Last Updated on May 14, 2019 by Klaus Crow
The circle (or cycle) of fifths, also called the cycle of fourths is a diagram that gives all kind of handy information on key signatures, chords and scales in a quick and clear manner.
Besides that, it’s an awesome practice tool to improve your guitar playing.
The circle displays all 12 notes of the chromatic scale (those are all the notes in western music) and moves clockwise in intervals of fifths.
An interval of a fifth is equal to 7 semitones or 7 frets on the guitar.
Counter-clockwise the circle moves in intervals of fourths which is equal to 5 semitones or 5 frets.
The circle of fifths is generally used for the study of classical music whereas the cycle of fourth is more often used for the analysis of jazz music, but let that not stop you because there is so much to gain from the circle for any style of music. Make it part of your knowledge of music theory. It will help you in many ways.
Let’s check it out:
Recognizing key signatures
The cycle of fifths is an easy way of finding the key signature of a song. The cycle will show you how many sharps or flats each key contains. At the top the key of C has no sharps or flats. Turn one step clockwise each time and the sharps add up. Next to C on the cycle you’ll find the key of G which has 1 sharp, then D has 2 sharps, A has 3 sharps and so on.
If you go anti-clockwise one step each time the flats up. To left of C you’ll find F which has 1 flat, then Bb has 2 flats, Eb has 3 flats, Ab has 4 flats and so on.
This is useful also and especially if you can’t read music. When you see a music score which makes no sense to you, but you see 3 sharps in the beginning of the note staff, you’ll know that the song is in the key of “A”.
Knowing how many and which sharp or flats are in a key is helpful for analyzing chords, scales and for practical reasons when you learn soloing. The more you know about music theory, the more it will help you on the way to become an accomplished guitar player.
Let’s take a look how many sharps, flats and which ones each key contains:
C contains 0 #’s
G: 1 # = F#
D: 2 # = F#, C#
A: 3 # = F#, C#, G#
E: 4 # = F#, C#, G#, D#
B: 5 # = F#, C#, G#, D#, A#
F#: 6 # = F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#
C#: 7 # = F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#
F: 1 b = Bb
Bb: 2 b = Bb, Eb
Eb: 3 b = Bb, Eb, Ab
Ab: 4 b = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db
Db: 5 b = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
Gb: 6 b = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb
Cb: 7 b = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb
Note that the order of the sharps and flats is always the same. For sharps: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B# and for flats it’s the exact opposite: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb.
So if there is one sharp in a key, then just add a sharp to F. If there are two sharps in a key, add the sharps to F and C. Three sharps in a key, add the sharps to F, C and G, four sharps in a key, add the sharps to F, C, G and D and so on.
Below you can find a mnemonic to memorize the sharps and flats.
The letters on the cycle of fifth indicate the tonic of the major scale and shows the number of sharps or flats for it’s key signature. However you can also find the number of sharps or flats for the minor scale by rotating the circle counter-clockwise and going 3 steps back.
Example: How many sharps or flats does the Am scale contain? Find the “A” on the circle and go 3 steps counter-clockwise and you’ll see it has no sharps or flats. How many sharps or flats for the E minor scale? Go 3 steps counter-clockwise and you’ll see it has 1 sharp. How many sharps or flats for the scale of Cm? Right! 3 flats.
Cycle of fourths
While the cycle of fifths moves clockwise (from left to right), if you move counter-clockwise (from right to left) then you have the cycle of fourths.
Chords move around in the cycle of fourths. It’s the way music flows. Almost any song you come across has consecutive chords that move around the cycle of fourths. Some parts in a song move in alternate directions but you can find movement of consecutive fourths throughout every song, going from A to D, from D to G, from G to C, from C to F and so on.
The cycle of fourths is also great for practicing purposes. See practicing below.
A 1-4-5 progression is a very common chord progression used in pop music and a standard for blues music. It’s based on a chord progression derived from the major scale. To understand how this works exactly check out: Building chords and progressions of the major scale
A 1-4-5 progression can easily be read from the circle of fifth. For instance, if “G” is your tonic then G is the “1” in 1-4-5. Now rotate one step counter-clockwise then “C” is the 4 in this 1-4-5 progression. Finally rotate one step clockwise from G and “D” is the 5 in this 1-4-5 progression. So if your root note is “G” then your 1-4-5 progression is G-C-D. If your root note is “A” then A-D-E is your 1-4-5 progression. Take a look at the circle of fifth above and see how easy it shows.
If you understand chord movement it’s easier to transcribe songs. As I described earlier, songs and chord progressions tend to move and flow in fourths, which makes the cycle of fourths easier for transcription.
Example of songs that almost completely flow in fourths are: I will survive – Gloria Gaynor, Autumn leaves, Fly me to the moon – Frank Sinatra, Island in the sun – Weezer, Wild world – Cat Stevens and many more.
The circle is also a very helpful tool for transposing a song or chord progression to a different key. You might want to transpose a song to find a key that best suits your voice or to find chords that make a song easier to play.
Let’s say the chord progression of your song is / Eb / Bb / Cm / Ab / and you want to play it in the key of C, then simply move all four chords up 3 steps on the circle of fifth. You chord progression is going to look like this / C / G / Am / F /. These chords a lot easier to play. While it may be 3 steps up on the circle but in reality you’re going down 3 half steps on the fingerboard from Eb to C which might be a key that better suits your voice or worse :)
Another great way to benefit from the circle is to practice scales, chords and exercises following the cycle of fourths. For example to make sure you can play a particular scale shape everywhere on the neck start playing the scale in the key of C then go one step clockwise on the circle of fifth and play your scale in the key of G, take another step clockwise and play it in the key of D and so on, until you come back to the key of C.
Once you’ve completed the entire circle you played your scale in every key on the neck. That’s a great way of learning all your scales, licks and arpeggios in all keys. Don’t underestimate this exercise or think for a minute that you can play your scale all over the neck just because you can play it in one position. You really need to learn it in every position to become an accomplished guitar player.
– Learn to draw the circle of fifth like the one in this post with all the keys and the amount of sharps and flats around it.
– Memorize the cycle of fifths mnemonics:
Clockwise from “F”: Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket
Counter clockwise from “Bb”: Blanket Explodes And Dad Gets Cold Feet
– Memorize and use the circle of fifth regularly off the top of your head to access quick and valuable information when you need it. You’ll need it.
– Interactive circle of fifth guitar tool
Enjoy expanding your knowledge of music theory!