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Understanding The Circle Of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths can be seen as the gateway to understanding music theory.


The circle is the concept that all western music is based on. it illustrates the relationship between scales in a way that is, hopefully, easiest to understand.

Circle Of Fifths Circle Of Fifths
  • When going clockwise, each key is a fifth above the last; hence we get the 'circle of fifths'.
  • When going counter-clockwise, each key is a fourth above the last.
  • In this version of the circle, as well as many others, the uppercase letters represent major keys and the lowercase letters represent their relative minor keys.
  • Notice how, starting at C major, one sharp is added to each key as you go clockwise until around C# major; then it switches to flats that decrease by one on each key as you complete the circle. This is why we have sharps & flats. If the sharps continued past C# we would end up with 11 sharps! But when the flats take over they ease the load until the circle restarts.
  • Keys that are directly across from one another are tri-tones of each other. ie: C -> F#

Think of the Chord Progression I - IV - V - I


It's an example of subdominant (IV) and dominant (V) chords leading back to the tonic (I). If we have a tonic note we can use the circle of fifths to give us the subdominant and dominant chord of that key.


Just locate the tonic in the circle, let's use C as an example, then locate the keys immediately adjacent on each side. So, if we're using C as the tonic the subdominant would be F, immediately counter-clockwise, and the dominant would be G, immediately clockwise.


Patterns like that are what make the circle of fifths interesting. Not only does it make it easy to figure out chord progressions in any key it also creates a blank canvas for you to come up with your own chord progressions by experimenting with different patterns. Many musical styles are determined by the shape in which the chord progressions make on the circle of fifths.


For instance, if you draw an equilateral triangle with each point pointing to a chord you'll get a progression where the chords are all a major third apart.

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