CIRCLE OF FIFTHS EXPLAINED

circle of 5ths

Music Key Signatures Are Only A Small Part
Of The Valuable Information Contained
In The Circle Of 5ths Diagram

Don't know about you, but for me the cycle of 5ths was always easier to look at, explain and remember when it's been opened up, un-circled and laid flat.
So here is my version of the circle of 5ths chart. (hope you don't mind!)
Oh, and another thing, I prefer to call it the cycle of fifths, mainly because it is so closely linked to how chords move around the cycle. (more on that in a minute)

.
The circle of 5ths laid out flat!

OK, let's have a closer look at this flat-circle-cycle-of-5ths-4ths!

The name 5ths or 4ths is determined by the up or down movement between neighbouring notes.
Ex: On the sharp key side: Moving UP from G to D = a 5th interval / moving DOWN from G to D = a 4th interval.
Ex: On the flat key side the opposite applies: Moving UP from Eb to Ab = 4th / moving DOWN from Eb to Ab = 5th.


Its main claim to fame as you can see above, is to help you memorize the keys and their key signatures.
But I can promise you that if you bother to look behind the facade, you will find out much more than that. When I first had the circle of fifths explained to me I was, like most other music students, quite blasé about it.

Now, the circle of fifths chord progressions are firmly imprinted in the back of my sub-conscious mind and help me constantly in playing, improvisation, arranging and composition.


Here are some of the benefits of chiseling this circle of 5ths diagram firmly into your brain:

  1. Most obvious: Ease of remembering the music key signatures in every key
  2. Help with recognition of chord movement around the cycle
  3. Memorizing and analizing chord sequences in any piece of music
  4. Assistance with transcription of bass notes, chords and melodies
  5. Makes transposition from one key to another a breeze

1. Music Key Signatures

I know that learning keys and their key signatures can be a boring subject. That's what I felt, when I was learning music.
I wish I'd had a teacher who taught me the shape of a major scale right from the start. Then I would have been able to gradually work them all out myself. That's the best way to remember.

Let's face it, once you know how one major scale works, you know them all and the key signatures happen automatically:

C-A-Db-Major Scales

2. Circle Of Fifths Chord Progressions

The strongest chord movement in any song/tune/composition is from right to left on the cycle (or anti-clockwise if you're looking at the circle).
Just about every music ever written in any style contains this kind of chord sequence:


Dominant (Mixolydian) to Tonic (Ionian) or V - I

G7 to C

(2) Minor (Dorian) to Dominant (Mixolydian) to Tonic (Ionian) or II - V - I

Dm-G7-C

Tonic (Ionian) to (6) Minor (Aeolian) to (2) Minor (Dorian) to
Dominant (Mixolydian) to Tonic (Ionian) or (I) - VI - II - V - I

Am-Dm-G7-C

Whole song sequences (verses, choruses) can be based on this right to left movement.
Look at the chorus of this famous old song:


Basin Street Blues


Of course there are many exceptions and chord sequences come in all kinds of shapes.

3. Chord Sequences In Any Piece Of Music

Let's clear away the key signatures and pretend that every stop on the cycle represents not just a major chord, but ANY chord within that symbol like so:


circle of 5ths-no key signatures

This represents a vast opening up of the possibilities how the circle of fifths can be used.
Now a "turn around" for instance, like the one at No 2 above, can have multiple chord choices:

A variety of turn arounds in C


You can make this approach to the circle of 5ths as simple or involved as you like.

4. Music Transcription

When transcribing music, the most common first step is to write down the bass line. From that it is much easier to hear the chords and then notate the melody.
For me this is facilitated in a big way by having a clear image of the cycle of 5ths in the back of my mind.
Once you have found the key signature or tonal center of a tune, you can use it as a base on the circle and relate everything else to it. You will find, as we said, that much of the movement is from right to left (arrows), with the occasional jumps in the other direction and also sometimes a few surprises:


Circling Harmony

5. Transposition To Another Key

The chords of every piece of music make a path on the circle of fifths. They have a starting point and then move to the left or right probably multiple times before in all likelyhood (but not always) returning to the start.
To transpose this 16 bar (or whatever length) shape, you simply move the whole thing left or right to the new key center.
So, if your original song is in the key of G (see above) and you need to transpose to Bb, shift the "block" of chords over to the left by 3 steps.

NOTE: Since my version is not a circle, but laid out flat, any part of a transposition that needs to move past the left edge (Gb), simply jumps to the next cycle stop on the right, which is B (or Cb).
If your transposition is moving from left to right (say: transpose from G to B), the same applies in the opposite direction.

This kind of transposition can of course also be applied to bass or melody notes, not just chords:


Circling Harmony

I'm sure everybody has their own transposition preferences and todays music software makes transposing a piece of cake.
But I find the cycle a reliable assistant always on call to help.


Need help with transcribing or transposing? "TRANSCRIBE" is top of the class.

It's free for 30 days: Mac / Windows / Linux

For more info and videos about this great tool go HERE

I hope that the cicle of fifths explained this way,
will open your eyes to it's usefulness
and help you to make music clearer.

Do you like what's here? Join "George's Combo" and always stay updated!

© all rights reserved - George H Brodbeck 2011

webdesign by GH Brodbeck