The Circle Of Fifths: Music Theory For Dummies

Circle Of Fifths can help you as a guitarist when you get stuck trying to write a song or stuck trying to figure a song out by ear.

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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.

204 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Danny7
    I think you should have this edited so that the circles look like actual circles.. as opposed to tubes.
    Led_Zeppelin_27
    really great lesson, i just hate how much memorization goes into music theory, and for the people who don't understand this, just re-read it, it isn't to difficult to understand
    dogsballs
    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. I REALLY DONT UNDERSTAND WOT YOU MEAN THERE DUDE.
    dogsballs
    totally awesome lesson dude! i dont understand it though. do you mean the Bb,F,C,B etc are played as notes or chords? if u mean play the chords then ok i mite be able to play around with them and learn something. Do you mean so if im righting a song with Eb i shuld go to Ab if i would otherwise have gone to Bb.
    Corwinoid
    SilentDeftone-- The number of flats/sharps in a given key, mode, or scale is a side effect of it's beginning interval and chromatic relationship to the ionian scale, and is completely incidental to it's 'position' on the circle of fifths. Denegrating this post because it fails to conform to your opinion of what matters is... rude, at the least. This is a difficult subject to fully grasp without a good understanding of intervalic relationships, and I think I see where people are confused. It helps, when working with he circle of fifths/circle of fourths to not think about specifcic keys. What's important is to remember that moving clockwise, each position advances by a 'fifth' until you return to the root position (I). Any 'motion' along the circle will retain a particular 'feeling' when moved to another position. The simplest of these is to move one position clockwise, at a time. You get the basic progression I-V-II-VI (For those who already understand what I'm talking about, I chose not to use the diatonic ii and vi because alterations can be applied, or chosen, as they occur).
    The Fiddler
    for everyone who thinks this is useless...you are NOT a musician. music is not justin playing cool songs, it's understanding music and the "feel" of music.
    rearFender
    Awesome lesson; missing a few stuff but I've learned a little bit of what I need. rF
    FooDog007
    pretty simple and pretty informative...thank God music theory isn't as hard as it sounds!
    zeppelin420
    how could anyone NOT get it... but yeah you should make the circle look more like a circle. I'd be interested to see anymore lessons you could put out regarding easy to learn music theory.
    thedonutman
    I've just read through the whole lesson, and I *think* I understand. The circle of fifths is basically just an tool to assist transposition of chord progressions, scales, arpeggios etc. ?
    woundedfinger
    Ardolino_Cool wrote: crap crap crap...got nothing to do with musical theory that well except anyone who knows what a 5th means can figure that out. there shudnt be rules like this with chord progresions. i mean i know someone who made a chord progression out of B major and B Minor chords...theory like this limits creativity.just **** circle of 5ths u play chords together that sound good to you...and what you wanna play.its what being a guitarist is about...unless however your an actual musician not a guitarist.
    how can you possibly say that a guitarist is not a MUSICIAN? what kind of guitar do you own man, MUSICAL or CRAPPISH? oh dont tell me, i know, CRAPPISH.. your guitar produces Crap, not Music, right? I advice you to listen to guitarists like Hendrix, or Cobain or Slash, then tell me if you hear music in your ears! cause if you dont hear music then you oughtta lay down your guitar and get a hammer instead.. BTW, valuable info youve imparted peacemkr.. peace
    grengsdavid
    oh yeah i like e like it im gonna try to memorize it gotta get the grenery outt the scenery tho
    mnic001
    just a side-effect of going up by a fifth? Yeah I guess so. But is that fact useful?
    ChemicalFire
    This is a much better explanation of the Co5 than on the massive guide that's on this site. I understood this perfectly.
    mnic001
    Hey, if you go around the circle of fifths by looking at every other note, it's the whole tone scale. What does that mean?
    rtdancer123
    I meant to say that if you want to be free of needing sheet music to be able to play a tune, you are being restrained. There must be rules to why one chord or a group of chords are suitable at particular times. That is what we all should be looking to know.
    PoopChute
    to the pl who dont understand, start first by memorizing the fretboard and learn how major scales are made then come back to this, itll be easier
    PoopChute
    o and another helpful tool is studybass.com and go to the fretboard printer it helped me so it might help you
    WaryGuitarist
    Ardolino_Cool wrote: crap crap crap...got nothing to do with musical theory that well except anyone who knows what a 5th means can figure that out. there shudnt be rules like this with chord progresions. i mean i know someone who made a chord progression out of B major and B Minor chords...theory like this limits creativity.just **** circle of 5ths u play chords together that sound good to you...and what you wanna play.its what being a guitarist is about...unless however your an actual musician not a guitarist.
    And you... its not a rule its a technique to figure out which chords, or even single notes, are related to the same key, but i don't expect a dumbass like you to understand...
    dyvyzyo
    Yes, good information and lesson. What is not clear [tho I can't say I've read all the posted comments].... In constructing the circle, as you instruct, why does Gb follows B ?
    towerman8888
    Come on people, take your time and read it slowly and tell yourself that there is something to learn in this article. Comprend what your reading, don't move forward from one sentence to the next without understanding what it says. This information is straight forward and very useful if you want your guitar playing to be all that it can. Thanks for the article very well put as far as if it's a circle or a tube or whatever is just a bunch of jealous crybaby's with nothing better to do. Seriously
    rtdancer123
    rtdancer123 corwinoid sure knows his stuff...I understood everything as far as the purpose of your comment. However, you are only explaining how to transpose. To be able to play without needing sheet music or memorization,what else can the circle offer?
    Angel Of Sin
    I think next time you should include some examples in TAB that a person could play, maybe that may be the reason why everyone is so confused..
    gatkins2004
    Great stuff, just one mistake though where you say " Go to the Circle of Fifths and go one turn Counter Clockwise of Db (which is Ab)" Cheers, Gary
    Tzao
    If you do not understand the circle of fifths, stare at it. If you still don't understand, then go do something more useful with your life. The world has enough awful musicians as is.
    delhan
    Okay I don't understand circle of fifths... could someone like send me a link to a visual lesson of the circle of fifths because I kinda get it but I still don't quite understand cuz I get confused on this stuff... it may not be hard to understand for you others who have had lessons from teachers or followed many lessons but I'm not really familiar with this stuff... I learned everything I know on my own and I wanted to enhance my knowledge by reading some lessons... I still don't get this stuff... so help me... PLEEAASSSEEE....
    metal-fury
    Corwinoid wrote: .....The circle of fifths is so named because each clockwise motion advances by an interval of a 'fifth' (7 semi-tones). -- C
    Thanks for that, I was wondering what the 'fifth' was. - I thought it was just five places up the alphabet C D E F G but that didn't sound much like musical theory to me! Can anyone say why a fifth is 7 semitones? Very interesting article, been playing for many years and have just started on theory.