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.
    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
    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).
    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.
    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.
    FooDog007
    pretty simple and pretty informative...thank God music theory isn't as hard as it sounds!
    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
    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.
    musicgoddess
    Sorry the above should have read 'it includes the scales in a circle diagram which is most handy' and not 'chords' as I wrote above. Also I agree with nukenote that the Ab should be a F#/Gb...blimey, I feel like I know what I'm talking about, this circle is magic!
    Corwinoid
    When viewed in the key of C, for instance, this progression would take the form C-G-Dm-Am. When viewed in the key of A, it would be A-E-Bm-F#m. What's important is that both progressions have the same feeling when heard, though they're in distinctly different keys. (Melodies so transposed will also maintain their feeling). This holds true for any 'movement' a progression makes along the circle of fifths. For instance, while you're expirmenting you may come across a particular motion (chord change) that has a particular feeling you'd like to maintain, however it doesn't fit your progression. The circle of fifths can act as a guide for making this series of chords fit your progression, OR it can act as a guide for moving this motion into the natural key of the progression, while maintaining the feeling of the original motion. Again, a good understanding of intervals is needed to firmly grasp the subject, if I didn't help clarify please let me know. Also, for more information I'd recommend "The Guiter Grimoire -- Progressions & Improvisation" by Adam Kadmon [Carl Fischer, 0-8258-3197-0], which gives an in-depth, theoretically complete, explaination of progressions and how they fit the circle of fifths, including alterations (why and how they apply), as it pertains to western music and jazz (IMO the most theoretically progressive (NPI) style of music), and how the inverse motions apply. I don't feel the need, unless asked, to go into that right now.
    Corwinoid
    However, to clarify for frenchie: The circle of fifths is so named because each clockwise motion advances by an interval of a 'fifth' (7 semi-tones). When moving counter-clockwise (or in reverse), a motion is it's intervalic inversion. For each step moved counter-clockwise you move backwards by an interval of a 'fourth' (5 semi-tones). This means when you are moving, chromatically, a fourth (instead of a fifth), however a fourth is the intervallic inversion of a fifth, meaning that you are moving, intervallically, 'down' a fifth, instead of up a fifth. Generally, in western music, chord progressions have certain "natural" movements, caused by acoustic resonance, chordal dissonance/resolution, blah blah blah (these are mostly caused by the harmonic training of the year at younger ages, and are quite regional... while I'm off on a tangent here, this is why most of you don't like chinese opera, and other eastern forms of music). While not displeasing to the ear, the motion to the fourth in one of the major modes is, most commonly, a dissonant effect in western music, and is not common to the ear. So, when do you decide to move clockwise or counterclockwise? Ultimately that decisions up to you, and quite honestly nothing in theory says you have to do either. Lateral motions, even, are common in progressive music, and some jazz, and make for some interesting tonality experiments as well. In the end it's about what sounds good to you. The end result, is that when you are moving clockwise you are progressing through a key from the root chord (more or less), and when you move counterclcockwise you are moving continually 'towards' the root of the key (whether or not the is ever ultimately resolved is again, a complete matter of taste). Hope I helped, -- C
    RAplayingmantis
    sicky sicky that was cool it took alittle while for me to get it being a beginner and all but its all making sence shouldnt i be paying for this shit!!! thanks guy
    musicgoddess
    I didn't get it when I first read this. Then I went to the lessons at zentao.com as someone kindly suggested and read through their explanation, it includes the chords in a circle diagram which is most handy! Find it at http://www.zentao.com/guitar/theory/. It explains the fifths more clearly but doesn't explain about using the circle for transposing as well as this posting. So after reading that, come back to this explanation and all will become clear and you'll see the light and that it isn't as confusing as it first seems. Have fun.
    afootincoldwate
    musicgoddess i think u meant neither...u meant 'keys' didn't u? corwinoid, thats some brilliant explanation you gave. but i think a lesson on scale tones and related chords would help before coming here. maybe it should be included with this lesson. great article though.
    futurehendrix07
    Great article. I don't really see how anyone couldn't get it..But for those of you who don't: Take a piece of paper and draw the fifths of C in your own diagram (you can get it more circular since Peacemkr's didn't come out to look like a circle). That helped me a lot.
    VR05
    thats really easy and im glad that u explained that ans cleared it all up for me
    bassist90
    dude, i don't even play guitar and i think that was awesome...i'll have to show that to our guitarist,nice job! w00t d00t
    levi's
    type "circle of fifths" into google picture search, print it out and reread the lesson. it's much easier that way
    nukenote
    well, trumpet is actually spelled with an t , not like i posted. Hard to get all the letters correct when you are lying down on the bed. ..nukenote
    bedlamdoc
    For whatever reason, when I read this I think more of a *spiral* than a circle. Does that make any sense?
    jake2412
    very good lesson,ive always been used to using the circle of fifths with figuring out key sigs but i never thought about it this way
    zeppelinfan93
    if u cant understand this simple theory, than you need to give up now....this guy exlains it so well that its almost imossible to not get.
    feathers632
    It's actually not explained very well. Making a circle out of ascii is shit to begin with but some of the youtube video explanations are much more detailed and concise. And for all those who are shouting their mouths off saying people are dumb if they don't get it? You're only saying it's easy because either you knew it already or because you followed this ascii tutorial and think you have a complete understanding of the circle as a result. This tutorial doesn't cut it for me.
    Walldude
    Well, as a guy who can play guitar but doesn't know jack about theory, and is trying to figure it out, I'm confused when I get to the Gb. Since there is only half a step in between "A" and "B" shouldn't the fifth of Gb be "D" and not "Db"? When you go from the "Bb" to the "F" it seems to take the half step into consideration, why does it not when going from Gb to Db?
    slz.mtarek
    Nice and easy way of explain, good article thank you , Only flats part is missing.