• Lesson

The Circle of Fifths Diagram

To understand the next few lessons you should print the circle of fifths diagram I made:

Printable Circle of 5ths Diagram (pdf)

What is the Circle of 5ths?

The circle of fifths is a diagram used in music theory that helps students memorize and understand the 24 major and minor keys used in music, key relationships, and many chord relationships.

Logically, this diagram is pretty fascinating. It ties together many common relationships found in music. The circle of fifths illustration was conceived by German musician Johann David Heinichen in 1728.

Memorizing the circle of 5ths diagram is worthwhile. It’s not as hard as it seems once you understand the logic behind the circle.

In this lesson we will just examine the idea of fifths and fourths on the circle. In following lessons, we'll apply it to keys, chord progressions, and the like. (If you’re still unsure of the basic musical intervals, you should review them before proceeding.)

How Does the Circle of Fifths Work?

clockwise the notes go in ascending fifths...Fifths are musical intervals. The circle of 5ths is an arrangement of the 12 notes of the musical alphabet in a circle. Each note on the circle is a perfect fifth apart.

At the top of the circle we begin on the note C. As you go clockwise around the circle, the notes move in perfect 5ths.

A perfect fifth above C is G, and G is the next note on the circle going clockwise.

A perfect fifth above G is D. D is next on the circle.

Next, a perfect fifth above D is A, and so on. Clockwise, the circle moves through all 12 notes of the musical alphabet going in 5ths finally returning to C.

You will notice at the bottom of the circle three of the notes (B, F♯, and C♯) have two spellings each. The same pitch can have multiple spellings. These are called enharmonic notes. On the circle B and C♭ are enharmonic equivalents. F♯ and G♭ are equal. And, C♯ and D♭ are the same note. If you are confused about this, read over the musical alphabet lesson.

The Circle of Fourths

counter-clockwise, the notes move in 4ths...You may notice I call it a circle of 5ths and 4ths. Fourths are another musical interval. If you go counter-clockwise on the circle you will see the notes go in ascending perfect fourths.

From C, a perfect fourth above is F. A perfect fourth above F is B♭, and so on. The notes go in 4ths all the way around the circle when moving counter-clockwise.

Memorizing the Circle of 5ths and 4ths

It will be quite useful for you to memorize the sequence of note names in both fifths and fourths. For starters, bassists play lots of fifths. Knowing the fifth above any note will come in handy. Also, you will see many chord progressions move in fourths. And, it will make memorizing keys and key signatures easier, too.

Learn to recite the notes on the circle from memory. Be able to start on any note (not just C) and go all the way around the circle in both directions. You already know four of them – your bass is tuned in fourths: E A D G. Backwards is G D A E – fifths! This is something you can practice in your head without your bass.

All you really need to remember is BEAD GCF. The cycle of fourths is BEADGCF with natural notes, followed by BEADGCF with flats. Notice F♭ would be equivalent to E. Somewhere you have to flip to the enharmonic equivalent in order to go all the way around.

5ths are the same only backwards — FCGDAEB.

4ths: C F B♭ E♭ A♭ D♭/C♯ G♭/F♯ C♭/B E A D G (C)
5ths: C G D A E B/Cb F♯/G♭ C♯/D♭ A♭ E♭ B♭ F (C)

Applying the Circle of Fifths and Fourths

Just laying out the notes in 5ths and 4ths isn’t anything amazing. But, when you look at the keys for each note an interesting pattern occurs and helps you memorize the notes in each key. In the next lesson I will explain major keys on the circle of fifths.

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