How to Use the Circle of Fifths
On how to understand the circle of fifths and apply it in musical situations
I am a person who enjoys learning and applying methods with the motivation to improve my outcome in any situation. Learning an instrument you come across hundreds and thousands of tips and tricks that promise an enhancement in your learning curve. I found out that the best are the basic and simples ones. The deep understanding of basic music theory and the ability to apply that knowledge gives you way more possibilities than learning just another chord, scale, pattern and so forth. Most of the time you can derive these scales, chords and patterns from your basic knowledge. Additionally, understanding let you use them more freely or adjust them as you want.
Today, I want to show you how to understand, internalize and apply the circle of fifths. It is a tool, you most certainly came across in your school years. Nevertheless, fully understanding it can raise your effectiveness, speed and accuracy when it comes to musical questions tremendously. My goal for you here is to help you create a mental picture of the circle and to show you how you can use it in different areas.
Each letter within or beyond the circle of fifths stands for a note or a chord. Each note or chord stands in relation with its areal neighbors. If you read the circle clockwise each note stumble upon is the fifth of its previous neighbor. So G is the fifth of C, D is the fifth of G, A is the fifth of D … and C is the fifth of F. If you read the circle counterclockwise each note is the fourth of its previous friend. F is the fourth of C, B♭ is the fourth of F and so on.
Also remember the benefits that I mentioned or even better, think of your own benefits that will keep you motivated.
Sharps and flats
The left side of the circle of fiths contains the flats and the right side the sharps. Starting at C, for each step that you take counterclockwise, add another Ƅ to your key. Of corse it is the other way round with ♯’s. There are two easy methods to find out the key you are in. Look at the last of your key signatures, it is the very right one. If you are on the right side of the circle (♯), add another semitone to its note and you have the tonic of the corresponding key in major. If the last key signature is a Ƅ go up a fifth to get to the tonic or simply look at the neighbor in clockwise direction.
At the very bottom of the circle you see two notes instead of one (G♭/F♯). These two notes are enharmonic equivalent which means, that they point to the same key on your keyboard or the same fret on your guitar. This is only possible because the system of tuning we use nowadays is equal temperament. That means the octave is divided into twelve equal intervals. I don’t want to go deeper into that subject here. Just remember that you need to turn the F♯ into G♭ and every ♯ into the corresponding Ƅ if you come across clockwise and again the other way round for counterclockwise movements.
Memorize the circle
I memorized the circle in two ways. First, I made up mnemonics to keep the notes of the outer circle in mind.
- Giant Dolphins Attack Eastern Baltimore Flying (sharp)
- Funny Beaver (flat) Eat (flat) Andy’s (flat) Drowning (flat) Golfball (flat)
Use the circle
Now this is what we have been working for. We already came along ideas to apply the circle of fifths. So if someone ask you, “what is the fifth of E flat?” you shortly imagine the circle, look for E♭ and name the clockwise neighbor of it or the other way round if ask for a fourth. Furthermore if you need to name all flats of E♭ you know there are (1.F, 2.B♭, 3.E♭) three of them which are B♭, E♭ and A♭.
The circle of fifths becomes a very power tool when it comes to musical scales. As shown in the image on the left side you can read up six of seven notes of a major or minor scale by looking at the neighbors of the tonic. The seventh note is a semitone under the tonic. Just internalize which neighbor stands for which scale degree. Then you can name every scale note of every scale pretty quickly.
This system also comes in handy as you start playing chord progression with Roman numerals. The outer circle contains major chords and the inner minor. You can practice this by playing or/and writing the following chord progression in all 12 keys
- I – IV – V
- ii – V – I – IV
- iii – vi – ii – V – I
- I – IV – vi – ii – V
- I – IV – vii – iii – ii – V
Example: iii – vi – ii – V – I in G is Bm – Em – Am – D – G
(vii is the sevenths chord in a scale which is diminished.)
Now go and use the circle of fifths consciously in every given situation. Draw it at least once a day for about two or three weeks until you can dream it forwards and backwards. As soon as you get it going make it to your main reference system for intervals and scales. In the past I always imagined my fretboard to find out fifths or fourth. Now I am way faster cause I actually see the letters.
If you have further questions or ideas just comment or mail me and I see how I can extend this article.