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I have been playing guitar and bass for over 10 years but never learned the circle of fifths (never even heard of it until recently). When you play in blues/alternative/covers bands, that sort of thing does not come up all that often.

I can understand the "fifths" part, and I know relative majors/minors, but the circle itself confuses me. I don't really understand it.

I've been through several youtube videos over the past few months and am none the wiser.

Could anyone recommend any simple resources on this and/or related subjects?

I apologise if this is too broad, but I don't really know anything about music theory so it is difficult for me to be specific. A case of "not knowing what you don't know"

Thank in advance.

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    Note that the circle of fifths (aka circle of fourths) can be useful for thinking about how the roots of chords move in a progression. You mention "blues/alternative/covers": the I, IV, and V chords are next to each other on the circle (e.g G - C - D, G is between C and D on the circle. Chord progressions often move in fourths or fifths (e.g. ii - V7 - I progressions move around the circle: Dm7 - G7 - C. This kind of information can be useful when you transpose a tune to another key. – ex nihilo Feb 18 '18 at 14:59
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    Yes, I used to waste an awful lot of time and energy with your recommended method. Please don't ! It's called investment, and a bit (or more) of effort now will pay dividends in plenty - believe me! I'm still learning at 70+, so don't use that excuse. That besides, it's not needed to learn the circle of fifths as such. Use it more like a dictionary - when needed. Keep a copy handy, but when you look at it, realise that you already have been using parts since you started playing. Song in G?, find G, related chords easy to find. – Tim Feb 18 '18 at 15:21
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    That escalated quickly. Well its not that i want to bail but i have noticed my ability to learn has decreased rapidly of late. When i try to understand it i get a blur in my head of things like "sharp 5...flattened 7th...move diatonically...relative to the key" Etc etc. Its all greek to me! (No offense to Greek people) I just wish someone could show me but all the youtube videos are useless. Frankly it makes me want to quit altogether. And thats not self-pity, just exasperation. I really have tried. – Matt Davenport Feb 19 '18 at 16:13
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    @Matt Davenport - I remember when a friend of mine handed me a sheet of paper with the wheel on it and my feelings were what is this for? I was totally uninterested. So I stashed it in with some other junk, but as I kept learning and developing, I noticed how information on that wheel came to have meaning. You might consider keeping it around for referral, because if you keep playing, you're gonna keep growing and developing. – skinny peacock Feb 20 '18 at 15:39
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    Matt: I was going to ask pretty much exactly the same question as yourself, and haviong read the answers I'm not too much wiser expect to say this: If you're like me, you don't think in terms of sharps and flats etc. C# on a bass / guitar (on A string) has only one place where it can be played. calling it Db instead of D# has no relevance. Working out a major scale from (say) A gives you a hint of the likely chords in a popular song (referred to as diatonic chords in one answer here). Playing a 'relative minor' just means playing 3 frets down from your starting point ina minor scale. – user2808054 Oct 25 '18 at 10:08
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This site has some stuff and some pictures. You can Google for others. https://ledgernote.com/columns/music-theory/circle-of-fifths-explained/

Basically, the circle of fifths (also known as the circle of fourths or cycle instead of circle) is an arrangement of keys by fifths, C-G-D-A-E-B-F#-C#-Ab-Eb-Bb-F-C. Enharmonics (C# & Db, etc.) are treated as the same note. Thus we have ordered the 12 notes of the common chromatic scale by fifths. This does have a point, it's not just rearranging by another interval (although the only possibilities are 1 or 11 or 7 or 5 half-steps.) Melodies (chromatic) tend to be organized by step and harmonies tend to be organized by fifths. The accordion bass side is arranged by this circle of fifths to make transposition easy. Note that transposing from (for example) the key of D to the key of g entails moving all notes up by 5 half steps using the sequential ordering. The chord patterns can be found by moving the chords (centered around D in the original) to being centered around G in the cycle of fifths. (Makes accompaniment easy for accordion players.)

