Since he once struggled to grasp music theory himself, guest-blogger Lode Habex knows exactly how to help out beginners. In this article, Lode breaks down the circle of fifths and explains why it’s one of the most practical tools that musicians can use to match scales, find notes, create chord progressions, and more.
- Prerequisite Knowledge
- What is the Circle of Fifths?
- What is the Circle of Fifths Used For?
- #1 – Working Out Major and Minor Scale Notes
- #2 Quickly Identifying the Notes of Major and Minor Scales
- #3 – Finding Commonly Used Chords
- More Things You Can Do With The Circle of Fifths
- #4 – Finding Out How Many Sharps and Flats You’ll Need
- #5 – Creating Interesting Chord Progressions Using Secondary Dominants
- #6 Adding Even More Colour By Borrowing Chords
- See Also
Struggling to wrap your head around the music theory discussed in this blog? Try reading the following articles first:
- Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale
- Learning to Read Music: The Minor Scale and Keys
- Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
- Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
- Music Notation: Sharps, Flats and Naturals
What is the Circle of Fifths?
For centuries, the circle of fifths has been helping musicians to visualise the relationship between the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. More specifically, it’s a helpful tool for figuring out the fifth interval of any note. As you can see in the C-major scale below, the G marks the fifth interval of the C, while the D marks the fifth interval of the G, and so on. I’ve numbered the notes to make it easier to spot fifths.
What is the Circle of Fifths Used For?
The circle of fifths basically illustrates how all notes, scales and chords relate to each other, and can be used for various purposes. In fact, even if you don’t know much music theory, it can help you understand how songs are written and help you write your own tunes. Next up, I’ll go deeper into six different uses: three basic tricks and three more in-depth tricks.
#1 – Working Out Major and Minor Scale Notes
Take a look at the circle of fifths below and you’ll notice there are actually two circles: an outer circle for the major scale notes and an inner circle for the (natural) minor scale notes. This shows you which major and minor scales share the same notes. As you can see, this includes C major and A minor, as well as G major and E minor. Next, I’ll explain how you can quickly and easily figure out the individual notes of any of these scales.
#2 Quickly Identifying the Notes of Major and Minor Scales
Helping you figure out the notes of any major or natural minor scale is arguably the most important function of the circle of fifths.
The Major Scales
- To figure out the notes of a specific major scale, you start by picking your root note. To demonstrate, let’s take the C. To identify the rest of the notes within the C major scale, go one step back. In this case, you’ll land on the F. From there, take seven steps clockwise and what you get are all of the notes of the C major scale: F, C, G, D, A, E, B (see the black line). Here are two more examples:
- The F major scale (orange line): B♭, F, C, G, D, A, E
- The B major scale (blue line): E♭, B♭, F, C, G, D, A
Minor Scale Notes
Identifying the notes of any major scale also tells you the notes of any matching minor scale, as shown in the first circle seen above. In other words, the notes of the major scales we just looked at – C major, F major and B major – are the same notes that make up the A minor, D minor and G minor scales respectively.
#3 – Finding Commonly Used Chords
I personally like to use the circle of fifths to figure out which major and minor chords I can use within a certain key.
In any major key, chords 1, 4 and 5 are always major chords (I – IV – V) while chords 2, 3 and 6 will always be minor chords (ii, iii, vi). Using the circle of fifths, this becomes immediately apparent since the IV chord always sits directly left of the root note while the V chord always sits directly to the right. The related minor chords (ii, iii and vi) can, again, be seen immediately in the inner circle. To transpose these chords from this key to another major key, all you have to do is simply shift them based on any root note. For example, if you apply the circle, the chords you can play in the key of C major are C, d, e, F, G, a. Note that throughout this article, I’ll be using upper case letters for major chords and lower case letters for minor chords.
You can apply the same principles to pinpoint useful minor chords – the only difference is that you’ll need a minor circle. Here, 1, 4 and 5 are minor chords, while 3, 6 and 7 are major chords. Below, I’ve taken the A minor key to illustrate the idea. Again, the IV chord always sits directly left of the root note while the V chord always sits directly to the right, with the matching major chords (VI, III and VII) sitting directly opposite. As you can tell, the A minor key includes the following chords: a, C, d, e, F, G – the same chords as the C major key but in a slightly different order. You can simply shift these chords around the circle to transpose them from A minor to a different minor key.
