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The Circle of Fifths, What is it and How to use it

The circle of fifths (or circle of fourths) is a powerful chart that provides us with a great amount of information and works as a shortcut for all musicians. With this tool we can build chords, chord progressions, chord changes, transposition, music scales, etc.

⭕ The Circle Of 5ths Explained

To make it simple, if you understand how the circle of fifths and fourths works you will make a huge leap in music theory and you will be able to learn to play guitar, bass or piano from scratch much easier.

Therefore, in this post I will explain the circle of 5ths in detail and give you a downloadable summary in pdf format with the key points.

The circle of fifths is a diagram with the 12 notes of the musical system and the relationships between them. Its shape is similar to a clock, with the keys being its hands.

circle of fifths chart
circle of fifths chart

This circle provides us with an enormous amount of information that at first may seem overwhelming, but the truth is that once undertood, it simplifies music theory and helps you to learn it much more easily.

With that said, let me tell your that I do not recommend memorizing the circle of fifths.

  • Tip My advice is to print it out and keep it close.

This way, when you are analyzing a song or reading about music theory you can use it as a reference. In such manner, and without you even realizing it, you will become familiar with it and understand it much better.

Having said that, let’s see how to use the circle of fifths. And for this, at the beginning of the post we are going to analyze its basic points and then we will see it in mote detail.

Previous concepts

Before we start, I will quickly summarize 4 concepts that you should know to understand the circle of fifths:

  • We call tonality to the arrangement of pitches or chords that are grouped around a main one, called tonic or root. Therefore, if we say that the key of a song is G, it means that the tonality is G. We can also say that the song is in G.
  • Enharmony is the action of calling a musical note in different ways depending on the key. For example, F sharp (F#) can be called G flat (G♭) depending on the situation.
  • An interval (or distance) of 7 semitones between 2 notes is called a perfect fifth.
  • An interval (or distance) of 5 semitones between 2 notes is called a perfect fourth.

With that said, let’s begin to break down the circle.

What is the Circle of Fifths?

First of all, how many circles do you see in the picture below? You see 2, don’t you? Actually the circle of 5ths is formed by two circles of keys: an outer one with the major keys (in upper case) and an inner one with their relative minor keys (in lower case).

circle of fifths chart
circle of fifths chart

Note: at the bottom you may nottice some areas where 2 keys are listed. This are called enharmoic equivalents, as I have explained on the previous concepts section.

Also, if you read it clockwise you will see that each note is separated by a perfect fifth interval. That is, as an example, if we go to the outer circle we see that the perfect fifth above C is G, the perfect fifth above G is D, the perfect fifth above D is A and so on until we get back to C.

circle of 5ths explained

On the other hand, if you go around the circle counterclockwise you will see that each note is separated by a perfect fourth interval. This is just applied logic: if C is the fifth above F, F is the fourth above C.

circle of 4ths and 5ths

This is why this diagram is also called circle of fourths, cycle of fourths or harmonic circle of fourths.

Now that we know the basics let’s move on and see how does the circle of fifths work.

Outer circle

As indicated at the beginning, the outer circle has the major keys in capital letters (major circle of fifths). From it we obtain information such as the major scale, minor scale, harmonizations…etc.

circle of fifths major

Inner circle

The inner circle is the one marked in light blue and we can call it minor circle of fifths. Within this circle, the relative minor keys appear in lower case.

circle of fifths minor

Let’s stop here for a moment to understand well how we can find the relative minor and major of a key. And to do that we take, as an example, A minor. If we look at A minor (a), we notice that it is the relative minor of C:

circle of fifths with relative minors

And likewise C is the relative major of A because every major key has a relative minor key and vice versa.

And why is A the relative minor of C? Because the relative minor is the sixth degree of a major key. Since A is a major sixth above C, this is our relative minor:

c major relative minor

Another way to consider this is by counting 9 semitones (half steps). Therefore, if we start on C and count 9 semitones we find A, our relative minor:

relative minor of a major

To reinforce the concept of the circle of fifths with relative minors, let’s see another example, let’s take E. According to the circle of 5ths, E is the relative minor of G, let’s check it!

Let’s start from G and look for its major sixth, what is it? E.

g major relative minor

Therefore, with the circle of 5ths we can obtain the relative minors at a glance (and their relative majors in reverse).

Clockwise direction (Right)

Now that you know what the inside of the circle and the outside of the circle look like, we are going to start moving around them to find the accidentals (flats or sharps) in a key.

Let’s begin by moving to the right (clockwise) and as we move every step forward, we will notice that we add one sharp in the major scale of the key.

circle of 5ths sharps

Let’s clarify the above with an example.

