The Circle of Fifths

Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths

This is a basic tutorial explaining the circle of fifths. This topic can be confusing. I will try to deliver this in its simplest form. There are more advanced tutorials out there. I am just trying to help with the basic concept which is your foundation to build upon. You will need to know the names of the notes. The difference between half and whole steps and what an interval is.

The Major Scale

The Major scale in the key of “C” contain the notes named  C D E F G A B C.  These are the names of the notes that you need to know. This tutorial will reference the Guitar and Piano to help explain each topic. The notes are C through B and back to C which constitute a full octave. The music scales are typically written using eight notes, and the interval between the first and last note is an octave. Intervals are the distance between any two notes. For example C,D,E,F,G=1,2,3,4,5 therefore, the interval from C to G is a fifth. (5th)

The Major scale in the key of C

-Whole steps and Half Steps


From a “C” note to a “D” note it is one whole step or tone. But from an “E” note to “F” note it is one half step apart. The Major scales can be represented as:


Where W represents a whole step and H represents a half step. So why is “C” to “D” a whole step and “E” to “F” a half step? Circle of FifthsThink of piano keys for a moment. The white “C” key and the white “D” key have a black “C#” key between them. C, C#, D represent a whole step. Since there is no key between the white “E” key and the white “F”key there is NO note between them. This is a half step.

It is the same on the Guitar. If you pluck the thinnest string open (no fretting) it is an “E”. If you fret the first fret and pluck the same string it is an “F”. There is NO note between the “E “and the “F” so it is still a half step.

So now you have some basic background to help you to understand the circle of fifths. So what is the circle ? The circle of fifths is a tool designed to help musicians to interpret chord progressions, easily transpose music to a different key, compose new music, and understand key signatures, scales and modes. So what does it look like ?

Circle of Fifths


This is the circle of fifths tool. You can see
it is like a clock. “C” is at the top and moving clockwise, you need to understand that “G” is five notes from “C” and “D” is five notes from “G” and so on in the pattern of notes for a Major scale which is the familiar WWHWWWH. If you are confused think of it this way CDEFG is 12345 and that is why “C” is five notes from “G” on the wheel.(a 5th)
This wheel has some additional helpful


With this tool you can see that the Key of “A” has three sharps as indicated by  the red 3 inside the circle of fifths. The red numbers inside the wheel show the number of sharps or flats in a given key. For example the Key of A Major is : ABC#DEF#G#A  Its key signature is: F# C# G# But how do we know what notes get sharped or flattened ? How do we know that the key signature for A Major is F# C# G#.

Key Signature Rules

The key signature rules guide us with the method to determine which notes get sharped or flattened and the circle of fifths tool helps us with that process.

– Sharps

The sharps Rule:

First we need to order the sharps in the  following pattern FCGDAEB. Next identify the root note which in this case is “A” (the first note in your Key of A Major) then drop a half step lower which is G#. Next use the order of sharps pattern from the beginning of the pattern to your note that was half a step from the root note. That would be from “F” to “G”. So that’s how you know the three notes to sharp (Key signature) for the key of “A” major. They are F# C# G#

Here is another example The Key of Ab (flat) Major is : Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab. It’s key signatire is : Bb Eb Ab Db.  Use the Key signature rule to see how this works out.


– Flats

The flats Rule:

The flat’s rule is different from the sharps rule. The order of flats is BEADGCF. So in our example the wheel shows you that there are 4 flats. (Red 4) Go through the order of flats until you are one past your root note which is Ab. That brings you to D in the order of flats. So the key signature for Ab Major is :
Bb Eb Ab Db.


The Circle of Fifths

I hope this basic tutorial has helped you to understand the Circle of Fifths and:
1). What a Fifth is.
2). Know the Sharps and Flats in a Key
3). The Order of Sharps and Flats




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