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Published on March 21st, 2017 | by Alan Cross

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Attention Musicians: Time for More Music Theory

[Contributor Jess Walter wants to help you be a better musician. Here’s her latest. – AC]

How to Understand the Circle of Fifths

There are few shortcuts for musicians out there, but The Circle of Fifths is one of them. If you can understand what you are looking at – a small hurdle, then you will leap across chord changes and key signatures with ease making music more fun and easier to learn.

What is The Circle of Fifths

Invented in the 1670s by Nikolai Diletskii, the Circle of Fifths underpins all western music. Johann David Heinichen then improved on Diletskii’s system to create the version we have to day. The circle is divided into a number of patterns. The first of which is the key signature which is a set of 7 notes known as a scale with the 8th note being a return to the 1st note of the scale but on a higher octave.

Chords consist of a range of consonant notes which work in harmony and are pleasing to the ear. Ones which do not work are known as dissonance. The basic form of a chord consists of the chord’s root with the third above it and also the fifth above the root too. These chords can be duplicated as bass chords or inverted too. There are a wide range of things you can do with a chord.

Once you have chords, you can work on the 3 types of fifths:

  1. Perfect fifths 7 semitones above the root
  2. Diminished fifths 6 semitones above the root
  3. Augmented fifths 8 semitones above the root

Using the Circle of Fifths

As the theory is over 300 years old, you can probably guess that it’s widely used for a reason. For example, it’s integral to the most famous and oft used chord progression in the world – something still used in today’s pop music, the I-IV-V-I progression. The Circle of Fifths becomes handy with this chord progression because if you find the tonic of the key within the circle, it will immediately tell you the 4th chord and the 5th chord allowing you to develop a song within seconds.

You can also use the Circle of Fifths to find the relative minor or major of a key. You will find that all major keys have a corresponding relative minor key. They use the same note, which also includes accidentals like flats or sharps, but they have different tonics to one another. Now, if you wish to find the relative minor of a major key, all you have to do is move 45 degrees to the right on the circle of fifths and there it is. This is the equivalent of three steps clockwise if you want to be sure of finding it correctly. Naturally, finding the major key from a relative minor key is simply moving the same distance counter-clockwise.

These are just some of the ways you can use the Circle of Fifths to teach yourself music and song writing. Furthermore, if a static circle is not enough, Jim Fleser has invented The Chord Wheel which is a movable interactive circle of fifths chart.




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About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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