Have you been confused by the circle of fifths? I’m going to show you why the circle of fifths isn’t a dusty old diagram; it’s a fascinating visual representation of how music works. The circle of fifths will teach you how key signatures are related, which will help you understand music and even compose your own pieces.
You might be wondering if you should you be practicing major and minor scales on a regular basis? Find out in this article about why you should practice scales.
Even though the circle of fifths was first created back in 1670, it’s still a powerful tool today! Let’s take a look at how the circle of fifths is structured.
Start by drawing a circle and placing twelve tick marks around it, just like a clock. Each tick stands for one of the 12 major key signatures.
The tick at 12 o’clock will be C major. This is our foundational key signature since it doesn’t contain any sharps or flats. Let’s jump to the next tick at one o’clock. How can we find what key signature this one is?
To visualize this, look at your piano or keyboard. Start on C and go up seven half steps or semitones, and you should land on G. This distance of seven half steps is called a perfect fifth.
Why is this important? Each tick or key signature on the circle of fifths is a perfect fifth away from the previous one, so that means our key signature at one o’clock must be G major. This explains why this diagram is called the circle of fifths.
Now, let’s find the next key signature at two o’clock. If we jump a perfect fifth above G, that lands us on D, which means our two o’clock key signature must be D major.
To find our three o’clock key, jump a fifth above D, and you’ll land on A, which means it will be A major. Keep jumping up by fifths until you’ve labeled all 12 ticks with a key signature. Now you know the names of all twelve major keys!
Major Scale Pattern
But how do you actually play these keys on the piano? Fortunately, there’s a simple formula that answers that question!
Let’s start with C major, which has no sharps or flats. To play the C major scale, start on C and play all the white notes from this C to the next one.
If you look at this pattern of notes closely, you’ll see that it is built from a pattern of whole steps (or tones) and half steps (also called semitones). The distance from C to D is a whole step, and the distance from D to E is another whole step. E to F is a half step. F to G, G to A, and A to B are three more whole steps, and finally, B to C is a half step.
This pattern of Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half is known as the Major Scale Pattern. Every major key signature is built using this formula. This makes things a lot easier to remember!
Keys with Sharps
The great thing about the major scale formula is that it shows us exactly when we need to play a sharp or flat in each key.
Let’s start by finding the keys with sharps. This means we’ll need to go clockwise around the circle of fifths, starting at twelve o’clock or C major. We already know that this key doesn’t have any sharps or flats.
To find the first key with a sharp, we’ll need to go up a fifth to G Major. Play the Major Scale Pattern starting on G. You’ll notice that we have to add a black note, which is F sharp, to maintain the pattern of whole and half steps.
If we play this formula in the key of D major, we’ll find out that we’ll need to play two sharps, which are F sharp and C sharp.
If you continue clockwise around the circle of fifths, you’ll notice that each key will add a sharp until you reach the maximum of seven sharps. You can only have a max of seven sharps because there are only seven tones in a scale.
If you look even closer, you’ll notice that each new sharp is added on the seventh tone of the scale. For example, G major adds a sharp on F, which is the seventh tone of G major. D major keeps this F sharp and adds a second sharp on C, which is the seventh tone in D major.
Keys with Flats
We’ve now uncovered all seven sharp key signatures, but what about the keys with flats? Let’s find those ones!
To see the flat key signatures on the circle of fifths, we’ll need to start from C, or twelve o’clock, and go counterclockwise around the circle of fifths. To visualize this on the piano keyboard, you’ll need to drop down a perfect fifth instead of going up a perfect fifth as you did with the sharp keys. For example, if you start on C and drop down a perfect fifth, you’ll land on F, which is our first key with a flat.
Now play the Major Scale Pattern starting on F, and you’ll discover that you need to a play B flat to preserve the pattern.
To find the next flat key, go down a perfect fifth from F, and you’ll land on B flat. Play the major scale pattern again, and you’ll see that you need to add a second flat on E flat.
If you continue going counterclockwise around the circle of fifths, you’ll notice that each key will add a flat until you reach the maximum of seven flats. Like with the sharps, you can only have seven flats because there are only seven tones in the scale.
A little bonus tip is that the new flat added to each key signature will be a perfect fourth above the starting note. For example, F major adds a flat on B, which is a fourth above F. B flat major keeps this B flat, and adds a second flat on E, which is a fourth above B Flat.
Now that you know all 12 major keys, you might be wondering why some of these key signatures have two names: one with sharps and one with flats. These are called enharmonic equivalents.
This means you’ll play the same notes on the keyboard regardless of how the music is spelled on paper. For example, the key of F Sharp Major uses the same notes as the key of G Flat Major. The key of B Major uses the same notes as the key of C Flat Major.
