How To Use The Circle Of Fifths (Simple Guide for Beginners)

March 31, 2024
How To Use The Circle Of Fifths (A Practical Approach)

Many self-taught musicians look at music theory as an academic, unapproachable concept. But, it’s actually quite useful.

In reality, learning a little bit of theory can take your music to new heights by deepening your understanding of your instrument. Basic theory also makes you a more sophisticated songwriter and helps you understand the artistry and ingenuity behind your favorite songs.

The circle of fifths is one of the cornerstones of music theory. Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be able to play confidently in any key you want, whether you’re learning a new song, jamming with friends, or composing your own music.

If you want to learn more about the circle of fifths and its practical applications, keep reading.

Let’s dive in.

What Is the Circle of Fifths?

The circle of fifths (often shown as a circular diagram) is a way to visualize how the twelve keys of the chromatic scale (all the notes in Western music) fit together. It’ll also show you exactly how many sharps or flats each key has.

If you go clockwise around the circle, each key is a perfect fifth away from the last and contains one more sharp.

If you go counterclockwise around the chart, each key is a perfect fourth away from the last and features an additional flat.

The circle of fifths also shows you the corresponding minor key (also known as the relative minor key) for each major key. And this can be understood the other way too — the relative major key for each minor key.

The Circle of Fifths Diagram
The Circle of Fifths Diagram

My Personal Journey With Learning How To Use The Circle Of Fifths

When I first started learning how to play the bass I’d hear other musicians toss around the the phrase “the circle of fifths” and it’d totally lose me. The circle of fifths chart would also remind me of some ancient chart that Indiana Jones would find painted on the walls of a dark cave and it made no sense to me at all.

Every now and then someone would pull out a chord chart from The Real Book during a gig and I started to notice patterns with common chord progressions. What I noticed was that chords often moved in a cycle of fifths or a circle of fourths. And I said, “Wait! I’ve seen this pattern before!” That’s when I remembered, The Circle of Fifths diagram also shows similar relationships between the 12 musical keys!

What I began to take out of that realization was that the circle of fifths is a powerful tool that you can use to:

  • create chord progressions
  • learn your 12 major and minor keys (The Circle of Fifths is a diagram that helps you visualize the twelve-musical keys)
  • extract secondary dominant chords (which is the secret to unlock creativity with chords and chord progressions)
  • learn which minor is the relative minor chord to a major chord (substituting major chords with relative minor chords often pleasing to the ear)
  • the list goes on!

The list can go on and on as to how the this diagram can help enhance your music. So let’s dive in and learn the secrets behind the circle of fifths!

Demystifying The Music Theory Behind The Circle Of Fifths Diagram

In the following sections, I’ll explain the music theory behind this diagram so you can start to apply the circle of fifths in your music.

Adding Sharps And Flats (Super-Fast Way To Learn Your Key Signatures!)

Going clockwise around the chart, each key features one more sharp than the one previous.

Let’s start with the key of C major. This key has no sharps or flats and is typically depicted at the top of the chart. By the way, sharps and flats are also known as “accidentals” in music.

Counting five notes away from C (including C as the first note) gets us to G, so the next key is G major. The note below G (F) is made sharp. G major, with one sharp, is the next key up from C major.

Five notes away from G is D. Just like last time, we take the note below D and make it sharp. D major (which has two sharps, F and C) is the next key on the wheel.

At the bottom of the circle is F# major, which features 6 sharps (F, D, G, A, C, E). 

If you go counterclockwise around the chart, count back four notes and add a flat each time. C major becomes F major, which has a B flat. Then B flat major, in which both B and E are flat.

And so on!

Mnemonic device for remembering number of sharps and flats for each musical key
Mnemonic device for remembering number of sharps and flats for each musical key

Let me make this even more simple to help you remember key signatures: Each clockwise movement (to the right) will increase the number of sharps by one. In other words, the only difference between the key of C and the key of G (G is to the right of C) is one sharp (F sharp).

