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Circle of Fifths Primer

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Circle of Fifths
Playing Saxophone
Credit: Vera Kratochvil

How it Works

The Circle of Fifths was one of the first music lessons I learned about in highschool.  I didn't pay much attention then but when I became a professional trombone player I not only figured it out but I had it memorized backwards and forwards.  This tool provided me a firm foundation for many areas of my playing.  It may seem confusing or daunting at first but when applied regularly it will  improve your abilities.

The Circle of Fifths builds off of what it sounds like.  If you follow it clockwise the major key changes move in perfect fifths.  For example,  on a piano the note G is a perfect fifth away from middle C.  The note D is a perfect fifth away from G and so on.  If you are still confused go to a piano and count all the white keys from C to G.  It will be five.

The key signatures are important and each letter on the circle represents what key you are playing.  For instance, the letter C means that your key signature has no sharps or flats.  The letter A has 3 sharps.

The circle is useful for chord progressions.  If the letter C is your I(1) chord than G is you V(5) chord and F is your IV(4) chord etc.  This is very helpful if you are a songwriter.  If you decide you are making a song in the key of E then you can figure out your chord progression quickly.  E is your I chord, B is your V chord and A is your IV chord.  The pattern is the same for any key that you use for a song.  That is if you want to write a I, IV, V chord song.  Other chord progressions work in the same way.

Using the Circle for Practicing

As a musician using the circle during my practice sessions was vital in increasing my knowledge and abilities.  It helped me to memorize dozens of scales, increase my speed, and improve my improvisation.  It wasn't a magic tool or quick fix to good playing rather it provided the structural component to help me practice effectively. 

One of the first things I started practicing with the circle was my scales.  I picked a spot on the circle and started a major scale, then moving clockwise or counter-clockwise I would work through the circle. I did this with minor scales both diatonic and harmonic.  I practice jazz scales; mixolydian, dorian, and phrygian.  I used the circle for arpeggios, scale fragments, and pentatonic scales.  I didn't do it all at once but when I had the circle memorized it got easier and faster to move through those scales.

The Flute Player

Another way I used the circle to practice was to work on my chord changes.  I would pick a song and after learning the chord changes I would look at the circle for the different keys that would go with the chord changes. This provided me a foundation for the notes that I would play during each chord.  As mentioned before seeing the chord progressions also helped me in writing my own music. 

Try it for Yourself

There is a lot of material about the Circle of Fifths.  I recommend checking out a few other websites and if you are a musician then you should ultimately memorize it backwards and forwards.  Getting this circle down will not only improve your knowledge but also your skill.


CafePress Circle of Fifths Wall Clock
Amazon Price: $19.50 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 24, 2014)


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