Another use is to consider the diatonic cycle of fifths (arranging a major scale by fifths) for example C: C-G-D-A-E-B-F or Bb as Bb-F-C-G-D-A-Eb. Then the most common chord patterns occur in this shortened cycle. One of the fifths is a diminished fifth (and this means that the scalar patterns of the 7 notes differ from each other unlike in the chromatic case.) If we take the tonic as I and write the diatonic cycle this way, we get, IV-I-V-ii-vi-iii-viv0 for a major scale (starting one step below for later comments; it's still a circle) and iv-i-v-ii0-VI-III-VII for the (natural)minor. Note that common chord sequences are next to each other in this arrangement. (I-IV-I-V-I or I-vi-ii-V-I) etc. Knowing this, one can often accompany a song without having heard it before. This works pretty well for most music written from 1600 to 1900 and most popular or jazz or country or folk music written from 1600 to 2017. It's a useful map to make it easy to visualize harmonic movement.

  • From your last para. - in the full circle, any 3 neighbours produce I, IV and V of the key of the middle letter of the 3. So, it may help when trying to learn the circle, and it sure helps (beginners) to transpose keys, with more simple (3-chord) songs. – Tim Feb 18 '18 at 8:33
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The circle of fifths basically demonstrates how one key/scale is connected to the next mathematically, fourths one direction and fifths the other direction, both major and minor, and how a person may start at any point on the wheel and work around the wheel and eventually end up right where they started. It seems that might be the reason it's charted in wheel form as opposed to another type of linear chart. It's also effective in illustrating which scales are enharmonic and how that works and study of the wheel helps folks to better understand key signatures and why the sharps and flats in key signatures are arranged the way they are. It's pretty handy information for many musicians.

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    What is "enharmonic"? – Matt Davenport Feb 18 '18 at 14:47
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    Enharmonic is a technical way of saying notes or keys that have two names. An example in notes would be like C# and Db. They're the same pitch, but referred to by different names. There are also three keys that are called by two names, Db - C#, Gb - F#, and Cb - B. – skinny peacock Feb 18 '18 at 20:46
  • Actually, in 12-tone Equal Temperament (the tuning system used in guitars and most fretted instruments), C# and Db are the same. But in some older tuning systems, the sharps and flats (such as C# and Db) actually have slightly different pitches. In fact, the older definition of "enharmonic" means "very close in pitch", although now it often just means "same pitch, different names", as modern instruments often have them tuned to the same note. Some older keyboard instruments had "enharmonic keyboards", which had separate black keys for flats and sharps. – Electric-Gecko Feb 28 '18 at 8:36
  • I was always taught that there was no such thing as Cb. – Matt Davenport Oct 26 '18 at 18:02
  • Anyway, all this is moot now. Please refer to my final answer below. – Matt Davenport Oct 26 '18 at 18:03
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I use the circle of fifths to find out what the diatonic chords are in a given key. For example, just pick any key on the circle. let's take C major, then take itself and its immediate neighbors: Cmaj (I), Gmaj (V), Fmaj (IV), Eminor (iii), Aminor (vi), Dminor (ii). So these are the 6 main diatonic chords of the key of Cmaj. Note that the diminished chord is not shown, but that's fine because diminished isn't used as much anyway.

Another example is Emaj: Emaj, Bmaj, Amaj, f#minor, c#minor, g#minor make up the key.

Also note that anything on the inner circle is the minors, and the outer circle is the majors. You can use this technique to find all diatonic chords of a minor scale as well. Just take the immediate neighbors as mentioned above. If you noticed both Cmajor and Aminor share the same diatonic chords - this because Aminor is the relative minor of Cmajor.

Example in key of f# minor: f# minor, b minor, c# minor, D major, A major, E major.

circle of fifths diatonic chords

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Giving up on the Circle? Say it ain't so. You have a simple resource on hand: it's your guitar fretboard.

A fifth is an interval. An interval is a distance between two notes. You measure this distance by counting the letter names from note to note. C to G is a fifth (you need to count C as 'one').

Toke a look at your four fat strings. Your four fat strings are tuned in fourths: E A D G. Pick any fret on the fat string and play the next three strings at the same fret. You are ascending in fourths.

To visualise fifths, play any note on your E string then go up one string and two frets. You have ascended a fifth. If you keep going (across a string and up two frets) you have ascended another fifth. You can do it one more time before the pesky B string interferes (it is tuned a third up from the G string, but that's another story).

