What is the Circle of Fifths?
The Circle of Fifths is confusing to many or scary to most. But what if there was a system that allowed you to know and learn about musical pitch (every note, scale, chord, and key) in an easy to understand diagram that could fit in the palm of your hand? That is the what the Circle Of Fifths can do for you.
Imagine if visual representation of all the different keys and how they are related to each other. Even a way to visually create chords and know the notes in the chords.
Then use this representation as a key to find our way between different keys easily.
The History of the Circle of Fifths and Where did it come from?
The legend goes that it likely was started with Pythagoras in 600BC. He was experimenting with different lengths of vibrating string and had discovered the mathematical relationships between pitch frequencies. He’d also defined exactly what an octave was, and divided it up into twelve half-steps.
This became known as the Pythagorean Circle (The Great Grandfather of the Circle of Fifths We Know Of Today).
Different revisions and improvements were made by Nikolay Diletsky in the 1670s, and Johann David Heinichen in 1728, until finally, we reached the version we have today.
The world is very mathematical and music doesn’t escape its grasp. From the number of times, the string vibrates to the number of notes on an instrument. Math is everywhere. So, it comes as no surprise that Pythagoras decided to take to music with a mathematical mind.
His creation is now commonly known as the Circle Of 5ths. If you count the number of steps(or semi-tones) in an octave, you’ll find that there are 12 notes.
What are cents with music?
Pythagoras decided layout the twelve notes around the circle in a specific order. Pythagoras being a mathematician he worked with numbers instead of letters. Starting with 0(C) and divided his circle into 1,200 pieces or cents.
Similar to how a clock is divided into hours with 60 minutes in between. Pythagoras broke down his circle into 12 with 100 cents in between. This system is where the modern music system has come from.
What is the Circle of Fifths Used For?
The Circle of Fifths now acts as a road map for Western Music and it is incredibly useful to use to find the key or even the notes of a chord. We will be able to find out which chords are available in each key and furthermore find what the relative minor is of any given major key.
It helps you to transpose your music into a different key and move between keys within a song. The reason it is called the circle of fifths is because of the way it is laid out.
Here is something similar you may have seen to represent the Circle of Fifths.
Using this diagram and following the steps laid out you will notice that each note is exactly a fifth ascending from the previous note (hint: that’s why its called the circle of fifths). So, starting at the 12 O’Clock position we will start with C, and moving up 5 semi-tones on a guitar or piano we will hit the note G which is the 5th note in the key of C. If we were to move from that G position up 5 semi-tones on our musical instruments we will hit the 2 O’Clock position which is D, which is the 5th note in the key of D.
We can follow this system on any western instrument and we will start on C and finally end back to C.
So how does the circle of fifths help us find out what key we are in?
The chart below will show you how many sharps and flat notes are in each given key. Start with the C we will notice that there are no Sharps or Flats. Moving Clockwise we will see the first key following has only 1 Sharp.
Now at this point, if you don’t know music theory and you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed I will say that to learn guitar and to learn to Play By Feel you do not need to learn this. This can help you better understand chords, but Scales and Theory can slow down many people’s progress on the guitar.
We’ve written an article on Scales And Theory Are So Overwhelming
Now as we move further up the clock we’ll see that each individual key has an added Sharp to its register all the way to the 6 O’Clock position which is F# with 6 sharps.
Now let’s stop there and restart at the Key of C but move in Counter-Clockwise motion. C again has no flats but if we move to F we now have our first Flat. Next will be Bb and we will have two flats so on and so forth.
How To Tell If We Should Do Sharps Or Flats In The Key Signature?
The Circle of Fifths shows us whether a key will have sharps or flats in it and how many sharps and flats. The key of C# on the Circle will have sharps in the key signature and the key of Db, will have flats in the key signature. If you wanted your song to be in the key of E major, we know by E’s placement on the circle at 4 o’ clock that there will be 4 sharps in the key signature.
How to find which keys are sharp on the circle of fifths?
When moving around the Circle, depending on if we are going clockwise or counter-clockwise will determine if the key is Sharp or Flat. Going clockwise will give us the Sharp keys of G, D, A, E, B and F#. When moving Counter-Clockwise we will get the keys of F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb.
How to find the Relative Minor of a key?
Every major key has a relative monior key as its twin. Basically, every major key has a minor key that share the same exact notes and chords to it. The difference is that they have a different feeling of home (tonic). The Circle of Fifths diagram will have the relative minor neatly laid on the inner circle to make it easy to find the relative minor. To get a better understanding of feelings in notes see this article: The Myster of Keys Explained
In conclusion, the Circle of Fifths can be a useful tool when figuring out music theory but it’s should not be the main focus of your musical journey, just a tool.
Eddie Van Halen said this about his music theory, ““Rock & Roll is feeling, and after you know most of the basics … chords, rhythm, scales, and bends … getting that feeling is just about the most important aspect of playing guitar”.
Your focus should be on learning the feeling of the guitar and not being bogged down with what we call the Guitar Theory Trap. That is the endless rabbit hole of theory, chords, and scales that push most beginner and intermediate guitar players into Guitar Limbo.
If you are interested in escaping that plateau stage and really Breaking through on guitar. Then check out this free lesson that we’ve put together for you that has helped over 20,000 students find their first Guitar “aha” moment.