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Music theory can be an intimidating subject for many musicians. However, it is an essential aspect of music that provides a foundation for understanding the mechanics and structure of music. One of the most important concepts in music theory is the circle of fifths, which is a useful tool for understanding the relationships between musical keys and chords. In this article, we will explore the circle of fifths and its significance in music theory.

## Key Takeaways

*The circle of fifths is a diagram that shows the relationships between different keys in music.**It is built around perfect fifth intervals, which consist of 7 semitones or half-steps.**The circle of fifths is an essential tool for musicians and composers to understand the harmonic relationships between major keys, modulate effectively, and create chord progressions.**Memorizing the circle of fifths can be useful, but it’s more important to understand the concepts behind it and how to use it effectively.**The circle of fifths was invented to help musicians and composers understand the relationships between different keys and create effective harmonic progressions.*

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**What is the circle of fifths?**

The circle of fifths is a diagram that illustrates the relationship between the 12 musical keys. It is a circle that is divided into 12 sections, with each section representing a different key. The circle is arranged in a clockwise direction, with the key of C Major at the top and the key of F# Major at the bottom. Each section of the circle represents a musical key and its corresponding major and minor chords.

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

For example, A minor is the relative minor key of C major, because both scales use the same notes but in a different order. By understanding the relative minor keys, you can easily transition between major and minor tonalities in your music. So, if you’re looking 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. It’s a great way to explore the relationships between major and relative minor keys and improve your understanding of music.

**What is the origin story of the circle of fifths?**

The concept of the Circle of Fifths can be traced back to the work of the medieval music theorist Guido of Arezzo, who is credited with the invention of the modern musical staff and the solfeggio system. However, the actual circle diagram as we know it today was not formalized until the 18th century by the German musician Johann David Heinichen.

Heinichen was a composer, theorist, and music director who worked in Dresden during the early 18th century. In his treatise “Der Generalbass in der Composition,” which was published in 1728, Heinichen introduced a diagram that showed the relationships between the 12 major and minor keys, based on the pattern of ascending fifths.

Over time, other musicians and theorists refined the Circle of Fifths, adding new elements and using them to explore various aspects of composition. Today, the Circle of Fifths remains an important tool for musicians and music educators, and it continues to inspire new research and exploration.

**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’.

*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.

- 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.

- 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.

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♯**..- At the top, the key of

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).

- 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.

**Why is the circle of fifths important?**

The Circle of Fifths is a powerful tool for anyone interested in learning about music, despite its initial appearance of complexity. Many popular 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.

For beginners, the Circle of Fifths is an excellent way to become familiar with the number of sharps or flats in a particular key signature and learn how different keys are related to each other. For example, A minor is the relative minor of C major. The circle of 5th charts have been used in music textbooks since the days of J.S. Bach in the early eighteenth century.

Knowing how to use the Circle of Fifths is especially important for those composing music. It can aid in determining how to apply different keys in a composition and lead to new and exciting harmonic discoveries.

*Please note that the lesson is also available **on mobile app*

**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:
**G**o**D**own**A**nd**E**at**B**read,**F**ather - 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:
**F**riends**B**e**E**xcellent**A**t**D**oing**G**ood - 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

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

*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!

*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…

**Author of this blog post**

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