Monday, August 27, 2012

Circle of Fifths - yes, it's your friend

The circle of fifths really is your friend.

 Example - you're playing in a jam session and they say, "this is in the key of A.", and you have no idea what sharps or flats are in the key of A.

 If you know your circle of fifths (yes, memorize it) or have it near you until it's memorized, you can take a quick look (in your head, on paper, ipad, smartphone, etc) and know immediately what sharps or flats are in the key the song is played in.

There is so much confusion about the circle of fifths, but it really is quite simple when you learn the formula. In case you don't know this, the reason it is called the circle of fifths is because it is arranged by fifths. Let's take a look at the C major scale with scale degrees:                                                      

C     D     E     F     G     A     B                                                                                                                
1     2       3     4     5      6      7                                                                                                                  

If we use the scale degrees, starting at C (1) and walk up the keyboard (clockwise on the circle) to the 5th degree we will land on G. Therefore, we have walked up a fifth. Then if we walk up a fifth from G we will land on D:

G     A     B     C     D     E     F#                                                                                                        
1      2      3      4     5      6      7                                                                                                                

Regardless of where you begin on the circle, you will go up a 5th from that key and the next key will have one more sharp or one less flat.

Here's a good diagram of the circle of fifths for the guitar:

One last thing I want to mention about the circle of fifths -  the major keys are one the outside of the circle and the minor keys are on the inside of the circle, but the rule of fifths still applies. A to E is an interval of a fifth, regardless of whether it is a minor or a major key.

Any questions or comments? Post it here or email me:


  1. I have a hard time understanding the circle because how do they arrive at the formular, why is't it A-B-C-D-E-F-G instead of C-G-D-A-E-B-Gb ect
    Where does the formular come from or is that a silly question

  2. It begins with the scale that has no sharps or flats - C. If you walk up clockwise, a fifth (five notes), C -1, D-2, E-3, F-4, G-5, you come to the scale with one sharp. Continue going up by fifths, and each scale or key adds one more sharp.
    If you go down a fifth from C counter-clockwise, you will come to the first major scale with a flat. Continue going down by fifths and each scale or key adds one more flat.
    The formula for major scales is the whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step pattern.
    Hope this helped. If not, let me know and I'll explain it differently.