The Circle of Fifths (also referred to as the Circle of Fourths depending on the direction you’re moving on it) is a powerful visual tool for musicians.
The Circle of Fifths is a visual representation of all the musical keys and their relationships to each other. The Circle of Fifths is most useful for finding the key of a song, transposing songs to different keys, composing new songs and understanding key signatures, scales, and more.
For this breakdown, we’re going to use the Circle of Fifths to explain how to find a key signature and how the musical keys are related to one another. Below is an in depth video that touches on how the Circle of Fifths can be used to figure out the components of chords.
How to Read the Circle of Fifths: Explained
Reading and understanding the Circle of Fifths is very simple once you understand the patterns at play within the Circle.
The Circle of Fifths shows how musical keys change by counting up 5 steps clockwise or down 4 steps counterclockwise from the key of C, the key with no sharps or no flats at 12-noon on the Circle.
Starting from the key of C and moving clockwise by ascending fifths, the key of G has one sharp, the key of D has 2 sharps and so on. Additionally, by going counter-clockwise from the top by descending fourths, the key of F has one flat, the key of Bb has 2 flats, and so on.
Using the Circle of Fifths: Find the Order of Sharps and Flats
Rather than memorizing the order of sharps and flats, there’s a faster way learn and reference the order using the Circle of Fifths.
Additionally, for sharp keys, the order of sharps is reflected by the points two behind the key you’re currently on:
Using the Circle of Fifths: How to Make Smooth Key Changes
Knowing the order of sharps and flats in key signatures is important, not only to understand how keys change and what notes are affected but also to understand but also how to move from one key to another smoothly.
Let’s say you were writing a song in the key of C major and you wanted to change keys. Theoretically, you could change keys to any of the other keys on the circle. But consider the listener for a moment: how might they feel hearing a song start off sounding a certain way only to change to a radically different sound at the drop of a hat?
A more sensible solution would be to, first, consider changing keys to a key that is similar to the key you’re currently in.
Keeping with the key of C major, shifting a song to the key of G major would be an easy transition. C major and G major have all the same notes with the exception of F which changes to F# in the key of G major. Changing from C to G is an easy transition because, musically, not much will change with regards to how your piece sounds, but you will have new opportunities to explore being in a new key.
If you wanted to go from C major to F# major, a key with no common notes as C major, making a massive jump like that would be especially jarring to hear. The most ‘sensible’ way to make your way over to F# major would be to gradually move through the keys. For example, first start with C to G, then maybe a larger jump from G to A major, then B major and then into F# major.
The Circle of Fifths is nothing more than a tool, a visualization of one of the most important aspects of music: musical keys. Hopefully this article took some of the fear and anxiety out of what to do with a Circle of Fifths and empowered you to keep one in your practice room for reference.
Download this infographic version of this installation of Theory in 300: