The Circle of 5ths is a diagram used as a quick reference for all sorts of key and chord information.  Here’s how it works.

If you will recall from Scales and Key Signatures we discovered that:

F# / Gb Major has 6# / 6b
B Major has 5#
E Major has 4#
A Major has 3#
D Major has 2#
G Major has 1#
C Major has 0# / 0b
F Major has 1b
Bb Major has 2b
Eb Major has 3b
Ab Major has 4b
Db Major has 5b

If we plot the sharps around the face of a clock, the clock face number tells us how many sharps there are in a key.

circle of 5ths - sharps

If we plot the flats counter clockwise around the face of a clock, a simple renumbering tells us how many flats there are in a key signature.

cof sharps and flats
This is known as the Circle of 5ths (clockwise) or the Circle of 4ths (counter-clockwise). The circle has a lot of uses.

  • The number of sharps or flats in any given key
  • The order of sharps or flats in the key signature
  • The 4th degree (counter clockwise) and 5th degree (clockwise) of any scale, which is useful in building chord progressions. Blues use I – IV – V, which are the key, plus the adjacent letters.
  • The common vi – ii – V – I chord progression is a progression of 4ths, which can be seen as 4 adjacent letters going counter clockwise. e.g. Am – Dm – G – C

Some circles also show the relative minor keys, like this.

circle-of-fifths

  • The counter-clockwise is the 4th, clockwise is the 5th also holds for this inner circle of minors

Let’s look at the key of C and Am

C Major has: C Dm Em F G Am B7

Am has: Am B7 C Dm Em F G Am

  • The Major chords in a key are adjacent, e.g. F counter clock wise, G clockwise
  • The minor chords in that key are also adjacent. e.g. Am inner, Dm counter clockwise, Em clockwise

Print one off and keep it handy.

Circle-of-5ths.pdf

Really study it. Memorize the order of sharps and flats. Try chord progressions around the circle.

What other uses have you found for the Circle of 5ths?

Join the discussion and let us know.

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