Same concept vice versa: Each movement counter-clockwise around the circle (to the left) will increase the number of flats by one. In other words, the only difference between the key of C and the key of F (F is to the left of C) is one flat (B flat).

One side of the circle will give you the number of sharps and the other side will give you flats. Think… “RRRight equals ShaRRRp” and “LeFFFt equals FFFlat.”

Relative Minor Keys and Relative Major Keys (Super-Easy Way To Keep Things Sounding Fresh!)

If you move three keys clockwise on the circle of flats, you’ll get to the corresponding minor key. The corresponding minor key will have the same number of sharps and flats as the major key.

*I also put the relative minor key directly below each major key in the inner circle for quick reference. But do note, some circle of fifths diagrams don’t show this.

For instance, C major has no sharps or flats, just like A minor (Natural Minor), its corresponding key.

Understanding this relationship (where every key has a relative minor and minor keys as well have a relative major) enriched my musical compositions and performances in so many ways. I’ll often interchange major chords with their relative minor chords and minor chords with their relative major chords.

I’ve found from experience that you can almost always get away with doing this when you solo, even when walking a bassline, and also when your arranging a song! It’s one of the easiest ways to keep things sounding fresh and I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years.

Music Creation (Super-Convenient Way Musicians Use The Circle Of Fifths To Make Music)

Knowledge of the circle of fifths can also help you come up with chord progressions that sound really good to the ear. Chords derived from either side of the circle of fifths can be used in a way to create major and minor chords that move in a way that many popular songs you grew up enjoying actually use. Many popular songs are built from chords that are close to each other on the circle. This stuff is actually used in music!

Having that said, chords directly across from each other in the circle can be used to create tension and additional movement with your chord progressions. Basically, the further you are away from the top of the circle, tensions are incrementally introduced.

While this diagram is often used as a way to visualize the twelve musical keys, it also helps you understand relationships and your overall understanding of music. When you get the concept of introducing tension and resolution, you have control with manipulating your chord progressions, instead of just memorizing them.

Here’s one ideas to get you started:

With the top of your circle being the key (home base), chose one chord close to your key and one chord a little bit further away. You now have 3 chords that you can work with to write a song: Home base chord (resolution), Not quite home base chord (not really tension, but not really resolution either), and Outside chord (tension).

For Example, the following chords make a cool sounding chord progression:  C Major (home base), E Major (tension), F Major (not quite home base).

You can enter in these chords using this online tool to hear how it sounds.

One Motion Chord Player - Online Chord Progression Player
One Motion Chord Player – Online Chord Progression Player

Why Is the Circle of Fifths Important?

Mastering the circle of fifths helps you understand how different keys work together. This is crucial for improvisation, jamming, and learning songs in different keys.

When I started recognizing the sound of a cycle of fifths or a cycle of fourths (I’ve heard jazz musicians call them “cycles”), I didn’t need to think as hard or work as hard to memorize the chord changes of a tune. For example, I’d just make a mental note “when we get to the bridge, it’s just a cycle of fourths for the next 8 bars!” My thought process became more streamlined and I had more freedom with the music.

As a composer, using the circle of fifths makes it easier to change keys or write a chord progression – you’ll know what works and what doesn’t.

Sometimes you just need to break things up from the usual habits to keep things sounding interesting. The circle of fifths diagram is an easy way to find sounds that you’d normally shy away from. 

Internalizing the Circle of Fifths

In a pinch, you can always noodle out the circle of fifths using the exercises we did earlier. But it’s better if you can find a way to internalize it. 

Once you understand how musical keys work together, you’ll become more confident on your instrument and much more fluid at navigating chord progressions.

The mnemonic I shared with you earlier is exactly how I learned to read this circle when I was getting started over 20 years ago!

Make It Your Own

Make your own circle chart specific to your instrument. Or print out an already existing chart (like the one in this post) and add your own notations. 

You can use your chart to figure out which keys you need to practice more.

One thing that really helped me was to draw out my own circle. Then throw it away and do it all over again. I never really kept one around. This helped me commit the information to my long-term memory.

