When you’ve decided to take on the challenge of learning the guitar, it may be tempting to push aside the study of music theory for more exciting ventures, such as working on that sweet guitar solo. Whether or not you have an interest in learning music or guitar theory, it would be a mistake to overlook helpful tools, such as the circle of fifths. At first glance, the circle may seem confusing and overwhelming, but with a little bit of effort, knowing how to read the circle of fifths could bring you innumerable rewards as a guitar player.
Alternately known as the cycle of fourths (more on that later), the circle of fifths is a circular diagram that can quickly provide musicians with helpful information on chords, key signatures and scales. The 12 notes of the chromatic scale are positioned around the diagram. Moving clockwise around the circle, the notes are displayed in intervals of fifths. Intervals of fourths are featured if you move counter-clockwise around the diagram. A note, a chord and a key are represented on every spot around the circle.
Those studying classical music often turn to the circle of fifths, while jazz players frequently turn to the cycle of fourths. Even if neither of those musical genres are your bread and butter, don’t abandon the circle. No matter the music style you practice and play, the circle of fifths can still be an invaluable tool for improving your skills as a guitar player.
Dating back to the late 1670s, the circle of fifths has stood the test of time. The first one was printed in Nikolai Diletskii’s treatise, named Grammatika. Diletskii, a composer and theorist, wrote Grammatika to serve as a guide to composition and the rules of music theory. Students of the time turned to the circle as a composer’s tool.
Learning the circle can bring you many great benefits, but understanding the diagram can prove especially tricky if you aren’t already familiar with some music basics, such as:
Understanding the meaning of some key terms will help you immensely as you begin to learn how to read the circle of fifths. We cover some basic terms below.
A fifth is an interval of five notes. For example, if you have C, D, E, F and G, that’s five notes, and therefore it’s considered a fifth.
Arranged in ascending order, scales are a group of pitches that span an octave.
The collection of every sharp and flat, or accidental, in a scale is referred to as the key signature. You’ll find the key signature denoted on a piece of music at the beginning, usually placed after the clef.
To get started, it would be especially helpful to be prepared with a copy of the circle of fifths for you to reference and a blank circle for you to practice filling in on your own.
Looking at the circle, start at the top, at the 12 o’clock position. This is the key of C major, denoted by a “C.” No sharps or flats are contained in this key signature. Working clockwise around the circle from C major, each spot denotes another key in fifths. This means that to arrive at the next key, you would count five notes from the previous one. That makes G the next one represented, and so on around the diagram. The letters around your circle will initially read C, G, D, A, E, B, F, D, A, E, B and F.
Beginning at C major at the top and reading counter-clockwise gives you the cycle of fourths, meaning that going this direction gives you intervals of four rather than five.
When looking at a diagram of the circle of fifths, you’ll notice that there are notes written along both the outside and the inside. The keys denoted around the outside of the circle are major keys, while those listed along the inside of the circle are the corresponding minor keys. In the case of the minor keys, a minor starts them off at the 12 o’clock position on top.
When it comes to the circle of fifths, guitar players can use it to determine the number of sharps or flats contained in each key. Returning to C major, which we already mentioned has no flats or sharps, and moving clockwise, add one sharp to each key. So “G” gains one sharp, “D” gets two, “A” gets three and so on. On the flip side, moving counter-clockwise from “C” gains each key a flat. This means that “F” gets one flat, Bb gets two and so on from there.
Understanding and utilizing the circle of fifths can put you on the road to becoming an amazing guitar player. It can provide you with invaluable information to improve your playing.
This is where the circle can help you out, even if you don’t know how to read music. A quick reference to the circle will show you the number of sharps or flats contained in each key. Notice that the key of C, perched at the top, contains no flats or sharps, but moving clockwise, each following key gains the addition of one sharp:
Moving around from the key of C in a counter-clockwise motion will gain you flats in the same way:
What this ultimately means is that if you can’t make sense of a sheet of music, but you notice that there are four sharps at the start of the staff, you can decipher from the circle that the music is in the key of E.
Be a scale pro with a little help from your friend, the circle of fifths! Easily decipher the number of sharps or flats in each key signature by moving around the circle counter-clockwise and taking three steps back. For example, if you’re working on the E minor scale and need to know the amount of sharps or flats it contains, simply start at the E on your circle and move counter-clockwise three steps. This will show you that it contains one sharp.
If the chords of a particular song are too difficult for you to play, the circle of fifths can help. Simply look at the first note in your chord, find the key that you wish to transpose it to, then move each note up however many spots the original first note is from the key you want on the circle.
Memorizing and referencing the circle of fifths in your guitar practice can earn you amazing results. Here are a couple of tips to help you get started.
Here’s where starting with a blank circle will come in handy. Learn and practice drawing the circle of fifths, including all the keys and the correct number of sharps and flats contained in each one, around the circle. Reference a completed circle to ensure yours is correct. Knowing how to reproduce the diagram from memory allows you to access its valuable insights anytime and anywhere.
Moving clockwise from “F,” memorize this catchy mnemonic to easily place the keys correctly around the circle: Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket.
Here’s a way to improve your skills and become a scale master during your practice sessions: let the circle of fifths guide you through an exercise. Venture out from playing a scale shape in just a single position, and gain the ability to play it everywhere on the neck of your guitar. Start by playing a scale in the key of C, then move clockwise around the circle, playing the scale in each key. If you find this scale exercise helpful, a simple online search yields a number of suggested exercises to build you up towards becoming an accomplished player. You can get there with dedication and by referencing this impressive and simple tool.
The circle of fifths and cycle of fourths can certainly look intimidating and confusing upon first glance, but it’s worth learning about and delving into its practical guitar uses. Once you understand the set-up and meaning of the notes around the diagram, it becomes comprehendible and is an easily-accessible tool you’ll have at your disposal for anytime use. Memorize the circle and reference it frequently to watch your knowledge and skills as a musician soar.