  • The circle starts in C and we see that its major scale has no sharp (C – D – E – F – G – A – B).
  • On the other hand, G is shifted one square with respect to the beginning, so it has one sharp in its major scale (G – A – B – C – D – E – F#).
  • If we advance a little more, we move to D, which is shifted two positions with respect to the beginning, then it has two sharps (E – F# – G – A – B – C# – D), and so on and so forth as we move clockwise.

To visualize it better, I leave you a table summarizing which sharps would have each major scale for all the keys as we go through the circle clockwise:

how to remeber where sharps are circle of 5th
Counting the sharps in each key

Counterclockwise direction (Left)

If we go around the outer circle counter-clockwise we have that each note is separated by a perfect fourth interval. And in this case we gain one flat for every increment to the left: B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭,F♭.

Therefore, every step we move counterclockwise adds one flat to its key signature.

circle of 5ths sharps and flats

As in the previous case I leave you a table summarizing which flats would have each major scale as we advance through the wheel of fifths:

how to remeber where flats are circle of 5th
Counting the flats in each key

How to get the Major Scale with the Circle of Fifths

At this point, we already know how to get the sharps and flats of any key using the wheel of fifths, but how do I get the scale degrees of each major scale?

In order to obatin which notes compose the major scale with the circle of fifths we have to follow only these steps (let’s see it with the C major scale):

  1. Find the tonic of your key in the outer circle, for example C.
  2. Take a step backwards (counterclockwise), for C it would be F.
  3. The following 7 notes make up the C major scale.
circle of fifths major scales

Let’s repeat it again but now as an example we will take the G major scale:

  1. Look for the key of the music scale in the outer circle, for example G.
  2. Take a step backwards (counterclockwise), for G it would be C.
  3. The 7 notes from C are the G major scale.
circle of fifths scales

Also, with this we confirm that F# is the only sharp note in the G scale.

Obtaining the Natural Minor Scale with the Circle of 5ths

To obtain the natural minor scale we have to play again with the relative scales. This is because the natural minor scale is the relative minor of the major scale, or the major scale started at its sixth degree.

Therefore, to obtain the natural minor scale using the circle of fifths we perform the following steps (let’s see it with the A minor scale):

  1. Look for the key note in the inner circle, for example A (a).
  2. Jump to its relative major, which is the adjoining note in the outer circle. In this case it would be C.
  3. Take a step backwards (counterclockwise), for C it would be F.
  4. The following 7 notes make up the C major scale and, therefore, the A minor scale.
how to use circle of fifths

Let’s repeat it again but now as an example we will take the D minor scale:

  1. Look for the key note in the inner circle, D in this case.
  2. Jump to its relative major, which is the adjoining note in the outer circle. In this case it would be F.
  3. Take a step backwards (counterclockwise), for F it would be B flat (B♭).
  4. The following 7 notes make up the F major scale and, therefore, the minor scale of D.
music theory circle of fifths

Chord Construction

Before we start building chords with om the circle of fifths you need to undertand two key concepts:

  • A major chord is constructed with the root note, the major third and the right fifth.
  • A minor chord is built with the root note, the minor third and the right fifth.

If this doesn’t sound familiar take a look at the article I did about major and minor chords on guitar.

With that being said, let’s start building chords with the circle of 4ths and 5ths.

Constructing a major chord with the circle of fifths

Building a major chord is quite simple since the root note and its fifth are neighbors. And then, to find its third you just need to see which note is below the fifth degree and you are done.

For example, to build the A major chord:

  1. First we spot A in the outer circle, this is our root note.
  2. Located on its right is the perfect fifth, E.
  3. And its major third is located below the right fifth, in this case C#.

Therefore our major chord is composed of A – C# – E.

circle of fifths guitar

Have you seen how easy it is to build chords with the circle of fifths? Let’s go now to the minor chords.

Building a minor chord with the circle of fifths

Building a minor chord is also quite simple.

For example, to build the A minor chord:

  1. First we spot A on the outer circle, this is our root note.
  2. Located on its right is the perfect fifth, E.
  3. And its minor third is located on the note opposite to the root and inside the inner circle, in this case C.
circle of fifths piano

Harmonization of the Major Scale

The cycle of fifths is so powerful that it not only gives us the major scale but also its harmonization, so that at a glance we can find the resulting chords in any key.

As there are 7 chords that form the major scale, there will be 7 steps in order to take to obtain them.

