The Crusade. Part 8: Key Signatures And The Circle Of Fifths

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Crusaders! We're almost at the end of our quest. Keep on keepin' on, and dig the info.

We'll be learning about two things today. Key Signatures, and a funny little design, something that Bach would have painted on a cave wall if he had been a Neanderthal. (But I wonder how he would have fashioned those knee socks...)

The funny design is called...The Cycle (or Circle) of Fifths! Is it an endless self destructive spiral of addiction to hard liquor? Sometimes, but the cycle we're talking about here will help you (but it might take out your brain in the process.) It is a way to illustrate Key Signatures in an orderly fashion, and it is closely tied to them. We'll check out both.

Key Signatures

As mentioned in Part vii, knowing the key signature of a piece of music will tell the reader what scale the song was built from - and hence, the key of the song.

Here's what a Key Signature looks like (if I did it right, should be circled in red):

It's the collection of sharps (or flats) at the beginning of a score (if any.) What could they mean?

The composer of the piece (me, in this case) put the sharps there to indicate every F, C, and G needs to be sharped in this particular piece of music. Note how the sharp sign is on it's own particular line. The first sharp is where you would normally notate an F, the second where you would put a C, and the third in place of a G.

This saves a lot of time on the composer's part (I don't have to put an accidental next to every note that's altered), and for the musician, it makes the score much easier to read. Instead of an accidental sign next to each F, C, and G, the Key Signature collects the sharps (or flats) and puts 'em at the beginning. If the piece has a non-sharped F, C, or G, you'll find a sign that looks like this next to the note. It's called the Natural Sign:

(If you see this sign next to a C in our example piece, it would be read C Natural.) This knowledge will help us read the piece, but what about analyzing it? How do we determine what key the song is in? After all, the collection of sharps or flats is called the key signature!

These sharps (or flats, in other cases) are trying to tell us something. Perhaps if we still our mind, and concentrate on our breathing.....

Actually, what the sharps mean is:

The song is built from a major scale that contains three sharps.

I'll give you a hint, here. It's the A Major scale. Here's how it works out:

A B C# D E F# G# A

Three sharps. And they just so happen to be C#, F#, and G#. The ones shown in the key signature.

The sharps always follow a particular order when written on the staff. It is:

F C G D A E B

The flats, likewise, adhere to a strict sequence:

B E A D G C F

Note how the flat sequence is simply the sharp sequence...backwards!

What this means is if we see three sharps in a key signature, they will always be F# G# C#. If we see four, they will always be F# C# G# D#

Just dandy. How in the name of all that is loud are we supposed to apply this to figuring out keys?

Enter - The Cycle!

The cycle (or circle) of fifths is a nifty chart to help you learn, memorize, and reference, the key of a song based on the key signature. (It has other applications as well, especially in composition.)

Here's what it looks like:

The key is represented by the letter on the outside of the chart. How many sharps or flats the key contains is shown in the outer ring and inner ring, respectively.

The relative minor key is notated on the innermost circle.

Tryin' It Out

We see our sheet music example has three sharps at the beginning. Looking at our chart of the cycle of fifths, we then observe the key to contain three sharps is A. If it were to contain four sharps, it would be in the key of E. Four flats would land us in the key of Ab.

What?!

This is weird, bro! I can hear you muttering this as you sit at your computer, theory charts strewn about, bravely endeavoring to conquer the world of theory. Hang tough. Here's how it works.

If we go back to our first example, and look really close at what lines the sharps rest on, we get the following notes: F# C# G# (Remember the order we just discussed.)

Why would that be, and furthermore, what relation to the key of A would this have? Repetition is a good thing when it comes to learning theory, so I'll say it again: The three sharps imply a major scale that contains three sharps.

Again, let's build the A major scale, and take a quick look! What fun! (And if you don't know how to build the major scale, go back and read The Crusade - Part IV-Scales You'll like it.)

Remembering our formula of whole steps and half steps, we end up with: WWHWWWH

In application, starting from A:

A B C# D E F# G# A

Ahhhh ha! Observe that The A major scale contains three notes that must be raised to fit the formula, resulting in a C#, F#, G#.

That's why the key signature of A major has three sharps.

Let's try another key just to make sure we've got it. Let's try a key with two flats.

Looking at the cycle of fifths, we see the key with two flats is Bb major.

Writing the scale, we end up with the following notes:

Bb C D Eb F G A Bb

And so it goes. The key of Bb major, shown with two flats on the chart, has two flats in the scale.

Why The Number?

Why is it called The Circle of Fifths? Let's see: If we write out the letters going clockwise around the circle, starting at C, we get:

C G D A E B F# C#

This series of notes is certainly not a major scale! But that's where our answer can be found. Here's a C major scale.

C D E F G A B

Notice how G is five scale tones above C. In other words, it's a perfect fifth above C.

