How to understand the Circle of Fifths

by Sally Perkins, a freelance writer

Music Notes Unsplash

Learning a new song on any instrument can be a challenge, especially if you’ve just started playing in the last month or two. But there are numerous tricks or hacks that can help you master a tune in a shorter amount of time. While nothing compares to daily training and practice to learn how to play a song on the piano or the guitar, understanding how the Circle of Fifths works may help you to play the classics in no time at all.

What is the Circle of Fifths?

Circle of FifthsThe Circle of Fifths is used to determine the relationships among all the key signatures and tones used in music. It’s also commonly used by songwriters as a shortcut of sorts because it’s an easy way to produce notes that sound good together. Once you’ve memorized it, you’ll breeze through chord changes and key signatures like they do. You may find that a lot of old songs follow the complete Circle of Fifths progression, and you may also recognize it in newer songs.

Before you begin, it’s important to be able to read music before you try to understand the Circle of Fifths. Once this has been accomplished, you can print out a copy of it to guide you as you practice.

How to read key signatures using the circle of fifths

Each letter in the Circle of Fifths stands for a note or a chord. By reading the circle clockwise, you’ll find that each note is the fifth of the previous note. So if you start with C, the fifth of that is G, the next will be D, then A, then E, and so on.

If you read it counter-clockwise, each key is a fourth above the last. So starting with C again, the fourth of that is F, the next will be B, then E, and so on.

How to read sharps and flats

You’ll notice that the Circle of Fifths also contains sharps and flats, except for C as it is considered as the neutral or starting key. The left side has the flats, while the right side contains all the sharps. So if you start at C, each move that takes you clockwise allows you to adjust the key signature by one sharp. If you move counter-clockwise, adjust the key signature by one flat.

How to use the Circle of Fifths to pick out a good tune

There’s a reason why certain notes are side by side in the Circle of Fifths. You’ll notice that if you play these chords in order, they’ll always sound good together. Experiment with a chord progression and see how it sounds like. Try going from a C chord to an E minor, to a D minor, then back to C.

If you want to practice playing or hear songs that have a complete Circle of Fifths progression, try Chopin’s “Nocturne in C Minor” or the jazz tune “Autumn Leaves.” You can also try to make your own song using the Circle of Fifths. All it takes is a bit of practice and dedication, and you may have a hit song in your hands.

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