That's it. Just mess around with it for a while (maybe a week, maybe forty years) and let it stew and assimilate. If you play large and small barre chords, that will help you visualise things.

Next time you look at the circle just pick two adjacent keys and try confirming it using your fretboard. It might just help you bond with the circle.

  • HI - I'm at the same level as the orignal; poster, so this was a relevant and useful answer. Thanks! however what do you mean by "adjacent keys" ? – user2808054 Oct 25 '18 at 9:56
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    By adjacent I mean the next key round on the circle. For example, moving clockwise round the circle diagram from A you would get to E, which is a fifth above A. Check that with your guitar by moving one string higher and up two frets. For flat keys (keys with flats in the key signature) you move anticlockwise on the left side of the circle diagram. These keys are a fourth apart, so, moving anticlockwise from F, the adjacent key would be Bb. Check this on your guitar by moving to the next string (higher) but staying on the same fret. – Areel Xocha Oct 25 '18 at 21:50
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Recently someone asked me this same question and I honestly couldn't recall any circumstance where I had to use the circle of fifths. I had known it for decades but it was always just something pretty and round that sums up some basic music theory, which musicians have learned by heart and use regularly. For example, finding the secondary dominant, dominant chords, etc. Do you need a chart for that, not really, but yeah having a chart can help. You can also count, and you may know it so well that "counting" just doesn't take long.

What's the V-I chain starting from C? We don't really need a chart. But for beginners, having a chart helps. It visualizes the progression.

So to me, its is a learning tool. A tool to help learn the key signatures and perhaps the V-I or I-IV chordal relationships (given it's fifths in one direction, and fourth the other way). It's not really something you need in a jam session or to communicate efficiently with other musicians. Because at the end of day, you want to know by heart whatever this circle is summarizing/telling you.

Did you encounter any situations where you think you really needed to know this circle? If not, I wouldn't worry about it.

I asked a few of my colleagues who performs in many different genres professionally and they all seem to agree with me.

Having said all that, I think the circle of fifths is still a pretty chart to look at and get excited about how much information can be packed into this beautiful round thing. Here is an article that talks about circle of fifths and the practical use for learning theory. https://www.libertyparkmusic.com/the-circle-of-fifths/

  • Use as a learning tool may be one of the best applications of the circle of fifths, but knowing it can also save your bacon in a pinch. Need to play a iii - vi - ii - V - I in G♭, right now? Just start at B♭ and follow the circle. The more ways you have of thinking about and organizing information, the better; this is the best reason to learn it. It really is a small effort on the front end which can pay dividends in the long run. – ex nihilo Feb 26 '18 at 2:38
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What I get out of it is for me to know how many sharps or flats are in a key. Look at it from the Circle of Fifths side and notice how the each key adds a sharp. ( C major 0, G major 1, D major 2, etc) On the Fourths side each key adds a flat but going in the interval of Fourths ( C major 0, F major 1, Bb major 2, etc)

All this mathematical stuff and diagrams people add to this simple circle is just confusing.

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You don't actually need the circle

This is a little thing I like to call, "The circle of fifths without the circle."

You can get the keys with sharps just as easily by counting correctly without the circle, so how do you count?You start by counting from C Major, C Major has no sharps or flats, you then count 5 forward for the key and 4 from that same place for the sharp.

You then also have to remember that new keys keep old sharps, this means that each new key will keep all previous sharps. So let us count.

5 forward from C gives you C, D, E, F, G (Remember inclusive counting).

4 forward from that same place (C) gives you C, D, E, F.

G Major the key with one sharp has an F#

Now onward from G this time.

5 forward from G gives you G, A, B, C, D.

Remember new keys keep old sharps. D Major, the new key, will keep its F#.

You then count 4 from G for the new sharp G, A, B, C.

D Major has both an F# and a C#

Now we count onward from D

5 forward from D gives you D, E, F, G, A

New keys keep old sharps, it will have an F# and C#.

4 Forward for the new sharp (From D) gives you D, E, F, G

A major has both a F, C and G sharp

You then count 5 from A. A, B, C, D, E

E Major is the new key, new keys keep old sharps, it will have an F, C, and G sharp.

