The Circle Of Fifths: Music Theory For Dummies

author: Peacemkr date: 07/21/2004 category: the basics
rating: 8.8 / votes: 101 
A lot of gutar players tend to think that learning any sort of music theory is a waste of time and they would rather just play what they "feel". These types of people have a good point, because playing what you feel will make you a great guitar player. The place where music theory and more specifically knowledge of the Circle of Fifths can help you as a guitarist is when you get stuck trying to write a song or stuck trying to figure a song out by ear. The Circle of Fifths can help you easily construct hundreds of Chord Progressions, Lead Lines, Harmonies, and just about anything else once you get the hang of it. Alright, so here's the Circle Of Fifths:
                         C 
                     F       G 
                        
                 Bb              D 

              Eb                    A 

                 Ab              E

                     Db      B
                         Gb
Take a second, start with C and go around the Circle of Fifths and say each note out loud or say it in your head. Now if you look at it again you will notice that since there are twelve notes, they are arranged in the exact same position that the numbers on a clock would be arranged. (Go ahead and look yourself to verify that). This is every single note on the guitar arranged into a circle. The Circle of Fifths is to music as the periodic table of elements is to chemistry. No musician should be without it. So pay attention. The Circle of Fifths is very simple to make. Start with C, then place the Fifth of C (which is G) Clockwise of it. Then start with G, and place the Fifth of G (which is D) Clockwise of that. And so on and so on. Here is a list of Notes and their fifths starting with C.
Fifths:
C  - - - G 
G  - - - D
D  - - - A
A  - - - E
B  - - - Gb
Gb - - - Db
Db - - - Ab
Eb - - - Bb
Bb - - - F
F  - - - C
C  - - - G
The pattern that this list makes is the circle of fifths. Notice how it repeats itself and goes back to the C - G interval at the end. That's why its a circle. Anyway, you're probably wondering how this is helpful at all, but I plan to show you. If you take a chord progression, let's say C major to F major.
                         C* 
                     F*      G 
                        
                 Bb              D 

              Eb                    A 

                 Ab              E

                     Db      B
                         Gb
Now, let's say you want to transpose that to A. So you want the same exact same sounding chord progression you just want it in A instead of C. Since F is in the position that is one turn counter clockwise of C, then all you have to do is go to A, and then go one turn counter clockwise to D.
                         C 
                     F       G 
                        
                 Bb              D* 

              Eb                    A* 

                 Ab              E

                     Db      B
                         Gb
The Chord Progression going from A major to D major is the same as going from C major to F major. Try it and you will see what I mean. Although the notes/pitches are different, you get the same feeling going from any major chord to the chord exactly one turn Counter Clockwise on the Circle of Fifths.
Try it for D.

                         C 
                     F       G* 
                        
                 Bb              D* 

              Eb                    A 

                 Ab              E

                     Db      B
                         Gb
Try it for G.

                         C* 
                     F       G* 
                        
                 Bb              D 

              Eb                    A 

                 Ab              E

                     Db      B
                         Gb
Here's the kicker. The feeling you get from any one specific chord progression, like going from C major to F major can be replicated in any other key very easily using the Circle of Fifths. So if you are in a strange starting place like Db major, however you want the kind of feeling you get when you go from C major to F major. Go to the Circle of Fifths and go one turn Counter Clockwise of Db (which is Ab)
                         C 
                     F       G 
                        
                 Bb              D 

              Eb                    A 

                 Ab              E

                     Db*     B
                         Gb*
If the secret to playing is knowing how to play with feeling. Then it is certainly good to know twelve different ways to make the same sounding chord progression. So the secret to chord progressions is not exactly which chords you use, but instead its about their relationship between one another on the Circle of Fifths. Everytime you start with any of the twelve major chords and then go one turn Counter Clockwise on the Circle of Fifths you will get the same sounding Chord Progression. Now if you go Two Turns Counter Clockwise everytime you have another twelve chord progressions that give you the same feeling. Same for Three, Four, Five, Six... etc. Going Clockwise around the circle works the same as going counter clockwise. Just remember that One Turn Clockwise is NOT the same as One Turn Counter Clockwise. Try it and you'll see.
                         C 
                     F       G 
                        
                 Bb              D 

              Eb                    A 

                 Ab              E

                     Db      B
                         Gb
The Circle of Fifths does not just give you information about types of Major Chord Progressions. It can be used to give you information for Every Type of Chord Progression. Whether you want Minor to Major, Seventh to Major, Minor to Minor, Major Ninth to Flatted Seventh. It works for Scales as well! Let's look at the pattern made by seclecting the notes of the C Major Pentatonic (C, D, E, G, A) on the Circle of Fifths.
                         C* 
                     F       G* 
                        
                 Bb              D* 

              Eb                    A* 

                 Ab              E*

                     Db      B
                         Gb
Now make that same pattern starting with G.
                         C 
                     F       G* 
                        
                 Bb              D* 

              Eb                    A* 

                 Ab              E*

                     Db      B*
                         Gb
These are the notes in the G Major Pentatonic Scale (G,A,B,D,E).
Try it for F.

                         C* 
                     F*      G* 
                        
                 Bb              D* 

              Eb                    A* 

                 Ab              E

                     Db      B
                         Gb
And that's the F Major Pentatonic Scale (F,G,A,C,D). Try somethin a little exotic like Ab.
                         C 
                     F*      G 
                        
                 Bb*             D 

              Eb*                   A 

                 Ab*             E

                     Db      B
                         Gb
And that is how you make the Ab Major Pentatonic Scale (Ab, Bb, C, Eb, F). There are hundreds of patterns and relationships locked into the Circle of Fifths, and you're knowledge of how to use it can greatly reduce the amount of time you waste searching every fret for the notes you need. If you understand what I just said, hopefully I explained it coherenty. Then you already know more about music theory, then any person out there that uses complicated formulas and naming schemes to explain the phenomena. Some folks would have you spend hours memorizing all kinds of different information to learn Music Theory, when all you really need to have is the Twelve Note arrangement of the Circle of Fifths, and a Third Graders ability to recognize patterns. From there you can figure out and do anything you want. If you don't know the notes on the guitar it may be helpful to write out a chart or print one out so that you can use the Circle of Fifths more effectively. If you're having troubl. Re-read this article and makes sure that you're going the right way around the circle, Clockwise or Counter Clockwiseas needed.
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