastered

Circle of fifths

When reading sheet music you may have started to wonder about why there are so many different key signatures, some with sharps and some with flats, and how musicians know exactly which to use and when. The answer lies in what we call the circle of fifths. 

Key signatures began showing up in music during the 16th century but the system of sharps and flats that we know today wasn’t fully standardized until the mid-17th century. A simple but effective system to accurately and quickly move from any key to any other key by using sharps and flats in the key signature was devised. This article teaches you about the circle of fifths in music, how it functions, how best to utilize it, and how you can apply the circle of fifths on the piano.

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What is the circle of fifths?

The circle of fifths is one of the most important aspects of music theory. It is basically a diagram that shows the relationship between different keys in music. It is an extremely helpful and easy way of learning the different key signatures in music, and once you’ve understood how to use the circle of fifths it will lead you to all sorts of new discoveries on the keyboard.

The interactive circle of fifths chart below explains the concept. You can essentially think of it as a music theory color wheel, which shows the progression of key signatures and how many sharps of flats there are in each key. As you can see, there are both major and minor circles of fifths.

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:

Why is the circle of fifths important?

Although it might look a bit complicated at first, the circle of fifths is a powerful tool for anyone interested in learning about music and you’ll be surprised just how often it comes in handy. Songs such as Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to The Moon’ and Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ are based on the circle of fifths.

It is a great way for beginners to familiarize themselves with the number of sharps or flats in a particular key signature, and also teaches us how different keys are related to each other (for instance, A minor is the relative minor of C major). And it’s not a new phenomenon either – circle of 5th charts have appeared in music theory textbooks since the days of J. S. Bach in the early eighteenth century.

Knowing how to use the circle of fifths is also important if you are trying to compose music, as it will help you decide how to apply different keys in your composition. 

Basic building blocks of the circle of fifths

An interval is the distance between any two notes. Piano intervals are how we relate notes on the keyboard to one another, and they are usually measured in semitones or half-steps. A semitone is the difference between two adjacent keys, whether black or white. For example, the distance from C to C♯ is one semitone (or one half-step), as is the distance from E to E♭

Practice counting some intervals on the keyboard. For example, a major 3rd interval is equal to four semitones (or four half-steps). 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 3rd interval above D, F, and G.

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

We think about them in two ways: by letter name, and by semitone / half-step distance. In simple terms, a 2nd is when you move from one letter to the next letter, A to B. A 5th is when we move 5 letters away. The easiest way to do this is to hold out your right hand, and count from your thumb. This works even if you’re not in the same key signature, or in a new key.

A – B – C – D – E

As such, a 5th up from A, is E.

And if you want to put these ideas about intervals into practice, we have the perfect lesson for you on Skoove – try this interactive lesson that is a step-by-step guide to the C major scale before teaching you the Billy Joel hit song ‘Piano Man’.

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

Understanding the perfect fifth

You can now use your knowledge of intervals to build a circle of fifths.

First, you need to understand what a perfect 5th interval is: it consists of 7 semitones. We call these intervals ‘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, which is easy to do as it usually fits the natural position of your first and fifth finger. For example, if you place your right-hand thumb 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 doesn’t work every single time but it’s a good place to start.

Now practice counting perfect fifth intervals starting on 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

  • Mark the note ‘C’ on the top of the circle (as above). It’s easiest to start the circle from ‘C’ to begin because the key of C major has zero sharps and zero flats – only the white keys on the piano. 
  • Count to 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 in the bass clef work for you. Now you have two keys.

Circle of fifths

  • Count 7 semitones up from ‘G’. If you have done this correctly, you will reach ‘D’. Mark ‘D’ one position to the right of ‘G’ on the circle. 
  • Count another 7 semitones up from ‘D’ to reach ‘A’. Mark ‘A’ one position clockwise around the circle from ‘D’.
  • Count 7 semitones up from A to reach ‘E’. 
  • Count 7 semitones up from ‘E’ to reach ‘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 C major has no sharps and no flats.
    • The key of G major has 1 sharp, F♯.
    • The key of D major has 2 sharps, F♯ and C♯.
    • The key of A major 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 concept when learning how to use the circle of fifths. The following video explains more:

Building the flat keys around the circle

Now, next to ‘B’ mark the enharmonic equivalent. Remember, the 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 unnecessarily complicated when it comes to the circle of fifths. Mark this C♭ on the inside of the circle (see below).

