Circle Of Fifths Cheats

How I used my guitar to "cheat" in my Music Theory I class Part I.

logo
Ultimate Guitar
0
Before we begin this lesson you need some rudimentary music theory. See the Music Theory FAQ on this website. You can stop at the section on the modes of the major scale as they won't be discussed here. However, it is absolutely essential that you understand how to build major scales and have some basic fretboard knowledge. In my college music theory class I had a heck of a time memorizing the circle of fifths. I have to be honest and admit that sitting around memorizing this stuff was not the most enjoyable thing. Being somewhat lazy I was always looking for an angle short of cheating to get me through some of these classes. Shortly before the final for my Music Theory I class I discovered a really easy way to nail the circle of fifths cold. The cool thing was that this allowed me to be able to nail key signatures perfectly every time. No more flash cards! Plus I discovered some cool fretboard idiosyncrasies that helped with improvisation, mastering scales, and chords. All from this quirky little discovery. The Circle of Fifths is merely a diagram that shows the relationship of all of the keys in western music. To see what it looks like check out the one on Wikipedia. With the exception of the tuning from the third to the second string (G to B) the guitar is tuned in five step intervals. For example, when tuning by ear you play the fifth fret on the sixth string (Low E) to get the same pitch as the open 5th string (A). In music theory this is called a Unison. What is cool about the guitar is that this interval is the same no matter where you are playing on the neck. For example the eighth fret on the Low E is C. So is the third fret on the A string. Unisons are always five frets apart. What this demonstrates for us guitar players is that the shape of any interval remains the same regardless of the notes or position across most of the guitar. So once we can play intervals that are a fifth apart (seven steps) the circle of fifths should be easy. Take a look at that Circle of fifths diagram again. I recommend printing it out for this lesson. Notice that the next key after C going clockwise around the circle is G. So the diagram is telling you that G is a fifth above C. You could memorize this along with memorizing what a fifth is above G and a fifth above D and so on or you could memorize the shape of that interval on your guitar. If you memorize the shape, you don't need to memorize the whole circle of fifths. I don't know about you but I'm better at memorizing one thing rather than a bunch. If you have no idea about what the notes are on your guitar this may be a little more challenging. Begin by placing your index finger on the third fret of the fifth string. You are now playing a C note. Again, a fifth above C is G. We know this from looking at Circle of Fifths. So now we need to find the where G is. There are actually two G's within reach from here. Take a look at the diagram below.
e|--|--|--|--|--| B|--|--|--|--|--| G|--|--|--|--|--| D|--|--|--|--|G-| A|--|--|C-|--|--| E|--|--|G-|--|--|
I've taken the liberty of writing out the note names on the frets to make it obvious for you. Remember how I said the shapes of intervals do not change except for when you jump from the G string to the B string. We'll do that in another lesson. Notice how the fifth sits right underneath the C and also within reach of the ring finger. So if I asked you to find the fifth of G without having to look at the circle of fifths, could you? The shape is almost the same. Take a look.
e|--|--|--|--|--|--|--|--| B|--|--|--|--|--|--|--|--| G|--|--|--|--|--|--|D-|--| D|--|--|--|--|G-|--|--|--| A|--|--|--|--|D-|--|--|--| E|--|--|G-|--|--|--|--|--|
This diagram shows a six string guitar so there is no fifth below G on the sixth string. But the ring finger still lands on D on the fifth string. By now something in your head should be clicking about power chords. That's because power chords are simply the root and the fifth played together. See if you can figure out the fifth of D without looking at the diagram below.
e|--|--|--|--|--|--|--|--| B|--|--|--|--|--|--|--|--| G|--|--|--|--|--|--|D-|--| D|--|--|--|--|--|--|A-|--| A|--|--|--|--|D-|--|--|--| E|--|--|--|--|A-|--|--|--|
I left the D on the G string in there so it looks a little different than the first diagram but the concept is the same. To find the fifth of D just create a simple D power chord on the fifth string. Check out the circle of fifths diagram again. You can see that the circle goes from C to G to D to A. You just did that on your guitar. If I asked you what is a fifth above A you might just say E without even having to think too much about it because you can see the chord and notes in your head. How about a fifth above E? It's B right? I told you it was easy. If you can play power chords and know the names of the notes on top three strings you can easily build the circle of fifths. What if you want to go in reverse? That's easier than you think. C is the fifth of what note? You probably didn't have to think too hard to come up with F. F is the fifth of what note. Again, check it against the Circle of Fifths but just place your ring finger on F of either the fourth or fifth string and play a chord and you'll see what I mean. Your index finger lands on Bb. Remember from the Music Theory FAQ that Going counterclockwise results in flats. Clockwise results in sharps. Regardless there are those power chord shapes again. What makes this approach so easy is that most of us know the notes on the Low E, A, and D string really well from playing power chords. To cut to the chase, if you play this little lick you have made your way around the circle of fifths note by note. It's based on what you just learned and the pattern is so ridiculously simple that if you have to memorize it you missed the point. See how you just keep moving up two frets?
E|--------------------------------------------| B|--------------------------------------------| G|--------------------------------------------| D|--------------------------------------------| A|--3---5---7---9---11----13----15------------| E|----3---5---7---9----11----13---------------|
Remember how I told you that from this exercise I was able to nail key signatures? Each time you move clockwise around the Circle of Fifths you add a sharp to the previous key. Each time you move counter-clockwise you add a flat to the previous key. For example the key of C contains no sharps or flats. The key of G contains one sharp. That sharp happens to be F#. Without getting too obvious let me ask you a question that will probably open your eyes. How far is F# to G? A half step right? So if you see a key signature with one sharp you simply need to start at C using the previous example and go to G the next key. That one "jump", if you will, around the Circle of fifths represents one sharp. Conversely, if you saw just the F# you also know that the music is in the key of G because all you had to do what raise that F# a half step and you know the key is G. To further illustrate this the next key on the Circle of Fifths after G is D right? You knew that from just making a G power chord. D contains two sharps. You could do the whole flashcard thing and memorize that two sharps means the key of D. Tedious. The two sharps in the key of D are F# and C#. What is a half step above C#? D right? Again, the very next accidental is always a half step below the new key signature. See how easy my approach is? Now what if you wanted to know what the accidentals are in a given key? To make this obvious to you lets look at the key of A. It contains three sharps. F#, C#, and G#. Now look at the pattern of those accidentals on the fretboard. Does it look familar? Its the same pattern as the circle of fifths only you start a fifth lower. The accidentals literally follow the circle two frets behind. So let me ask you another question. What do you guess the next accidental will be for the Key of E? You probably don't even need to look at your guitar. If you guessed D# then you've got it. Let's talk about going in reverse. F major contains one flat. It happens to be Bb. Remember we are moving from C major to F major around that Circle of Fifths What is a half step below C? B right. What if we drop that another half step. We get Bb right? It the same thinking as going clockwise we just need to reverse things a little because if we were going from the key of F to the key of C we would have to raise the seventh tone of the next key a half step right? Since C is the next key we would have needed to raise that Bb to B. So what do imagine is the next key below F? This is even easier than going forward. If used your guitar to figure this out and asked yourself "F is the fifth of what" and played a Bb you should have had and "AHA!" moment. The accidentals preceed the next key around the circle of fifths. Pretty cool huh? So what do you imagine is the next key after Bb? Let's talk this through. What are the two accidentals in Bb? Okay Bb is a dead give away. The other one is Eb right? Remember how we just needed to go two half steps or a whole step below the previous key? The previous key was F right? Eb is a whole step below F. So the key of Bb contains a Bb and an Eb. What is the next key? Eb. Let's do it again. Eb contains three accidentals. Since the key before Eb was Bb we only need to look at what note is a whole step below Bb to find our next key. A whole step below Bb is Ab. So now we now that the key of Eb contains a Bb, an Eb, and an Ab. So what is the next key? Ab. Only two more keys to go. See if you can do it on your own. Take a look at the circle of fifths again. Notice how the circles kind of overlap so that Db and C# contain the same exact pitches. The same is true for the keys of F# and Gb. Those are the enharmonic keys listed in the Music Theory FAQ. Run through this exercise a few times and you'll see how easy this really is. The more you do this the more this starts to make sense. It starts to flow and you'll realize you don't need to memorize the Cirlce of Fifths. In the future when someone names a key try using this fretboard approach. See if you can figure out what the accidentals are. Let's be honest. You are going to use this stuff when you have your guitar in your hands so why not use it to "cheat".