G is the second note in the circle of fifths. Each position on the Circle of Fifths is a perfect fifth above the last.

Writing out the G major scale:

G A B C D E F#

D is a fifth above G, and surprise surprise, it's the third note in the cycle.

This pattern continues until you reach C#, of which is a key were all the notes are sharp.

What About The Flats?

The flats, being arranged on the left hand side of the chart, deviate slightly from what we've just learned. Traversing the circle counterclockwise we see that C to F is certainly not a fifth. Let's find out what it is:

C D E F G A B

It's a fourth! And sure enough, the F major scale contains one flat:

F G A Bb C D E

A fourth above F is Bb, and the Bb major scale, as we've seen, looks like this.

Bb C D Eb F G A Bb

Neat!

Summary:

The C major scale contains no sharps or flats. If we go five scale tones above C, and start a major scale from that note (G), that scale contains one sharp. Thus, G is shown on the Circle of Fifths to contain one sharp. Moving clockwise on the circle, we move up a perfect fifth each time, and subsequently, add a sharp until we've reached seven. (The key of C#)

If we move counterclockwise from C, the result is a major scale containing flats instead of sharps. The cycle moves in fourths, instead of the clockwise fashion of the fifths.

A Nifty Way To Play It

Remember how I promised that the articles wouldn't be parlor tricks in terms of practical application? Well, here's a guitar-specific way to memorize the order of notes in the circle of fifths.

Starting on C, on the third fret on the fifth string, a perfect fifth above it is actually...a power chord! Play a power chord, and the second note in the chord is the fifth. This happens to be G, 4th string, 5th fret. Note that G is also found on the 3rd fret, 6th string, an octave below where we're playing it now. Jump back to that G, and play a fifth above G. It's D. Jump a fifth above D, and we have A. We could also play A an octave lower, on the fifth fret, sixth string. And so it goes.

Let's back up, and look at our chart to make sure it's lining up: We've ended up with: C G D A And sure enough, those are the first three notes on the cycle. C would have no sharps, G would have one, D two, and A three.

Groovy! Here's the tab.

What About Fourths For The Flat Keys?

Fourths are the easy ones. Starting from C, we simply drop down one string, but stay on the same fret. F, on the 4th string, 3rd fret, is the result. Jump an octave back, to F on the first fret, sixth string. Drop a fourth from there to the first fret on the fifth string. You'll end up with Bb. Checking this against the Circle of Fifths, you should have:

C F Bb.

And sure enough, the Circle confirms this. C has no flats, F has one, and Bb has two. And so the pattern goes. Here's the tab for the fourths (May they be with you! Ha ha!):

Final Thoughts

Alrighty! Good job. The Circle of Fifths is a brilliant diagram to aid in understanding key signatures. Memorize it. It will do you good. The concept of the Circle of Fifths is also used in composition, and many other things. Now that you've got a grasp on the basic idea, keep your eyes peeled for it in your musical travels.

Rock on, and I'll see you next time. In the meantime! Check out my Blog! I need loyal readers like you. See ya there. (And don't forget about my website, either. It's weird. You'll like it.)

Don't forget to check out my blog.

Copyright 2008 Josh Urban - All Rights Reserved

Josh Urban (photo) is a musician with a unique perspective on music. Always a thinker, he gains insight wherever he can find it, be it in the clubs as a working musician, busking on the city streets, or teaching in the classroom. A naturally enthusiastic fellow, Josh is always fired up about bringing the lessons he's learned to his readers. Maintaining a website, a blog, and a monthly newsletter, he aims to make musicians stop, think, and play with a little more intensity, integrity, and inspiration. You never know who's listening.

