Understanding the Circle of Fifths: Explanation & Chord Progression

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

The musical equivalent of the color wheel, the circle of fifths is an arrangement of musical keys that represents musical relationships between keys. This lesson will look at the how and why of the circle of fifths.

The Circle of Fifths

Do you remember the color wheel from elementary school? If so, then you probably remember how the colors were all arranged in a circle, and that the arrangement of the colors showed which colors were closely related and which were opposites. What does this have to do with the circle of fifths? Well, musical keys, the collection of pitches that relate to a home tone, are like colors in art. Each key is related to other keys in some way, much like the colors on the color wheel.

But why? Isn't the color wheel confusing? Sure it is, and so is the circle of fifths until you understand it. So why use it? Because it helps you keep key relationships organized. It's a great tool for composers. Basically, I know that if I'm in the key of C, I can borrow chords from the neighboring keys in the circle of fifths, and it won't sound strange.

A Brief Look at Intervals

Intervals, the distance between two notes, are the basis of this relationship. The only interval you need to know for the circle of fifths is… the fifth. Shocking, I know! To find a fifth you count up 5 notes in the scale from the home tone, counting the original note as 1. Perhaps an example would be easier to understand. The notation you see will be the note letter (C for example), followed by a number in parenthesis. This number helps to count the interval. If we begin with C on the circle of fifths: a fifth up from C is… C(1), D(2), E(3), F(4), G(5). A fifth up from C is G. So what does this have to do with key relationships?

Key Relationships

Harmonic Series
Harmonic Series

If you were to play the lowest C on a piano really hard, with the damper pedal pushed in, it would cause all of the Cs on the piano to sound, as well as the 2nd G up from original C. This is a natural phenomenon called the harmonic series, which is the series of notes that have a sound wave that is a natural ratio of the original sound wave. Enough physics! Basically it is the order of relationships between notes, with the earliest sounding notes being the most closely related. The fifth, the first non-tonic (octave duplication of the original note) to sound, is the most closely related note to the original note.

Circle of Fifths
Circle of Fifths

Now that we've gone entirely too far down the rabbit hole, let's back it up. The most closely related musical keys are a fifth apart. Simple, right? Look at the key of C on the circle of fifths image above. If you move to the right one key, you have G. That's a fifth up from C. If you move to the left of C, you have F, a fifth down from C.

OK, so we know how keys can be closely related, but why exactly are there all those sharps and flats? Each scale is made up of a pattern of whole steps and half steps. A half step (H) is the smallest distance between two notes, and a whole step (W) is simply two half steps. A major scale is made up of the following pattern: WWHWWWH. That's why as you move around the circle you end up adding sharps or flats, to maintain the pattern for each new key. The sharps get added in this patter: FCGDAEB; and the flats: BEADGCF. Remember, on the circle sharps go right, flats go left. There is a mnemonic device for remembering the order: sharps - Fat Cats Go Down And Eat Bananas; flats - Before Eating A Donut Get Coffee First (musicians love coffee)!

You may have noticed that at the bottom it gets a bit funky. There's multiple key signatures, and labels like Gb/F#. These are what's called enharmonic keys, basically keys that can be spelled differently but have the exact same notes. For example, Gb (G flat) and F# (F sharp) are actually the same note. As an accompanist, we used to call the bottom of the key signature keys 'singers keys,' because they didn't have to worry about accidentals in the same way that instrumentalists do. I know we didn't do this with the simpler keys, but if you're finding you can't sleep at night, you could check out how all the accidentals (that's sharps and flats) in the key signature are enharmonic tones to each other. Trust me, it's better than counting sheep.

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