The Circle of Fifths in the Wild

If you want to be precise, you can say that any song written using Western musical notation uses the circle of fifths. But some songs show it off more than others. 

Fly Me To The Moon” by Frank Sinatra is perfect example of chords moving in a cycle of fourths (or fifths depending on how you want to look at it).

The more you listen for it, the more you’ll hear the circle of fifths in your favorite music!

Using The Circle of Fifths In Your Music and Composing

If you’re new to songwriting, the circle of fifths is a great tool. It shows you what notes work together and how. This helps you write songs that sound polished and contain a satisfying chord progression.

You’ll also have an easier time altering the key of a song to make it more comfortable for you to sing or play. Just rotate the circle and you can visually see your new chord progression.

Finally, mastering the circle of fifths helps you get your ideas down faster, lessening the chances of getting hung up on a frustrating chord progression.

When I was learning this stuff, I used to think of the circle of fifths as a roulette wheel and spin the wheel to come up with some surprising chord progressions.

Transposing Keys

The circle is a terrific visual aid that makes changing the keys of songs (called transposing) much easier. 

Just move the root note from its original place on the circle to the desired key, then adjust all the other chords in the song accordingly.

Writing Chord Progressions (Western Music)

Once you understand the circle of fifths, you’ll be equipped to tackle chord progressions.

You may have heard of “1-4-5” – one of the most basic chord progressions. You can use the circle to find the 1-4-5 in any key. 

Start with the key’s root note – let’s go with C for example. 4 is one segment to the left of 1, and 5 is one segment to the right. So 1-4-5 in the key of C is C-F-G.

You’ll be able to put together more complex chord progressions the more comfortable you get with the circle. 

For instance, you can try adding in a minor key to get the ubiquitous four-chord progression of 1-4-6-5. These chords form the backbone of “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey and “Where The Streets Have No Name” by U2.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Do You Do With The Circle Of Fifths?

At its core, the circle of fifths is a visual representation of the relationship between the twelve keys of the chromatic scale. By navigating the circle clockwise, each key is a perfect fifth higher than the previous one, while moving counterclockwise reveals keys that are a perfect fourth apart. This arrangement not only aids in transposing music into different keys but also provides invaluable insights into chord progressions, modulation, and composition.

How Do You Use Circle Of Fifths To Find Chords?

One of the most practical applications of the circle of fifths is in finding chords within a particular key. By starting from the tonic (I) chord and moving clockwise around the circle, one can identify the primary chords (I, IV, and V) of any key. For example, in the key of C major, the primary chords are C, F, and G major. Understanding these chord relationships allows musicians to construct chord progressions that flow naturally and evoke the desired emotional response from the listener.

What Is The Easiest Way To Memorize The Circle Of Fifths?

Memorizing the circle of fifths may seem daunting at first, but with the right approach, it can become second nature. One effective method is to break down the circle into smaller, more manageable sections and focus on mastering one section at a time. Additionally, associating each key with a familiar melody or song can aid in retention and recall. Ultimately, consistent practice and repetition are key to internalizing the circle of fifths and integrating it into your musical toolkit.

How Do You Write Music With The Circle Of Fifths?

The circle of fifths serves as a blueprint for composing music, offering endless possibilities for creating rich and harmonically diverse compositions. By leveraging the relationships between keys and chords, composers can craft compelling melodies and progressions that captivate the listener’s ear. Whether it’s modulating between keys to add tension and drama or utilizing secondary dominants to introduce unexpected harmonic twists, the circle of fifths provides a roadmap for musical exploration and experimentation.

Now It’s Your Turn

In conclusion, the circle of fifths is a valuable tool that can empower you to unlock the full potential of your creativity. By understanding its practical applications and incorporating it into your musical practice, you can elevate your compositions to new heights and embark on a journey of musical discovery and innovation.

Want even more music lessons? Check out the full archive!

PosidoVega

Hi! I’m Posido Vega, a multi-passionate creative. I’m an artist, bass player, jazz theory enthusiast, children’s book author and illustrator, and SEO 😅.

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