Circle of fifths

  • Count 7 semitones up from C♭ to reach G♭
  • Count another 7 semitones up to reach D♭ 
  • Count another 7 semitones up to reach A♭
  • Count another 7 semitones up to reach E♭ 
  • Count another 7 semitones up to reach B♭
  • Count another 7 semitones up to reach F
  • Count another 7 semitones up and you’ll have returned 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♭. The number of flats gets progressively fewer until you reach C major, which has zero flats.

Circle of fifths

How to memorize the circle of fifths

There are many tried and tested ways of memorizing the circle of fifths. Lots of people like to use mnemonics to memorize the order of key signatures and the order of sharps and flats. Perhaps you are already familiar with some of these, or maybe you’d prefer to create your own, but here are a few suggestions to help you remember the circle of fourths and fifths.

  • The sharp keys appear on the right-hand side of the circle of fifths. If we go round them clockwise, the order of sharp keys is G, D, A, E, B, F♯ in a circle of fifths.
  • The sharp keys can be memorized using the following mnemonic: Go Down And Eat Bread, Father
  • Bear in mind that the sixth note / key in the order of sharps is F♯ (and not F).
  • For example, the third word in the mnemonic is and, which represents the note / key A in the circle of fifths.
  • The flat keys appear on the left-hand side of the circle of fifths. If we go round them anti-clockwise, the order of flat keys is F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb in a circle of fourths.
  • The flat keys can be memorized using the following mnemonic: Friends Be Excellent At Doing Good
  • Apart from the first note in the flat series (F), all other notes are flat (i.e. Bb, Eb, Ab etc.)
  • For example, the third word in the mnemonic is excellent, which represents the note / key E in the circle of fourths.

How to use the circle of fifths

There are so many ways to use the circle of fifths it’s impossible to cover them all in this blog article. But let’s have a look at some of the more important ones:

Finding a key signature

The sequence F-C-G-D-A-E-B shows the order in which sharps (and, when spelled in reverse, flats) are added to keys around the circle. This sequence is very useful for finding out how many sharps or flats are in a particular key signature, so it’s a good idea to memorize it.

Building a scale

Now that you have an easy way of finding out the key signature of any key in the circle of fifths, it’s easy to figure out the full scale. You know the tonic you want to start from and the subsequent diatonic notes. The key signature will tell you which notes should be sharp or flat, and the remaining scale degrees will be natural. And there you have a diatonic scale!

For example, if you want to form the F major scale, the key signature will tell you there is one flat (Bb) and the other notes will be natural.

Building chords and triads

  • You can use the circle of fifths to build piano chords or triads.
  • A major triad consists of three notes – the tonic, a major third above the tonic, and a perfect fifth above the tonic.
  • A minor triad also consists of three notes – the tonic, a minor third above the tonic, and a perfect fifth above the tonic.

To practice playing piano triads, check out this lesson on Skoove, which also includes the Michael Jackson song ‘Heal the World’.

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

Conclusion – how will the circle of fifths help me?

The circle of fifths is so important to any musician, because it enhances your understanding of the basic building books of music theory. The relationship between keys and between scales, as well as how key signatures are formed, all have their roots in the circle of fifths.

Additionally, many chord progressions are based on the circle of fifths and so it’s very useful when writing songs. The song ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ uses a very common chord progression, and you can learn it here on Skoove!

Go to the lesson

:bulb:Please note that the lesson is also available on mobile app

Despite there only being 12 different note names, it’s incredible how many ways the notes relate to each other! Learning how to play the piano is the best way to put the music theory behind the circle of fifths into practice, so why not start your free trial with Skoove 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.

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Start your musical journey
  • Fall in love with the music - Learn your favorite songs; whether they're classical, pop, jazz or film music, all at a level that suits you.
  • Enjoy interactive piano lessons - Learn with courses that help you master everything from music theory, chords, technique and more.
  • Get real-time feedback - Improve your practice with rich feedback as Skoove listens to your playing and highlights what went well and areas for improvement.
1 month free trial
No credit card details required
Start your piano journey now!