Using The Circle of Fifths

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The Circle of Fifths

The circle of fifths is a fantastic practice tool. It can help you practice scales more effectively, learn key signatures and even learn basic and advanced harmonization techniques.

In this article, I am going to show you some circle of fifths “tricks” that will help you maximize your practice.

What is the Circle of Fifths?

The circle of fifths is all 12 keys of music written on a wheel or “circle”. The keys are divided into intervals of a fifth. Looking at the circle of fifths below, you’ll notice that at the top is ‘C’ and moving clockwise, we move through all twelve keys by intervals of a fifth. So we start with C, then go to G, D, A, E, B, F# (or Gb…same note), Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F and end back at C.

If you go counter-clockwise (to the left) we move through all twelve keys by fourths. Starting with C, we move a fourth to F, Bb, Eb and so on.

How to incorporate the Circle of Fifths into your practice routine

Perhaps the easiest way to use the circle of fifths is to use it as a scale practice tool. Let me explain…

When practicing scales (Major, minor, etc…) I often see students get very good at playing their scales in easy keys like the key of C, F or G. However, when it comes to more challenging keys like Gb, Ab, etc., students become a bit “shy”. This is usually because they have practiced a lot in the easy keys but not as much in the difficult keys.

Many times, this imbalance of scale practice is because students sit down, practice three or four scales then move on to something else. The next day, they sit down, start with the same scales and never end up practicing those more difficult keys.

You can break this pattern by using the circle of fifths. Download and print the circle, then while practicing, mark which of the keys you practiced. For example, circle the keys you practice on day 1, put a triangle around those you practice on day 2, a box around the scales practiced on day 3 and so on.

Using this method, you can be sure that you get through all keys both easy and difficult.

Learning harmony using the Circle of Fifths

Using the circle of fifths, it is easy to learn diatonic harmony. Looking at the example below, you’ll notice a yellow rectangle around F-C-G and a red circle around the C.

The red circle is marking the key. In this example, the key is C Major. The yellow rectangle shows us the IV and V chords. In this example, C is the I chord, F is the IV chord and G is the V chord.

If you move the red circle and yellow rectangle to the right and place it over G, C would become the IV chord and D the V chord.

So, to find the I, IV and V chords, simply follow these steps:

  1. Pick any key on the circle
  2. The letter to the left is the IV chord
  3. The letter to the right is the V chord

Let’s take a quick quiz:

  1. What is the IV chord in the key of A?
  2. What is the V chord in the key of Bb?
  3. What is the IV chord in the key of B?

Using the circle of fifths, it is easy to find the answers. Remember, the IV chord is to the left and the V chord is to the right.

To figure out the answer to question 1, put your finger on A, and look to the left. You’ll see the answer is D. The IV chord in the key of A is D. Can you quickly find the V chord in the same key?

That’s right, just look to the right of A and you’ll find the V chord…E.

Diatonic harmony and the Circle of Fifths

We can extend beyond simple I, IV and V chords by adding another rectangle at a 90o angle to our yellow rectangle. See the example below:

In the example above, you’ll notice the new blue rectangle. In this example, you’ll also notice the ii, vi and iii chords.

So, in the key of C, the IV chord is on the left (F), then going clockwise (in order) we have the V, ii, vi and iii chords which are G, D, A and E.

Remember this phrase: “4 to the left, then 5, 2, 6, 3”. Commit this phrase to memory. Got it?

OK, quiz time:

  1. What is the ii chord in the key of Eb
  2. What is the vi chord in the key of F
  3. What is the iii chord in the key of Db

Once again, we can use the circle to easily answer these questions. The answers are: 1) F, 2) D and 3) F

More to explore...

Jazzedge Teachers
Willie

Welcome Paul Buono

Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor.  His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit

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Responses

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  1. Great Article Willie! I just knew that it existed, but now I see how useful it is and how to use it! Thanks very much!

  2. Hi Willie,
    thanks for the info.
    I heard that for jazz players it is better to use the circle of fourths (the other way round the circle) what do you think? 🙂

  3. Hey Willie ,im playing piano about a year and often heard of the circle of 5ths you have explained it here straight forward and in simple terms to put it into practise,i got some of your dvds their great and have improved my playing greatly,

    yours in health,
    Malcolm.

    1. Hey
      Willie great info as always and useful added to my library.

  4. Willie this is a really clear explanation of the Circle of 5ths. I would like to use your idea with the blue and yellow boxes with my students in school for song writing class. I normally use the scale degress but the “4to the left the 5,2,6,3” is awesome. Many thanks, sharon

  5. wow , just when you thought it couldn’t get not better! Thanks Willie!

  6. A wonderful concept. Surely there must be other useful tips using the circle of 5ths? Seems like math can be applied across the circle, using other shapes. etc?

  7. That was very clear and straight forward. Thanks Willie. I’ll need to break this down for my younger students. Cheers from Brooklyn!
    Andrew

  8. Great stuff, though I prefer to think of clockwise/counter-clockwise vs left/right. Db is ‘left’ of Gb, but it’s the V not the IV. Another tip: the tritone is directly across from the key. For example, Eb is the tritone of A (and vice-versa).

  9. Great! I never saw before at any place the minor’s relation ( ii, vi and iii chords) with C Major, like in this case.

  10. Willie,
    This is a great explanation of the circle of 5th’s/circle of 4th’s. I actually learned about this years ago when I took my first keyboard lessons on chords. I primarily teach chord piano because that I what I learned. I give the circle of 5th to each of my students. Your site has been very helpful to me.

  11. Also the relative minors of the primary triads I IV V i.e C is Am .. F is Dm.. G is Em .. are the 3 secondary triads.. These 6 are the diatonic chords in a major key. Chord 7 is a diminished triad and mostly used in the 1st inversion in Classical music.

  12. Great stuff!
    Just a tiny proofreading edit– in the text about the What is the Circle of Fifths the “E and A” are out of order in the counting by 5ths.

    Thanks for such a helpful lesson!

  13. Why do you have to use roman numerals? The whole lesson was great until those, now its out the wondow. I have no idea what Im seeing with roman numerals and we DONT actually use them in modern society. DOINK!

  14. Hi Willie
    Thanks so much for this article. i now understand the circle of fifth. But how can i use in playing a song? Please can you give some simple song examples and how to use the circle of fifth to play them. Thanks