What is the Circle of Fifths?
The Circle of Fifths is a series of key signatures and their root chords represented by a circle. Each key or chord has seven semitones from the next key or chord in the circle.
History Behind the Circle of Fifths
You have Nikolai Diletskii to thank. He invented it in his late 1670's treatise on composition called the Grammatika, and later in 1728, Johann David Heinichen redesigned the Circle of Fifths, which is the version we use today.
Why Should You Learn the Circle of Fifths?
Whether you are a student, a teacher or a musician, the Circle of Fifths will help you detect chord inversions quicker, identify key signatures for major and minor keys/chords within a piece of sheet music, and help you understand the difference between relative and parallel keys.
Understanding the Outer Ring of the Circle of Fifths to Read Major Keys and Their Root Chords
The Circle of Fifths usually starts with a C major (see photo). The best way to understand how to read the Circle of Fifths is by looking at it like a clock. On the outer ring of the Circle of Fifths, we see major keys and their root chords related to them. Going clockwise is G major. The notes in a G major chord are seven semitones from the notes in a C major chord. Then, we move clockwise to the next chord which is D major, which is a perfect fifth away from G major. Then we get to A major, which is a perfect fifth away from D major and so on. So with each clockwise "hand" around the circle, we continue to move in fifths until we eventually end up back at C major.
Understanding the Inner Ring of the Circle of Fifths to Read Minor Keys and Their Chords
On the inner ring of the Circle of Fifths, we see minor keys and their root chords. The key or chord at the top of the inner ring of the Circle of Fifths is A minor.
Note: A minor is the relative minor of C major. Its scale contains the exact notes as a C major scale but has the key of A as its root instead of C.
From A minor, we move clockwise to E minor, which is a perfect fifth away from A minor. Then, we move to B minor, which is a perfect fifth away from E minor. We keep moving in fifths until we eventually return to the original key/chord of A minor.
Cool Ways to Remember the Circle of Fifths
Key Signatures for Flats and Sharps
To remember the total of Flats in a key signature in order, memorize the following :BEAD-GCF. Remember all the sharps in order in a key signature by using a funny saying: FCGDAEB: Finally-Cats-Give-Dogs-Awful-Energy-Bites.
Major & Minor Scales for Flats
Remember the Major scales in order for flats' key signature by creating a mnemonic for F-Bb-Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Cb: Frank-Buys-Eggs-At-Dog's-Grocery-Club.
Note: You may not be able to see C♭ major on the Circle of Fifths. C♭ Major has seven flats in its key signature.
Now let's remember the minor scales for the flats: d-g-c-f-b♭-e♭-a♭: dog's-grocery-club-fills-basket-eggs-again
Note: A♭ minor may not be on the Circle of Fifths.
Major and Minor Scales for Sharps
Remember Major scales for sharps' key signature by creating a mnemonic for G-D-A-E-B-F#-C#: Go-Down-At-Elmo's-Bank-For-Christmas.
Note: You may not be able to see C-sharp (C#) major on the Circle of Fifths. C-sharp Major scale has seven sharps in its key signature.
Now let's remember the minor scales for the sharps: e-b-f#-c#-g#-d#-a#: elmo's-bank-for-christmas-gives-doll-angels
Note: A# minor may not be on the Circle of Fifths. A# minor has seven sharps in its key signature.