This story was written by a UG user. Have anything interesting to share with the community? Submit your own story!

97 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Imago Dei
    Andraysexy wrote: I 100% agree with BassistGal. All this article does in increase the amount of terrible guitarists in terrible bands. Not saying this is the whole reason for it, but people who encourage shapes and tabs are just massing the amount of BC Rich gain wh_res. If you're willing to spend money on music, take the time to properly understand it... or make a terrible band tuned to drop-A with lots of breakdowns.
    Help me understand something. You "totally agree with BassistGal"? Does that include the comment, "What do I do? help my friends who wants to learn, do a little tabbing , but what I'm doing is not what we're arguing about here." (emphasis mine) The reality is that the guitar is a uniquely tuned instrument. Due to the complexity of the its tuning, a great deal of emphasis has been on shapes. I agree with you that individuals should take the time to properly understand music. This article was an attempt to bridge the gap between the familiar (shapes) and the unfamiliar (The Circle of Fifths). By doing so we go a long way towards breaking guitarists out the CAGED shapes and three note per string scales and into understanding music. When teaching students to read sheet music or learn the fretboard we all use a variation of tabbing. For example, third string seventh fret is a D note... We have to have some starting point don't we? I agree it has been a crutch for far too many guitarists and goes a long way to explain why few guitarists have decent rhythm. Furthermore, what the article did not say but what I have found is that the results are exactly same as teaching the Circle of Fifths traditionally. The Circle of Fifths gets memorized. The means to accomplish this are a bit lengthy and unorthodox. Agreed. But it gets the job done when for the umpteenth time a student has struggled to memorize what seems like random letters and symbols. Which leads me to my next point. Read my article entitled Musical Snobbery. And Go Red Sox!
    BassistGal
    Why Seth, because I'm right? A musician dosent need music theory to be 'dumbed down' to his instrument in order to be able to cope with it, as samwise-gamgee (above me) said, its really not that hard.
    Imago Dei
    For those of you that commented that there are "easier" ways to learn the circle of fifth I partially disagree. There may be an easier way for you. However, any individual that studies the art of pedagogy knows that there are three very different ways of learning. The two most common ways of learning (audio and visual) are very well represented in articles, classes, and books. However, those of us that are kinestetic and struggle with attention deficit disorder often find it easier to memorize things through action. I was simply attempting to represent a different approach to learning the circle of fifth. All methods of learning as long as the information is learned. As far as learning something like a real musician I'm not sure what that means. If you learn something and you know it, what difference does it make how you do it?
    guilty
    Well, I had something like this last year. I remember it quite well, but this article refresh my memory. It's good..
    AbstractDeth7X
    glpledzep145 wrote: i have always wondered, and this is a serious question that i hope someone can explain to me... how will learning the circle of fifths help? what does it to to better me as a musician other than suck up a little more theory, and how can i apply it?
    This can explain it better than i can probably: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle_of_f...
    glpledzep145
    i have always wondered, and this is a serious question that i hope someone can explain to me... how will learning the circle of fifths help? what does it to to better me as a musician other than suck up a little more theory, and how can i apply it?
    Lemon Juice!!!
    why didnt you put a picture of the circle of fifths on here? It would be so much more helpful
    CapnKickass
    circle of fiths, my sister tried telling me about that, I don't particularly see the benefit of learning it is... I probably need to know more theory for it to become useful to me. but it's kinda boring stuff, and I'd rather focus on playing technique at the moment...