To understand it well, as always, we are going to take an example and we are going to see the harmonization of the G major scale:

  1. First we locate G in the outer circle, this is our root chord (major).
  2. Its fifth chord (major) is to the right of it, D.
  3. Its fourth chord (major) is to the left, C.
  4. Its second chord (minor) is below the fourth, A (a).
  5. Its third chord (minor) is below the fifth, B (b).
  6. Its sixth chord (minor) is below the first degree, E (e).
  7. Finally, its seventh chord, the diminished one, would be the one adjacent to the third degree, F#º.
circle of fifths chord progressions

And if you look carefully, everything makes sense:

  • The first, fourth and fifth chords are major and are in the outer circle.
  • The second, third and sixth are minor chords and are in the inner circle.
  • The seventh is diminished and is in the inner circle.

Harmonization of the Natural Minor Scale

As you may have noticed at this point, if you can get a major scale or chord with the circle of fifths, you can also get its minor.

In the case of harmonizations it is the same and that is why we are going to see how we can harmonize the natural minor scale.

And to understand it well we are going to take as an example the harmonization of the A minor natural scale:

  1. First we locate A (a) in the inner circle, this is our root chord (minor).
  2. Its fourth chord (minor) is to the left of it, D (d).
  3. Its fifth chord (minor) is to the right, E (e).
  4. Its sixth chord (major) is above the fourth, F (F).
  5. Its third chord (major) is above the tonic, C (C).
  6. Its seventh chord (major) is above the fifth, G (G).
  7. Finally, its second chord, the diminished one, would be the one adjacent to the fifth degree, bº.
circle of fifths progression

And, again, it all makes sense since:

  • The first, fourth and fifth chords are minor and are in the inner circle.
  • The third, sixth and seventh are major chords and are in the outer circle.
  • The second is diminished and is on the inner circle.

I IV V chord progression with the circle of fifths

Knowing how to harmonize a musical scale is very important, but knowing the fourth and fifth chords of each key is almost more important because of the tension they convey, especially the V (that’s why there are so many songs with progression I – IV – V).

Therefore, being able to find these chords is very important, and very simple at the same time with the circle of fifths chart, since the IV is to located the left and the V is to the right of our tonality.

Notice how easy it would be, for example, to find the chord progression I IV V in the key of D.

circle of 5ths printable

This technique can also be used to quickly modulate or transpose any song from one key to another much easier

Pentatonic Scale

Once we have extracted almost all the juice from the circle of fourths, we can squeeze it a little more with another shortcut to obtain the pentatonic scale.

We start with the major pentatonic since it is easier.

Major pentatonic with the circle of fifths

If we want to find the major pentatonic scale of a particular key, we just have to start from the tonic (root) and take the next 5 notes that we find clockwise.

For example, if we want to obtain the G pentatonic scale we look for this key in the outer circle and the following 4 notes make up with G its pentatonic scale: D, A, E and B.

guitar circle of fifths

Minor pentatonic using the circle of fifths

Now that you know how to obtain the major pentatonic let’s move on to obtain the minor pentatonic. And this task is accomplished again by playing with the relative minors.

  1. We look for the key of the minor pentatonic in the inner circle.
  2. We obtain the relative major that is in the outer circle.
  3. Starting from the note of the relative major we count 5 elements and these will be the notes of the major pentatonic of the relative and, therefore, the minor pentatonic of our initial key.

To understand it better we take an example, let’s obtain the minor pentatonic of D:

  1. We look for D in the inner circle.
  2. We obtain the relative major that is in the outer circle, F.
  3. Starting with F we count 5 elements (F, C, G, D and A) and these will be the notes of the relative major pentatonic and, therefore, the minor pentatonic of D.
circle of fifths treble clef

Obtaining the Key Signatures on the Staff

Let’s explore now to the wonderful world of the staffs, I am going to tell you a trick that will simplify your life when reading a sheet music.

We can use the circle of 4ths and 5ths to obtain not only how many flats and sharps each key has but also the order of their appearance on the staff.

Do you remember that if we go through the cycle of fifths clockwise we obtained the different sharps of the major scale? Well, we can use the same concept to get the sharps and flats on the music staff:

circle of fifths treble clef

And in the same way, if we go around the circle in the opposite direction we would get the flats of each major scale:

treble clef circle of fifths

Circle of Fifths Summary and Printable PDF

With this you have reached the end and we can consider the circle of fifths explained. It may have not been easy (and my poor level of english will not have helped) so congratulate yourself because you deserve it.

As a summary, let’s say that the circle of 5ths is a diagram in which appears the twelve notes of the chromatic scale being all the tonalities related to each other. From it we can easily obtain the relative major and minor, the major scale with its sharps and flats, the major and minor chords…etc.

Now that you know how to use it I recommend you to download the PDF above and keep it close, it will help you to quickly obtain any chord, scale, harmonization or chord progression.

On the other hand, if instead of a printable circle of fifths in PDF you have always near a Smartphone, PC or Tablet you can use this interactive circle of fifths that I leave you in this link.

And remember that in this link you have the circle of fifths in pdf to print.