4 from A gives you. A, B, C, D

E major has four sharps, F, C, G and D

Now we count 5 forward from E. E, F, G, A, B

B Major is the new key and will keep all previous sharps, it will have an F, C, G, D sharp.

We count 4 from E for the new sharp, that means E, F, G, A

B Major has 5 sharps, an F#, C#, G#, D# and A#.

Now we count 5 forward from B, B, C, D, E, F

We remind ourselves that the key with six sharps is not F Major that has a Bb but F# Major

F# Major will have all the previous sharps, that is to say F#, C#, G#, D#, and A#

We will then count 4 from B for the new (6th) sharp. B, C, D, E.

F# major has six sharps, F#, C#, G#, D#, A# and E#

And now for the last one, the one with all the sharps. We count 5 forward from F# for the new key. F, G, A, B, C. We remind ourselves that C Major has no sharps or flats the key with seven sharps is actually C# Major.

It keeps all previous sharps (F, C, G, D, A, E) and we count 4 forward from F for the seventh sharp F, G, A, B, The seventh sharp is the B Sharp.

C# Major has an F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, and B#.


Congratulations you have now succsessfully gone from zero to seven sharps.

  • It's cunning, but sounds a lot more complicated than it really is. (Ask Matt...) What about the other half of the non-circle though? – Tim Feb 18 '18 at 15:18
  • That is the circle of fourths without the circle. – Neil Meyer Feb 18 '18 at 17:40
  • Ok i am going to try this. Firstly, what do you mean by count 5 forward from the key? What is it i am counting and which way is "forward"? – Matt Davenport Feb 19 '18 at 16:08
  • Oh, and what is inclusivw counting, please? – Matt Davenport Feb 19 '18 at 16:19
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    @MattDavenport - sorry, in a way. Knowledge is power - extra power. There are so many musos out there that I love playing with, who really haven't a clue - theory-wise. And it's fabulous playing with them. Unencumbered by theory does not equal bad muso. The only problem comes when trying to communicate in any other way than actual playing. Them trying to tell me what chord it is, me trying to explain that the rest is only a dotted crotchet long... – Tim Feb 20 '18 at 19:39
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scale list in C order Here's a resource I made for myself that I think might benefit you. It's a list of all the major keys in the circle of fifths order. When you get to the last key it repeats and you go back to the top, just like the circle. This time though, I include the scale notes and then those notes as scale degrees, all in a one octave range like a piano keyboard (or guitar fretboard on one string). The scale degrees not only tell you where that note falls in the scale, but also which chord it is.

If you'll notice the order of the scale degrees is always the same: 4-1-5-2-6-3-7. Each note is present in 7 scales, with 2 of them being a half step away from the next note in the sequence. For example, knowing this order you can find the quality and function of any C chord. In G major it's 4, which is a major chord. In C it's the 1, major of course. Going down another 5th it's now the 5, or the dominant. In the next three keys (Bb, Eb, Ab) it's a minor chord and finally in Db it's a diminished chord. This can make modulating easier by finding common chords or common tones. Since C minor is present in both Eb and Ab this can be used as a pivot chord.

Alternately, you can see how scales transition between each other. Sharp scales always change the 4 to a 7 by moving it up a half step. On flat keys it's the opposite; 7 is flattened by a half step to make it a 4. You'll see this creates a chromatic scale going diagonally across the chart. It's really quite a useful tool, but not always necessary to think about when playing.

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The Circle of 5ths is an illustration of something that you probably understand pretty well already. If you're playing a song in C major, you know that it's common to throw in an E7, and you know where it's very likely going to lead to (A7, D7, G7, C.) If you play jazzy styles, you have probably also absorbed the fact that instead of Dm7, G7, C you can play Dm7, Db7, C.

You can describe the first as 'circle of 5ths', the second as 'b5 substitutions'. But that's just labelling - you were doing it anyway! Don't worry about LEARNING the circle of 5ths. Just recognise it in what you're already playing.

Yes, if you go all round the circle of 5ths in a string of secondary dominants you end up where you started. A fact that, to my knowledge, has no practical application whatsoever!

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