What About the VII° Major and II° Minor Diminished Chords?
Ok, so when you look up the notes and matching chords of any major or natural minor scale, you’ll always get seven different notes. It’s clear that there’s a big difference between playing in major and playing in minor, which has everything to do with the order of the chords. In major, the first, fourth and fifth chords (I, IV, V) are major chords while the second, third and sixth chords (ii, iii, vi) are minor chords. Here, the seventh chord (vii) is the diminished chord, which is always marked with a ° symbol or ‘dim’. In minor, however, the first, fourth and fifth chords are minor chords, while the third, sixth and seventh chords are major chords. In minor, it’s the second chord that’s always diminished (ii°). When using the circle of fifths to determine the diminished chord, simply pick a root note and take two steps to the right. The note in the inner circle is the diminished chord you’re looking for. For example, if you depart from C (or A minor for that matter), you’ll end up at B as the diminished chord, notated as Bdim or B°. Another example: take A major (or F# minor) as the root note and you’ll land on G#dim (G#°). Bear in mind that diminished chords can sound quite unresolved, which is precisely the reason why they’re not commonly used.
More Things You Can Do With The Circle of Fifths
#4 – Finding Out How Many Sharps and Flats You’ll Need
In this case, the circle of fifths offers two uses. For a start, it tells you how many sharp and flat notes there are within a certain scale, and secondly, it tells you exactly which notes are either flat or sharp. Here’s how it works:
- To check for the number of sharps within any scale, simply start at the 12 o’clock position and tot up one sharp per step taken to the right and remember that the C major scale itself contains zero sharps. This means the G major scale includes one sharp, the D major scale includes two sharps, the A major scale includes three sharps, and so on.
- To check for flats, you can use the same method as above. The only difference is that you’ll have to move counterclockwise. This means the F major scale includes one sharp, the B-flat major scale includes two sharps, the E-flat major scale includes three sharps, and so on.
- To work out which specific notes are sharps, you’ll want to start at the F and move clockwise. This way, you can see that every scale that includes one or more sharps at least includes the F#.
- To work out which specific notes are flats, you’ll want to start at the B-flat and move counterclockwise. This way, you can see that every scale that includes one or more flats at least includes the B♭.
Example: When writing a song in the key of A major, the circle of fifths tells you that:
- …the key comes with three sharps (3 steps to the right of the C at the top).
- …the actual sharps are F#, C# and G# (the notes you get when moving clockwise from F).
When writing a song in the key of E major, you get an extra sharp, so F#, C#, G# and D#.
Here’s another example for flats. When writing a song in E-flat, the circle of fifths tells you that:
- …the key comes with three flats (3 steps to the left of the C at the top).
- …the actual flats are B♭, E♭ and A♭ (the notes you get when moving counterclockwise from B♭).
Itching to start writing? Use the circle and remember that practice is key!
#5 – Creating Interesting Chord Progressions Using Secondary Dominants
Don’t worry, while the term ‘secondary dominant chord’ sounds complex, it really isn’t. It’s basically a V chord borrowed from another key – usually one of the diatonic chords. In other words, the dominant chord of any key other than the tonic – more on this in a bit. For now, just remember that the circle of fifths makes it really easy to use secondary dominants to write interesting chord progressions. Let’s take a closer look.
Finding the V Chord (Dominant Chord)
Since it has a large impact on our musical hearing, the V chord is the most important chord after the I chord (tonic). Basically, the V chord is what creates the urge for resolve, so the urge to return to the first chord. This is why it’s known as the dominant chord in relation to the I. Since the circle of fifths compiles a sequence of fifths, finding dominant chords with it is really simple.
Example: an I-V-IV-I chord progression in G major is: G-D-C-G. In the key of G, the fifth chord is D, making it the dominant chord in relation to the tonic (G). The distance between the G and D is a fifth interval.
Finding the Secondary Dominant Chord
Now that you know that the dominant chord is always part of the key you’re playing in and marks the fifth interval, we can go back to the secondary dominant chord. As said at the beginning, the secondary dominant chord isn’t part of the key you’re playing in and can be borrowed from any other key. The second row in the table below shows the chords in the key of G major: G, a, b, C, D, e, f#°). The third row shows the fifths in relation to these chords. To find any secondary dominant chord, pick any chord, treat it like it’s a major chord and add a 7th to taste.
