Part Nine

The Circle Of Fifths

Suppose we take the 15 written major keys and put them in a straight line, beginning with 7 flats on the far left, moving toward C (no sharps or flats) and then continuing to 7 sharps on the far right...

7b, 6b, 5b, 4b, 3b, 2b, 1b, 0, 1#, 2#, 3#, 4#, 5#, 6#, 7#

The names of the keys would be...

Cb, Gb, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#

Then imagine we wrapped this straight line around a clock with C at the top. (Because there are 15 keys represented on the line, and only 12 places on the clock, there will be a little bit of an overlap at the bottom.)

The resulting figure is called the "Circle of Fifths." In music theory, we call the interval from C to G a fifth, because G is the fifth note in the C major scale. D is the fifth note in the G major scale, and so on around the circle.

The Circle of Fifths


Learning the Circle

There will come a time, if you keep learning, playing and writing, when you will know the circle of fifths because you will have spent time in all the keys. But when seeing it for the first time, it may help to have a few tricks. This is how I teach it to young students.

C and F

First, there are two locations you will just have to memorize... C, which is easy because it's zero, and F. To remember F, say this... "Flat has one F, and F has one flat."

G, D, A, E, and B

The second group is G, D, A, E, and B. These are keys with sharps. To remember how many sharps each one has, just look at the letter. It takes a little imagination with G, but if you are willing to round the corners a bit, you can sort of draw a G with just one stroke of the pencil. Like this...

Writing a D takes 2 strokes of the pencil... an A takes 3 strokes... an E takes 4 strokes... and B... you can write the number 5 right on top of a B without ever wandering off of the letter.

That's one way to remember that G is 1 sharp... D is 2 sharps... A is 3 sharps... E is 4 sharps... and B is 5 sharps.

Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, and Gb

Once you get used to the sharp keys, the flats use the "add up to seven" idea. Like this... if G is 1 in your mind, then when you drop the symbol for flat into the picture (Gb), add enough to get a total of 7... in this case, you would need to add 6. So Gb is 6 flats. Or more simply... "G is 1 sharp, so Gb is 6 flats."

Let's try that again with another letter... Db. You know D is 2 sharps, because it takes two strokes of the pen. Putting the flat in means we have to add up to seven, so we're looking for a 5. Therefore Db is 5 flats. Reducing it down, we get... "D is 2 sharps, so Db is 5 flats."

The same thing works for A, E, and B. We could say the following:

G takes 1 stroke of the pencil... so G is 1 sharp.
Therefore Gb is 6 flats. It adds up to seven.

D takes 2 strokes of the pencil... so D is 2 sharps.
Therefore Db is 5 flats. It adds up to seven.

A takes 3 strokes of the pencil... so A is 3 sharps.
Therefore Ab is 4 flats. It adds up to seven.

E takes 4 strokes of the pencil... so E is 4 sharps.
Therefore Eb is 3 flats. It adds up to seven.

B can have a 5 written on top of it
without ever leaving the B... so B is 5 sharps.
Therefore Bb is 2 flats. It adds up to seven.

Cb, F#, and C#

Finally, the three extra keys. The rule of seven still works.

Because F is 1 flat, F# is 6 sharps.

Because C is zero
C# is 7 sharps, and Cb is 7 flats.

Something Else About The Circle

Another interesting thing about the circle is that it's possible to write songs that use part or all of the circle as the progression. For example, you could start with a C chord, move to F, follow that with Bb, and keep going until you get back to C. Or you could write a song using the progressions we explored in the maps, and somewhere in the middle of the song use a part of the circle... for example, you could use B - E - A - D - G - C.

On a personal note... I remember when I was studying music, one of my teachers would assign keyboard drills that went around the circle. An example would be to play a chord... let's say it was a major 7 chord in root position (notes 1-3-5-7). We would play it in both hands at the same time. So for CM7 we would play c-e-g-b in the left hand and c-e-g-b in the right hand... eight notes at once. Then we would play it around the circle. CM7 (cegb) - GM7 (gbdf#) - DM7 (df#ac#) - AM7 (ac#eg#)... until we got back to CM7. If you would like the same challenge, choose a chord, play it in both hands, and then take it around the circle. It's a good exercise when you know some chords and would like to get better at finding them quickly.

"The Photographic Opposites"

There are four sets of scales (D and Db, E and Eb, A and Ab, B and Bb) that are like photographic negatives of each other. You might learn them more easily if you learn them in pairs.

Look at D and Db for a moment. Notice the D scale has black notes at positions 3 and 7. In the Db scale, there are white notes at positions 3 and 7.

The same idea can be seen with E and Eb, A and Ab, B and Bb.




Let's Review

In parts 6, 7, 8 and 9, we spent a good bit of time looking at major scales. We've thought about the names of each note, and the numbers associated with each scale position. We've illustrated these scales, and then wrapped them around a circle to create the Circle of Fifths. Your goal is to learn these scales, play melodies using these scales, and write songs in these keys. If you keep at it, someday each of these scales and keys will be easy to play. Along the way, remember to enjoy the process. Take your time, learn well, and have fun!

When these sections on major scales are understood, move on to Part 10. There is also a section on first steps in learning Other Instruments. The first instrument we will look at is keyboards.

Index - Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Charts and Maps
Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - 1st Steps in Keyboard - Part 10
Part 11 - Part 12 - 1st Steps in Note Reading

Copyright 2004 Steve Mugglin
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of this material.