The circle of fifths is a brilliant musical tool, but can be confusing when you first look at it. It is a fantastic tool for understanding and working out key signatures in all the major and minor keys and helping us understand the relationship between different keys. However, it looks confusing because it appears like there are loads of different bits of information spread all over the circle.
But do not fear!
The circle of fifths is not as confusing as it first appears! If you follow these simple steps then you will be able to understand the circle of fifths and catapult your musicianship to the next level!
Step 1 – Why is it called the circle of fifths?
The best way to understand the circle of fifths is to learn how to create one.
The first step in creating a circle of fifths is to draw the basic circle (hence why it is called the “circle of fifths”
So, draw a circle on a piece of paper.
Click Here to download a Circle of Fifths Template
Number the right hand side of the circle from 0-6 like a clock face.
Once you have drawn your circle with the numbers on the right hand side we are ready to add in the different keys. Start by adding the letter C above the 0 at the top of the clock face. This represents the key “C major”. It has 0 sharps and flats in its key signature (hence why it is positioned above the number “0”).
Now we are going to see why it is called the “circle of fifths”.
In order to fill in the keys on the right hand side of the circle we need to count up in intervals of a “perfect fifth”. An interval is simply the distance in pitch between 2 notes. A perfect fifth is a distance of 7 semitones. The easiest way to see this is by looking at a keyboard.
Have a look at the keyboard above. We are going to start on the note “C” and count up 7 semitones (a “perfect fifth”). If we count up 7 semitones (a “perfect fifth”) from the note C we get to the note G.
So, G is the next note on our circle because it is a perfect fifth higher than C. Write G above the number 1 on our circle.
To find the next note above G we simply count up another 7 semitones (a “perfect fifth”) starting on G (see below):
If we count up 7 semitones from G we get to D. Write the letter D next to the number 2 on our circle.
If you repeat this process you will find that the next 4 letters are A, E and B.
Now when you get to B you are simply going to count up another 7 semitones, but this time you don’t land on a white note – you land on an F sharp (see the keyboard below):
So you write “F sharp” under the number 6 on your circle.
Great! We have now completed the first half of our circle of fifths. This tells us how many sharps are in each of the major keys we have written down. So, in G major there is 1 sharp (we have written the letter G next to the number 1). In D major, there are 2 sharps, A major, 3 sharps, E major 4 sharps, B major 5 sharps and in F sharp major there are 6 sharps. It is probably a good idea to put a little sharp sign next to each of the numbers as I have done in the diagram above.
Quick Tip: Check the letter names are filled in correctly by counting the alphabetic distance between them – each of the keys should be 5 letters apart. e.g. C-d-e-f-G-a-b-c-D, etc..
Now we are going to fill in the left hand side of the circle of fifths. The left hand side tells us how many flats are in different keys. Start at the top again with the number 0 and fill in the left hand side of the circle with the numbers 0-6 (6 is again at the bottom of the circle like a clock face).
To fill in the keys, again start at the top with the key C (0 sharps or flats). This time, however, we are going to count down 7 semitones (a perfect fifth) as we go round the left hand side of our circle – (this makes sense really, because we are going the other way round the circle). So, if we start at C and count down 7 semitones we get to F as you can see from the keyboard below:
If we count down another 7 semitones we get to B flat. Repeat this method and we get E flat (number 3), A flat (number 4), D flat (number 5) and G flat (number 6).
Great! We can now see how many flats each of these keys has by simply looking at the number next to the key. So, F has one flat, B flat has 2 flats, E flat has 3 flats, etc.. Again, putting a little flat sign next to each of these numbers will help you remember these are the flats.
Notice how the number 6 is shared between 2 different keys – F sharp and G flat.
These are actually the same note on a keyboard, but named differently. This is called an enharmonic equivalent.
There are 2 more enharmonic equivalents we can add in to complete our keys. If we extend the numbers on the right hand side of the clock face round to 7 and count up a perfect fifth from F sharp we get to C sharp. Likewise, if we extend the numbers on the left hand side of the clock face around to 7 and count down a perfect fifth from G flat we get to C flat.
If we add these extra keys in we now have 3 points on our circle which are shared (enharmonic equivalents) between sharps and flats.
Quick Tip: Remember, the letter names always need to be 5 alphabetic spaces apart – that is why we say “C flat” instead of “B”.
Now, I suggest at this point that you pause and have a go at creating the circle we have just produced. I have produced a pdf of the circle with the different points to get you started – you can download it at the bottom of this page. Feel free to download it, print it off and have a go at filling it in. Actually drawing the circle yourself will really help you learn it. Try to see if you can get all the way to 7 on each side of the circle to show that you understand the enharmonic equivalents.
Step 2 – Learn The Sharps and Flats Rhyme
Hopefully you have had a quick chance to draw the basic circle of fifths which tells us how many sharps and flats are in each of the keys. Now we need to know which sharps and flats are in each key – this is called the key signature.
In order to do this we simply need to learn a rhyme (mnemonic) for the sharps and one for the flats. There are lots of different rhymes people have made up. I am going to teach you one that I have found to be pretty memorable.
For the sharps the rhyme is:
Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket
This gives the letters “F-C-G-D-A-E-B”.
These are the sharps that you fill in around the right hand side of the circle starting with F on the number 1.
Have a look at the diagram below:
Now we can see not only how many sharps are in each key, but which ones they are! So, G major has one sharp – F sharp. D major has 2 sharps – F sharp and C sharp. A major has 3 sharps – F sharp, C sharp and G sharp, etc.. (we add a sharp each time).
For the flats the rhyme is:
Blanket Explodes And Dad Gets Cold Feet
This gives the letters “B-E-A-D-G-C-F”.
These are the flats that you fill in around the left hand side of the circle starting with B on the number 1.
Have a look at the diagram below:
So, now we can see which flats are in the keys. So, F major has one flat – B flat. B flat major has 2 flats – B flat and E flat. E flat major has 3 flats – B flat, E flat and A flat, etc.. (we add a flat each time).
Step 3 – What about the minor keys?
We now can see the key signatures of all the different major keys with either sharps or flats in them.
But what about the minor keys?
The good news is that you don’t need to learn any extra key signatures because every minor key has a relative major key. A relative major and relative minor share the same key signature.
So, all you need to do is learn where to position the minor keys on the circle of fifths and you will immediately be able to see the minor key signatures.
To find the relative minor you just need to count down 3 semitones from the major key.
Let’s have a look at C major as an example.
C major is at the top of our circle and has 0 sharps and flats.
If we count down 3 semitones from C we get to A – so, the relative minor of C major is A minor:
We can fill this in on the circle as follows:
Now let’s try the next key on the circle – G major. Count down 3 semitones from G and you get to E – so, E minor is the relative minor of G major.
You can repeat this process for all of the major keys round the circle (this technique works for both sides of the circle).
The Completed Circle of Fifths
Once you have added in all the relative minor keys your circle should look something like this:
The amazing thing about this circle is that all of the different layers are all separated by perfect 5ths! The major keys, the relative minor keys, the sharps and the flats are all separated by intervals of a perfect 5th (7 semitones). The only difference is that it the interval is going up with sharps and going down with flats.
Click on the link below to download my circle of fifths wall chart to help you remember it.
Anyway, I hope you have found this music theory lesson helpful!
Please have a look at the video above if you haven’t had a chance yet as I think you will find it really helpful.
Also, feel free to download the circle of fifths template below so you can have a go at creating your own circle of fifths.