By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer

The Circle of Fifths is not complicated, even for beginner guitar players. In fact, the circle of fifths really doesn’t convey that much info. Like many images or tables, it is simply taking data and organizing it; in this case, it sums up music theory in a nice circle! But once you understand this simple circle, it will be easier as a songwriter to put your ideas and feelings into music.

What is the Circle of Fifths?

There are 12 notes in Western music and their feeling and vibe all depend upon the order in which we play them. The most common is the major diatonic scale, and all 12 are shown on the main ring of the Circle of Fifths. And within the 12 major keys are the 12 corresponding minor keys.

Moving Clockwise each key adds one sharp each time, and counterclockwise one flat is added just the same. The outer ring shows the key signature, you can test each one and every interval will equal a strong major scale. Each key is a fifth away from one another going forward, and a fourth going back, most songs are made up of movement both ways.

It is not necessary to memorize the circle. If you forget all you must do is quickly sketch one out! Start with C and add one sharp until you reach the bottom, and then move in reverse and add one flat at a time. Count fifths moving forward, and fourths moving back, give it a try and see if you can draw one without looking.

Finding our Scales

If you are writing a melody, guitar scales can be very important. The key signatures make it quick and easy to find all the major and minor keys by just looking at your Circle of Fifths. If you are in a key and not sure which sharps or flats to use, it will always tell you!

And while the circle seems limited to only major and minor scales, you can derive other scales with it. You simply take the scale formula and apply it to the major scale shown. For example, the melodic minor scale has a flattened 3rd degree like this.

1 2 b3 4 5 6 7 

To find the melodic minor of C we simply plug the major in and make the change on the 3rd for C-D-Eb-F-G-A-B. Another example is the minor pentatonic scale with the formula 1 b3 4 5 b7, now we make some changes and drop some notes to get C-Eb-G-A-Bb! Simply take the scale formula you need and apply it to the key and major scale on the Circle of Fifths.

Scales and intervals invoke different moods and emotions, learn as many as possible and it will allow you to find the right sound to fit the feeling of the song idea in your head.

Finding Our Chords  

You can use movable shapes on the circle to find all the major and minor guitar chords. A major chord is made up of the scale degrees 1, 3, and 5, use those notes on the circle to draw a triangle from C-E-G for C major. Now anywhere that triangle moves will be a major chord. Move it one forward and the same triangle points to G-B-D or G major.

Minor chords are made up of the same degrees but with a minor 3rd, if we draw a triangle on C-Eb-G it can be moved to find any minor chord, just be sure to start on the right root. Dominant 7ths are common in rock and jazz, and we can also find those with a trapezoid shape! 

The formula for a 7th is 1, 3, 5, b7, so for C7 connect the notes C-E-G-Bb. Just like the other shapes, this can be moved to find any notes of a dominant 7th. Whether you use formulas or shapes, they will both give you the right answer. Now that you can find the most common chords used when writing songs, you can put them into progressions. You can always use a guitar chord chart to help you.

Chord Progressions

Most songwriters will be using chords and their progressions to write their songs, and the Circle of Fifths allows us to find what we need. If you have ever used the Nashville Numbers you may have seen this table.

Tonic Super Tonic Mediant Sub-Dominant Dominant Sub-Mediant Leading Tone Sub-Tonic
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
I ii iii IV V vi vii(dim)
C Dm Em F G Am B
G Am Bm C D Em F#
D Em F#m G A Bm C#
A Bm C#m D E F#m G#
E F#m G#m A B C#m D#
B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#
F# G#m A#m B C# D#m E#
F Gm Am Bb C Dm E
Bb Cm Dm Eb F Gm A
Eb Fm Gm Ab Bb Cm D
Ab Bbm Cm Db Eb Fm G
Db Ebm Fm Gb Ab Bbm C
Gb Abm Bbm Cb Db Ebm F
Cb Dbm Ebm Fb Gb Abm Bb

We can find all these same scale degrees with just the Circle of Fifths. Now that you know moving clockwise is a fifth and counterclockwise is a fourth, you can quickly find all I-IV-V chord progressions in every key.

The minor vi is easy as that is given already as the relative, to find the ii we move into the inner circle and counterclockwise one time, thus C (I) will have Dm as its ii. Moving clockwise once will give the iii with Em. To find the VII degree we move to the IV (F) and go straight across, giving us B. As always it will work for every key and for all chord progressions like these.

I-IV

I-V

I-IV-V

I-vi-IV-V

I-V-vi-IV

I-vi-ii-V

I-iii-IV-V

ii-V-I

I-II-IV-I

I-bVII-IV

In some cases, minor and major may be reversed and some chords flattened. The symbol will tell you exactly what to plug into the formula and the info can be obtained from the Circle of Fifths. Be mindful that there are multiple ways to get to the same answer. We can find the chords to I-II-IV-I by moving back to the ii and making it a major, or by moving right up to D major.

This is one of the biggest problems for music theory students, music rules are a little flimsy and ambiguous at times. That is good news though. It shows you don’t have that much to learn. Remember, music theory can be confusing, but it is rarely hard.

Modulating Keys

One of the best ways to create movement or change in a song is with a new key, and the Circle of Fifths has multiple ways of helping. One of the best sounding changes is when you pick a key that is touching or at least close by. Of course, the relative minor will always sound pleasant when we change, as it has the same notes.

Another common modulation is a dominant fifth (V/V) which is the fifth of a fifth! So moving from C we would jump G and get D. If you notice this V/V is the same as the bVII above, the former being the proper musical term. Again there are different ways to get the same progressions.

Sometimes in jazz, the musicians will work their way around the circle as they riff and solo off each key. And many ragtime songs are E7-A7-D7-G7 which is just moving backward with a dominant 7th. 

Changing Modes

You can always move to a new mode, remember a mode is simply a major scale, but starting on a different scale degree. This will give us new intervals and the distances between the notes are what give us the overall feeling. Find the scale on the Circle and simply start at a new position, the major examples being.

Ionian CDEFGBA

Dorian DEFGABC

Phrygian EFGABCD

Lydian FGABCDE

Mixolydian GABCDEF

Aeolian ABCDEFG

Locrian BCDEFGA

If you are using a key with many sharps or flats, find the note order first and then add in the correct accidental. If you practice it enough, finding the mode from the Circle of Fifths can be done quickly. It is quite amazing how much musical knowledge can be gained from this simple, graph.

One of the first things you should do is print off a copy of the Circle of Fifths and always have it in your practice space. The more you write songs, the more you will see how valuable it is. Even after you practice with the circle and get to know it, you will still find surprising ways to use it. The Circle of Fifths is one of the most important graphs, whether you’re taking beginner guitar lessons, or if you are an experienced guitarist.

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