    Athari
    good thing about music is that you have the freedom to learn it and play it any way you want...howabout instead of wasting energy fighting over stupid $*!% in the forums you sign off and play your lonely instruments
    TheUnholy
    +1 on BassistGal. Seems to me, that this "method" actually took far longer to explain than the straightforward Cycle of Fifths does - and besides any other flaws, it has the disadvantage of only being applicable to one instrument.
    samwise-gamgee
    or you could take 5 mins and learn it without looking at your frets OR the circle of 5ths, thus memorising it and never having to worry about it again!
    FLrhcpEA
    The_Reaper6 wrote: May i point out that i am only 15 years old, and am doing year 10 level Music...
    That was relevant.
    MaxerJ
    I agree with BassistGal in that this is not very helpful to an already learned music student. However, it's bitchin for a tol newb guitar player.
    RCT2head
    though this article makes sense and does a good job tying it into perspective for a guitarist, you could simply memorize "BEADGCF" which is the order of flats, and backwards is the order of sharps... using the circle diagram, to find relative minors all you have to do is start at the major, go over 2 on the circle to the right, and the 3rd is the minor (ex: key of Bb, go past F and C to get g minor)... same process in reverse to get the majors from the minors
    NorseGodofRock
    seth21 wrote: from all shredders F U bassist girl
    I'd just like to say that seth in no way represents shredders in any way.
    Nightmare_xxx
    Bassistgal, it's not the same as learning a scale pattern, he's saying that as long as you know what the notes on the guitar neck are you can work out the scale of fiths and memorise it that way. It's not cheating as such, just a different route to learning it than straight up textbook learning. I think it's a good article.
    AbstractDeth7X
    justin_fraser wrote: Like some other guys said, I found it quite easy to remember the circle of fifths. Remember "Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle" for the order of sharps and "Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father" for the order of flats. Dont expect to memorize it in one sitting, as it takes some time to soak in, but really, its not that hard.
    The ones I learned were "Fat Cats Get Dizzy After Eating Birds" and "Big Ernie Ate Dumb Good Chinese Food," respectively. I heard those once about a year ago and they've stuck with me ever since.
    NorseGodofRock
    Sharps: F ather C harles G oes D own A nd E nds B attle Flats: B attle E nds A nd D own G oes C harles' F ather
    BassistGal
    Crush the future generation of guitar teachers? please. This is a completly wrong way to look at music theory, and if thats how you plan on learning it, you'd be better off just memorizing the scale patterns like the rest of the people that aren't willing to actually learn do. And any teacher that will teach like that, should not be a teacher. What do I do? help my friends who wants to learn, do a little tabbing, but what I'm doing is not what we're arguing about here. To be honest, my entire music class mamanged to learn the circle of fifths with absolutly no problem in one lesson of music theory, and thats with only 3 prior lessons that dealt with different things, so why can't you learn it like a musician?
    Imago Dei
    should read "All methods of learning as long as the information is learned are valid".
    Imago Dei
    glpledzep145 wrote: i have always wondered, and this is a serious question that i hope someone can explain to me... how will learning the circle of fifths help? what does it to to better me as a musician other than suck up a little more theory, and how can i apply it?
    . Music Theory is helpful in the creative aspect. If you like a song you can explore the theory behind to determine what it is that you like about it. You can then use that theory to create your own licks, progressions and/or arrangements based on the theory.
    BassistGal
    Horrible lesson. If you plan on learning music theory just learn it, don't memorize guitar tricks, with no offense, its quite moronic. Its not that hard to go to any note's fifth, or any other interval for that matter.
    Imago Dei
    ArcherTheVMan wrote: mhylands wrote: Also, sorry to double post, but I just noticed again that the order of flats is the same as open strings on a 7-string Bass. BEADGCF well if you think further thats simply because they are fourths apart...
    Yep, you could also use the seventh fret for the EAD and G strings and the eighth fret for the B and High E. You get BEADGC. But then again REAL musicians wouldn't do that. They would rather spend time tabbing music for the friends that can't read sheet music and bashing shortcuts like this.
