Music Theory For The Dropouts #6 – The Circle Of Fifths

Cassi Falk  /  Scales and Keys  /  UPDATED Jan 16, 2023

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This lesson is on one of the most useful tools available in music theory:  The Circle Of Fifths.  If you’ve ever looked at your keyboard practice plan and wonder ‘where do I go from here?’  …well then this lesson is for you!  With the Circle Of Fifths, you’ll never have to wonder what the next scale or set of chords you should practice will be!

So, the first thing’s first:  How do you read this thing?  If you don’t know how to make sense of it, it can be a little intimidating.  The easiest way to read the Circle Of Fifths is as though you’re reading a clock.  Starting at ‘12 o’clock’, you’ll notice that C major is the main key, containing no sharps or flats.  

If you follow the clock along, you’ll see the next key is a fifth above: G major.  G major contains just one sharp. F#.  If you continue along the clock, you’ll move up another fifth interval, this time landing on D.  The key of D major has two sharps, keeping the F# from G major and adding C#.  

Counting up five notes from D lands you on A, which keeps both F# and C# from the previous keys and adds G# as well.  Notice that every sharp we’re adding in this sequence is a fifth above the previously added sharp.  That’s one of the great things about the circle of fifths: it works on multiple levels.  Your next logical scale to learn will always be a fifth above your previously learned scale, and your next black key to add into that new scale will always be a fifth above the previously added one.  

You can also read the Circle Of Fifths in the other direction too.  If you go back to C major, and this time move one to the left, you’ll get to F major, a fifth interval down from C.  If you move down the left side of the Circle Of Fifths, it will show you the order of added flats rather than sharps.  

Since there is always a pattern for the adding of sharps and flats, I’ll simply write out the order here.  

Sharps are added in this order:  F, C, G, D, A, E, B.  If you want to use a phrase to remember this order, try this one:  ‘Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle.’  

Flats are added in this order:  B, E, A, D, G, C, F or the opposite order compared to the sharps.  

The final thing you should keep in mind when looking at the Circle of Fifths for the first time is the inner circle, which shows the relative minor keys.  Remember, these relative minors use the exact same key signature as their relative major counterparts.                   

Ready for your next lesson? You can learn how to tackle a new piece of music in the final Lesson of our series!

Missed any previous lessons?

You can find Lesson 5 on chords here.

And Lesson 4 on major and minor scales here.

And Lesson 3 on music symbols here.

And Lesson 2 on the Grand Staff here.

And Lesson 1 on rhythm here.

Cassi Falk is trained as an Elementary and Intermediate Specialist through the Royal Conservatory Teacher Certification Program. She loves the feeling of accomplishment after a good practice session and seeing students discover music. Learn more about Cassi here.

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