However, you usually won’t see pieces written in F Sharp Major, as it’s easier to read the piece in G Flat Major. The circle of fifths is normally written with 6 flat keys, and 6 sharp keys if you include C Major.
Technically, you could make enharmonic equivalents for every key signature, but this only overcomplicates the music and makes it harder to read.
How Keys Overlap
Now that you know all the major key signatures, let’s add a keyboard to the circle of fifths and highlight the notes used in C major. If we also highlight the notes in G major, you can see how the last half of C major overlaps with the first half of G major. The last half of G major will also overlap with the first half of D major.
This fascinating pattern of overlapping keys continues all the way around the circle of fifths. These overlap zones means that these notes are shared between these neighboring key signatures. Composers will often use the notes and chords shared in this overlap to change the key of the piece to a neighboring key. That’s why in pieces you’ll often see keys used that are next to each other on the circle of fifths.
Order of Sharps
We’ve learned all the major keys and how they are related to one another, but how can we remember all the sharps or flats in each key? Here’s some simple tips to help you!
To remember the order of sharps, simply memorize the following mnemonic: Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.
To see how this plays out, look at G major, which is our first key with a sharp. According to the order of sharps, the one sharp in this key is Father or F. Our next key, D major, has two sharps, which must be Father Charles, or F and C.
We can apply this knowledge to the remainder of the sharp key signatures, which stops at B Major. This mnemonic makes it so much easier to remember the sharps in each key!
Order of Flats
What about the order of flats? Fortunately, it’s just the reverse of the order of sharps. Flip the mnemonic and you’ll have Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father.
This mnemonic works the same as the order of sharps. F major has one flat, which must be Battle or B. B Flat Major has two flats, which must be Battle Ends, or B and E.
These mnemonics are super helpful, because when you memorize the key signatures, you don’t have to wrack your brain trying to remember what sharps or flats go in each key!
The circle of fifths has shown us all the major keys, but can it teach us the minor keys, too? The answer is yes!
If you know all the major keys, it’s easy to memorize the minor ones! This is because each major key has a cousin called the relative minor.
You can find the relative minor to any major key by simply dropping down a minor third, or three half steps, below the major key’s starting note. If you start on C and count down three half steps, you’ll find C major’s relative minor is A minor. If you start on F, you’ll discover that F major’s relative minor is D minor.
Just like with the major keys, the order of minor keys progresses by perfect fifths as you go clockwise around the circle of fifths.
Let’s find the relative minors for each major key. We already found out that C major’s relative minor is A minor, since A is a minor third below C. That means that G major’s relative minor is E minor. Keep progressing around the circle of fifths until you’ve found all the relative minors.
Fortunately, each minor key has the same number of sharps or flats as its major counterpart. A Minor has no sharps or flats, just like C major. E flat minor has six flats, just like G flat major.
Hopefully, visualizing how major and minor keys are related will help you remember the names of all 12 major and 12 minor key signatures!
The circle of fifths shows how each key signature is a perfect fifth apart, and how each key signature is related to the next one. C is at the top (12 o'clock), and as you move clockwise around the circle, each key will add one sharp until you reach the max of seven sharps. If you start at C and move counterclockwise around the circle, each key will add one flat until you reach the max of seven flats.
The fastest way to learn the circle of fifths is to construct your own on a piece of paper. Drawing it out will help you remember it much better!
Start by drawing a circle and placing 12 tick marks around it, like a clock. Each tick represents a different key signature. If you progress around the circle clockwise, each tick is a perfect fifth apart. Start labeling the keys by placing C at 12 o'clock, and work your way clockwise around the circle. If you practice labeling the keys in this way, you'll be able to memorize their names quickly!
The circle of fifths is a simple diagram originally invented in 1670, but it's still relevant today. It's a visual representation of tonality, which is how all 12 major and 12 minor keys are related to one another.
The circle of fifths shows you the key signatures, what sharps or flats are found in each key, the order of sharps and flats, and what notes and chords are shared between neighboring keys. This will help you memorize all the keys, understand music theory, and even compose your own music.
There are many ways you can practice musical concepts using the circle of fifths, but one of the best ways is to progress around the circle of fifths and play the scales, triads, and arpeggios in each major and minor key. This will greatly improve your piano technique as you practice these technical skills in each key.
After learning all this about the circle of fifths, you should have a much better understanding of how key signatures are related to one another. It’s my hope that this video was insightful and helpful in your understanding of music theory!
Follow Emma Blair Piano on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube!
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please leave a comment below. You'll make my day!
Other Music Theory Articles You'll Love
Prefer to watch all of this instead? Watch my detailed explanation of what the circle of fifths is and how it's constructed in my YouTube music theory lesson below.
Leave a Comment