The Key of G Major
Bear in mind that, bar the first chord, the secondary dominants listed in the table above aren’t actually part of the key of G-major. The D is actually the regular dominant chord here.
Here’s a summary of the rules:
- You can start with any chord in any key, except for any diminished chord. Diminished chords are simply too unresolved. After playing a diminished chord, it’s best to return to the most resolved chord, so the first chord.
- You’re free to add a seventh interval (7th).
- Apart from a few exceptions, the secondary dominant chord is typically a major chord.
- The secondary dominant chord can be played right before various chords (see the example down below).
Example of a Chord Progression Including a Secondary Dominant Chord
Say you’re creating a chord progression in G major using the I and vi chords (G and e). Here, you can stick a secondary dominant chord in between. When you apply the circle of fifths, starting at the sixth chord (e) and treating the e as the tonic, you’ll land on the B – which I’m going to turn into a B7 here. Since the secondary dominant is always played before the sixth chord, the chord progression you get now is G-B7-e. To finish it, you’re free to use a wide range of chords, including the dominant chord (D) of the key you’re in here (G-major). This would leave you with a G-B7-e-D chord progression where going from the D back to G marks a natural-sounding fifth interval.
Secondary Dominant Chords Always Demand Resolve
The secondary dominant chord will always pull you back to the dominant chord or the tonic. While this is a general law within music theory, there are ways to subtly circumvent it, as some musicians tend to do. After using the circle of fifths to determine the viable chords in any key, you can simply use the circle again to see which secondary dominants you can safely add.
Let’s wrap up secondary dominants with another example. This time, we’ll take a I-V-iii progression in F major as our starting point. Using the circle of fifths, we get the following chords: F, C and a. To change things up, we’ll use the circle again to look up the secondary dominant based on the iii chord (a). Below, in the image on the left, I’ve highlighted all of the chords that come with the key of F. As you know, the secondary dominant chord can be worked out by shifting one step to the right. Leaving from the a-chord, we land on the e, to which I’ll add a 7th so it becomes a major chord (E7). The final result is an F-C-E7-a chord progression. Go ahead and play it. Sounds good, right?
#6 Adding Even More Colour By Borrowing Chords
The last thing I like to use the circle of fifths for is making chord progressions sound a little richer. First off, it’s important to remember that you can borrow various chords from different major and minor keys. However, since converting the fourth chord within major keys is the most commonly used trick here, that’s exactly what I’ll limit the scope of this section to. To change things up, you can take any fourth chord – which is typically a major chord – and convert it into a minor chord. This is because, technically speaking, you can use chords from any major key (e.g. G major) and then borrow chords from the same key in minor (G-minor), and vice versa.
A Common Transition: From IV to IV
Let’s take a C-major-based chord progression as an example: I-vi-IV (aka C-a-F). To make it sound more interesting, we’re going to take the fourth chord (F) and turn it into its minor equivalent (f). This changes the chord progression to I-vi-IV-iv (aka C-A-F-f). Note that the F-minor chord isn’t actually part of the key of C-major – we’re simply borrowing it from the key of C-minor where, as the circle of fifths says, it’s four steps away from the root note.
This little transition from IV to iv not only sounds especially good when you return to the I chord again after playing it, but is a commonly used transition in styles like pop, rock and jazz. If you want, you can even skip the IV altogether and use only the borrowed minor. In this case, that would result in I-vi-iv (aka C-a-f).
Looking Up The IV Using the Circle of Fifths
The circle of fifths is perfect for experimenting with different chord progressions and can be used to quickly find the fourth chord in any given key. Once you’ve found it, all you need to do is convert it into a minor chord.
» Time Signatures, Bar Lines and Repeat Signs Explained
» Finding the Chords Yourself & Figuring Out the Song
» Special Chords: Rare but Useful
» Pop Song Structuring: Verse, Chorus, Bridge and More Explained
» The Church Modes for Beginners
» The Pentatonic Scale: Easy to Learn
» Open Tunings on Guitar: Give Them a Try!
» How to play basic piano chords
» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» Learning to Read Music: The Minor Scale and Keys
» Learning to Read Music: The C-Major Scale