43 comments sorted by best / new / date

    civildp1
    this is a really good explanation. I wish this article had existed when I learned key signatures. Would've made things so much easier.
    arc6872
    I'm just learning about this in my music theory class now and you explained it perfectly.
    NightEmbers
    after four sharps or flats I can ever remember what it is, most of thetime i just look at the last note to figure out the key
    NightEmbers
    after four sharps or flats I can ever remember what it is, most of thetime i just look at the last note to figure out the key
    xCoilx
    this huge article wasnt really nessasary but they explained it really clearly.nice article.
    xCoilx
    Guitarfreak777 wrote: One thing I find strange is, this was the first thing besides the major scales that I learned regarding theory, but it's your 8th lesson.....weird.
    yeah....same here...you should learn this before you go any further....i dont know why its lesson 8 lol
    LevelingEffect
    Just recently got an account on here, and haven't checked out the other crusade articles but I plan on it. I was always confused when it came to the circle of fifths but this does a pretty good job explaining it.
    Eternal_One
    I learnt all the key signatures by heart and learnt to recall em instantly, without the circle of fifths. To help some people: IF you have trouble learning flat keys, just think of it as; If B major has 5 sharps (B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#), then B flat major will have 2 flats. (Just use the number 7 as the main number on your mental number-line, because it is 7 notes in a major scale excluding the octave). Those flats will be the notes that were natural ie. the B and the E of the major scale. So Bb Major will be; Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A. Hope that made sense.
    ggiles
    Nice to see the circle of 5ths used correctly and not incorrectly as an harmonic scale for once!! Thumbs way up!!
    ValleyBoy
    Eternal_One wrote: I learnt all the key signatures by heart and learnt to recall em instantly, without the circle of fifths. To help some people: IF you have trouble learning flat keys, just think of it as; If B major has 5 sharps (B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#), then B flat major will have 2 flats. (Just use the number 7 as the main number on your mental number-line, because it is 7 notes in a major scale excluding the octave). Those flats will be the notes that were natural ie. the B and the E of the major scale. So Bb Major will be; Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A. Hope that made sense.
    Thanks, that also helped!
    malephik
    I just loved "... the fourths (May they be with you! Ha ha!)" good one!
    PoopChute
    Ok im obviously new at theory but in my opinion wouldnt just be easier to have no enharmonics and ****ing cancel the diatonic theory? Who cares if you have an F then an F# in sequence of the major/minor scales
    PoopChute
    Since my opinion of circle of fifths obviously isnt gonna make it go away, maybe someone could shed some light as to how you figure out what song is in what key EG: the Fade To Black solo it uses the notes A B C C# D E F# G, it uses 8 notes starting with A on the D string of the 7th fret, so is it modulating mid solo or is it throwing a blues scale in?
    sammo_boi
    ^ it is just an A Dorian scale (relative G major, or E minor) with an accidental or chromatic note added in.
    bass-man9712
    i already knew a bit about the circle of fifths but that just uroned out any question i had
    Wing00
    This is a nice article, but it bugs me that so many people like to think that music rudiments, is music theory. This is not music theory, music theory is about stuff like counter-point...
    Guitarfreak777
    One thing I find strange is, this was the first thing besides the major scales that I learned regarding theory, but it's your 8th lesson.....weird.
    ValleyBoy
    I also already slightly had a grip on this stuff, but you basically fortified it like garnier.
    Shard Heilia
    Great article, I hadn't quite gotten the hang of the circle of fifths, but I think I get it now. =P
    AbstractDeth7X
    I hope people are really reading this and trying to understand and apply it. So many guitarists choose to completely overlook theory.
    callum2903
    lol well done for an idiots guid yes, but just so you dont confuse people,. just cause it has three sharps does NOT imply that it is a MAJOR scale with 3 sharps, it implys it is a scale with 3 sharps, btw sorry i dont no how to spell imply lol
    E-dogg66
    Great Article, Applying this to my writing is useless though I do enjoy the crusade Keep goin' maybe some more fret application
    NOSPI
    awesome.. i havent really been following this. i get lazy. but out of a lot of the lessons ive seen on UG this series seems like the easiest to understand. i plan to actually go through and learn it once i get back to school and will be studying it in music.
    dudeman_andy
    i knew this stuff already, but even so this is the best way i've ever seen it explained. Good job.
    Magnificoamar
    i finaly get the circle of fifth's! man these articles are the bomb, i knew like so little theory before these and now i'm like, yeehh!!!! great explanations by FAR!
    judas_priest66
    excellent lesson,helped me get a grip on what understanding I already had on the circle of 5ths. Thank you
    nudge
    I have a question How does the cricle of fifths effect your guitar playing? Fo example scales help u make songs, what does this do?
    Triviutallica
    Brilliant lesson Josh. i'm learning theory at college but this is so much easier to follow thanks alot
    iml84myd8
    for a generation of guitarists that can't read sheet music this lesson is a waste of time . Thoroughly explained, but I can't think of too many people who are going to apply this.
    sesslerite
    Another great article from a great series. Even with classical training, this stuff can be rough to learn. This has been better than any teacher's explanation that I've heard.
    led,rainsong
    i like this stuff i think music theory is better than tab but it takes a lot longer to get good at
    Andraysexy
    I think it's hilarious when "theory elitists" claim "they already know it, but great article". Haha its like they NEED to tell the world. Don't get me wrong, I couldn't imagine writing a song without applying every possible angle of theory, from augmented to diminished, from arpeggios to inversions, but... well, I'm sure you guys got my point. I'm more than thrilled to see theory being accepted by the general, "non-theorist" masses. Great work Josh.
    Wing00
    PoopChute wrote: Since my opinion of circle of fifths obviously isn't gonna make it go away, maybe someone could shed some light as to how you figure out what song is in what key EG: the Fade To Black solo it uses the notes A B C C# D E F# G, it uses 8 notes starting with A on the D string of the 7th fret, so is it modulating mid solo or is it throwing a blues scale in?
    It's in the key of D major (F# and C#). I don't think you know what modulating really means.