    Andraysexy
    I 100% agree with BassistGal. All this article does in increase the amount of terrible guitarists in terrible bands. Not saying this is the whole reason for it, but people who encourage shapes and tabs are just massing the amount of BC Rich gain wh_res. If you're willing to spend money on music, take the time to properly understand it... or make a terrible band tuned to drop-A with lots of breakdowns.
    rokstar666
    the lesson wuz a tad confusing, yea, but its always interesting to see how other people relate theory to their instrument. 4 ppl stil learning the circle...this lesson could be helpful
    Imago Dei
    pookieismydog wrote: Circle of Fifths (or Fourths) refers to the root movement of any chord or scale. It is obvious that many of the people here do not understand its significance to the guitar. Standard guitar tunning EADG & BE is based on Cycle of Fourths. Imago Dei said I was trying to present was a different way of connecting the Circle of Fifths to the guitar I agree with Imago in that learning the Cycle of Fourths will acually help you learn the fret board. Or, if you know the fret board you can use it towards the cycles. Anyone who plays guitar should at least know the Circle of Fourths and how it applies. Good job Imago!
    Thanks pookie. You said it better than me.
    pookieismydog
    Before I get blasted from some fool that thinks I am confusing Fourth & Fifth Cycles. If you go EB & GDAE you are now using the Circle of Fifths.
    pookieismydog
    Circle of Fifths (or Fourths) refers to the root movement of any chord or scale. It is obvious that many of the people here do not understand its significance to the guitar. Standard guitar tunning EADG & BE is based on Cycle of Fourths. Imago Dei said
    I was trying to present was a different way of connecting the Circle of Fifths to the guitar
    I agree with Imago in that learning the Cycle of Fourths will acually help you learn the fret board. Or, if you know the fret board you can use it towards the cycles. Anyone who plays guitar should at least know the Circle of Fourths and how it applies. Good job Imago!
    SL!!!
    BassistGal wrote: Crush the future generation of guitar teachers? please. This is a completly wrong way to look at music theory, and if thats how you plan on learning it, you'd be better off just memorizing the scale patterns like the rest of the people that aren't willing to actually learn do.
    to actually learn do... what? Scale patterns are a good way of learning scales...duh. You can just start on a note and play the major or minor scale of it. Of course it is definitely to your advantage to learn the modes and the variations of and all of that other stuff but still..
    SL!!!
    BassistGal wrote: Horrible lesson. If you plan on learning music theory just learn it, don't memorize guitar tricks, with no offense, its quite moronic. Its not that hard to go to any note's fifth, or any other interval for that matter.
    That was maybe a bit harsh, but i'd have to agree. This guy did not explain the circle of fifths well at all and the presentation was kind of muddy and jumped about a bit. I would just recommend getting a book and learning it from that. It is very simple when you see it written as a circle and you have some background information. The article did not seem like it was written in the easiest way to teach this. I know circle of fifths and all of that stuff already but this even confused me a bit when i read it. Haha. Maybe just different ways of thinking about it.
    Imago Dei
    TheUnholy wrote: +1 on BassistGal. Seems to me, that this "method" actually took far longer to explain than the straightforward Cycle of Fifths does - and besides any other flaws, it has the disadvantage of only being applicable to one instrument.
    Um, last I checked this was ultimate-GUITAR.com. not ultimate-violin.com or ultimte-drums.com. Since the lesson used the E and A strings it was applicable to bass too.
    Imago Dei
    ArcherTheVMan wrote: why don't you just do it like normal people? by going to the 5th note in the scale if you're going up in the scale, and going to the 4th if you're down in the scale... It's a good article really but I kind of get the impression he's just written it to show off the fact that he knows the circle of fifths through and through...
    Why be normal? Doing things differently can often be a great source of originality. That's all I was trying to present was a different way of connecting the Circle of Fifths to the guitar. As far as showing off, that was not my intent. Obviously some people weren't impressed so why waste my time. I just thought I could help some new guitarists that might struggle with memorizing the Circle of Fifths like I did.
    Mud Martian
    For a beginner guitarist I suppose this is handy. I have experience with music theory already, but I've never memorized the Circle of Fifths, but I found this article to be handy for helping me understand it a little better, but I didn't use my guitar for any of this. I simply did the intervals in my head and pieced things together. With me, it's always a matter of taking small pieces, one at a time, and then later on putting it together myself. This way, I know how it was put together and why it works.
