Circle of Fifths explanation

Circle of Fifths.

The Circle of Fifths is this amazingly powerful musical tool

but unfortunately a lot of people don’t really understand how to use it. It can be pretty confusing so I’m going to show you two things first; some really quick ways to remember it for ever and then and then I’m going to show you what how to use it to work out key signatures, chords and harmonising a melody using the 5th degree of the scale.

To start with you’ll need to know how to build a Circle of Fifths.

What we’re going to do is we’re going to arrange all 12 notes of the western scale around this circle. But rather than do them in order we’re going to separate them by the interval of a fifth.


Below is an image of the Circle of Fifths.

Circle of Fifths

Music Theory, Bedford Guitar Teacher

How the Circle of Fifths is organised.

Let’s start with the note C up at the top. A lot of musical elements centre around the note C, particularly when you’re learning to play the piano, your reference point is ‘middle C’, for example.

Next we’re going to find the note that is separated by a 5th. C, D, E, F, G. (We’re working clock-wise / left to right) There’s an easy way to remember the first 6 notes, of the circle of fifths by using this sentence: Charlie Goes Down And Ends Battle. The bold letters/notes are all a 5th apart from each other.

A, B, C, D, E, F, G. etc

From the note, B, our next note – working clockwise, is going to be an F#. It’s a sharp because you already have an ‘F natural’, in the flat’s section working anti clockwise so, you can’t have the same note twice.

Remember that the note C is at 12 O’Clock, and F# is at 6 O’Clock. Having finished at Battle, the note B goes to F#. (B, C,D, E, F) (5th).

To remember the order of flats working anti-clockwise, you can remember the following Two words ‘Father BEAD’, F natural, Bb, Eb, Ab,Db, F#.

Circle of Fifths

You should now understand how to create the Circle of Fifths.

Working out a major triad chord:

The Circle of Fifths can also be used to produce major/minor triad chords or working out key signatures.

Let’s start on C and let’s suppose that we wanted to create a C Major chord. You probably already know how to do this, but just bear with me here.

The first note of course is obvious, it’s going to be C but it’s a three note chord and we have to figure out the other two notes.

The formula for a major triad chord, is: tonic, major 3rd, and 5th. The tonic note is C, and in it’s triad form finishes with the note G, which is a 5th apart from C. The middle note between the tonic & the 5th degree of the scale, is going to be a major 3rd, which is two whole steps or two tones: C, D, E, which completes the major chord: C, E, & G. If you wanted to create a minor chord you would follow the same process, but this time you would lower the 3rd by half a semi time or half step.


Working out the chord: Ab Major 7th.

Let’s say you’re trying to figure out an Ab major seven chord. Now most likely you don’t know this chord straight off, but what you need to know to begin with is it’s now a four note chord. You already know there’s going to be the tonic, 3rd, and 5th, so you need to find the. 7th note; there were three ‘mystery notes’, now there’s only one note left to work out.

The simplest way is going back one from the root note, this is the same as jumping 8 whole notes (octave) and going back one note (G Natural), remembering we’re now in the key of Ab major. If you wanted it to be a minor 7th, you’d go back another half step, so the 7th note would be Gb.

Harmonising, using the 5th degree of the scale.

You can also use the Circle of Fifths for harmonising. Let’s say you’re writing a melody and you have a melodic line that you want to harmonise using the 5th degree of the scale. Knowing your Circle of Fifths makes this process much easier.

Let’s suppose that C now represents a C major chord the G represents a G major chord and so on.

We’re in the key of B flat and our a root chord in this key is B flat major. There are two chords that are probably the most important chords in any key that is your root chord, which in this case this us B flat major and then there’s your dominant chord.

You can count up or down the stave from your melody line by line, but it’s going to be much quicker if you know what note it is you need to use to harmonise by a fifth – useful if your mind goes blank during an exam.


Key Signatures.


The Circle of Fifths is most commonly known for working out how many sharps or flats there are for each of the 15 key signatures that you can have.

We’ve already learnt how to create the Circle of Fifths, so now we’re going to learn how to apply key signatures for both sharps & flats, to our Circle of Fifths.

It’s worth knowing that when there aren’t any sharps or flats at the beginning of a piece of music, that you’re going to be in the key of either C Major, or A minor. It’s usually the first note of the pice which gives the key signature away if you’re note sure, it’ll either a note or chord starting on either C or A.


Circle of Fifths

In this diagram, the major keys are on the outside of the third inner circle, and the minor keys are on the second inner circle – which are labelled.

Working clockwise or anti-clockwise, you’ll add a sharp to each 5th degree of the scale. So for G major, you’ll have one sharp, F sharp, D major – 2 sharps, A major – 3 sharps, E major 4 sharps and so on.

The order of sharps are easy to remember if you remember the following sentence: Father, Charles, Goes, Down, And, Ends, Battle. Each time you add a sharp to the Circle of Fifths, you’re of course including the previous sharp. If you can’t remember how to write the Circle of Fifths, you can still work out the key signature.

You start by taking the last sharp and you literally go up a letter. If you’re last sharp is G, you’ll, of course, go back to A because there isn’t a note H in the western musical scale. A B C D E F G.

When we’re talking about key signatures, there’s also relative minors and relative majors. These share the same number of sharps or flats. To work out the relative minor when we’re working in a key signature using sharps, we take the last sharp, go up one letter and back three steps.

For two sharps, the major key signature is D major, because we have F# and c# as our key signature, C is the last sharp, the next letter is D, back three steps or tones from D, is B, so the key signature is B Minor.


Notice, that when drawing the number of sharps for our Circle of Fifths, the sharps overlap with the flats and vice versa, this is because there are 7 sharps and 7 flats so they’re going to overlap by 3.

We have 30 different key signatures in total (including C major and A minor), but when it comes to sharps or flats we only have 7 sharps or 7 flats, but we have 29 keys.

To work out the order of flats, you reverse the sentence that we just used for sharps: Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’s Father.

To work out the key signature for flats, we go back one flat symbol using the order of flats. If we have to two flats, ( Bb & Eb, our key signature is going to be Bb Major.

As with sharps, you of course have relative majors / minors, but the way of working out relatives is different because of the way you work out a major key signature using flats.

We’ve already learned how to work out the major key signature for flats and this is the only difference in the process for working out the relative minor which follows the same rule when working out the minor key for sharps.

To work out the minor when flats are in the key signature, you go back three again. So for two flats, our key signature is Bb Major, it’s relative minor is going to be G minor. Here’s the notes in order again: A, B, C, D, E, F, G (working right to left)


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