    ArcherTheVMan
    mhylands wrote: Also, sorry to double post, but I just noticed again that the order of flats is the same as open strings on a 7-string Bass. BEADGCF
    well if you think further thats simply because they are fourths apart...
    ArcherTheVMan
    why don't you just do it like normal people? by going to the 5th note in the scale if you're going up in the scale, and going to the 4th if you're down in the scale... It's a good article really but I kind of get the impression he's just written it to show off the fact that he knows the circle of fifths through and through...
    CrossBack7
    BassistGal wrote: Why Seth, because I'm right? A musician dosent need music theory to be 'dumbed down' to his instrument in order to be able to cope with it, as samwise-gamgee (above me) said, its really not that hard.
    I still don't get why you had to be so negative on the guy. He took his time to write a helpful article and just because you don't like the way he presents it doesn't mean you can bash him. Anyways, I look forward to future columns by you.
    mhylands
    Also, sorry to double post, but I just noticed again that the order of flats is the same as open strings on a 7-string Bass. BEADGCF
    mhylands
    I actually learned circle of fifths for sharps and the circle of fourths for flats. B CDE FGA B CD EFG ABC DE[b]F[ /b] I knew the flats were the sharps backwards, but that was long after I learned that.
    shredfest19
    not that bad of a lesson. disregard the negativity. some people have a hard time learning the circle of fifiths
    phillyguitar
    The_Reaper6 wrote: The circle of fifths is easy. You only have memorize 7 simple key signatures. May i point out that i am only 15 years old, and am doing year 10 level Music...
    Awesome! I love when people flout their musical knowledge! Just wanted to point out that it's harder to learn things as you get older, so something simple is still hard to nail into your head. Anyway, everyone learns in a different way but if this article helps you go for it! Whatever works for you.
    Imago Dei
    The disadvantage of the guitar is that it is an instrument that lends itself to patterns. Consequently, many guitarist give little thought to the notes they are actually playing and sometimes don't even know what they are. It's like being able to speak words without actually knowing what you are saying. The result is nonsense unless you are lucky. The Circle of Fifth is one of the cornerstones of music theory. As words are to music, the circle of fifths is to a dictionary.
    dickie_kak
    I'm definately a amateur to Theory. So, what benefit is it to memorize the Circle of Fifth?
    vanceboy
    interesting lesson. i've gotten by music theory without really needing the circle of fifths...but i guess it's still good to know, especially if you're a piano player.
    CrossBack7
    How is this a horrible lesson? At least he's trying to help people out, what're you doing? Oh yeah, trying to crush the future generation of guitar teachers. Pretty good lesson, it'll help some at least.
    justin_fraser
    Like some other guys said, I found it quite easy to remember the circle of fifths. Remember "Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle" for the order of sharps and "Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father" for the order of flats. Dont expect to memorize it in one sitting, as it takes some time to soak in, but really, its not that hard.
    Andraysexy
    Thats a very valid point, and i'd just like to correct my mistake my my 100% agreeing with BassistGal. Perhaps I over-looked that one comment. I may have been a tad bit biased, what with being fed-up with all the talentless rockstars out there that brainwash our generation into thinking that if u can do a 3-string d minor arpegggio sweep, or at least the shape, your amazing. I once played a song i've been writting that incorporated alot of sweeps behind my back, and my friend thought I was the best thing to happen to guitar. Clearly i'm not. In my own opinion, and this is just my own opinion, so no hating on me, but Michael Romeo seems to have mastered the instrument to perfection. *ducks and covers from DragonForce fans throwing their BC Rich's and death metal pedals* Mind you, you make a very stong argument about bridging this gap between the familiar and unfamiliar. I'm interperating it almost as a cheat sheet? In the long run, two people with the exact same peronality and musical style, the 1 who knows their theory will always come out on top, and I know many people will agree with me On a side note, my favourite band is Tool, and to my knowledge Adam Jones is not the master of his fret board. A little hypocritical of me eh