Understanding The Circle of Fifths

by Tania Gleaves on October 3, 2014

The circle of fifths, introduced by Johann David Heinichen in 1728, is a visual arrangement of related keys. Although its name gives the impression that it’s a difficult concept to grasp, it’s really just an easy way to remember the number of sharps and flats in a key signature and the major and minor key relationships.

Click Here And Finally Learn What Circle Fifths Are All About!

Sharps and Flats

If you can imagine a clock for a moment, where each hour represents a particular key, you can identify that key’s sharps and flats. Let’s say that:

  • 12:00 or “0:00” represents the C Major key (or the A Minor key)…
  • 1:00 represents the G Major key (or the E Minor key)…
  • 2:00 represents the D Major key (or the B Minor key)…
  • 3:00 represents the A Major key (or the F# Minor key)…
  • 4:00 represents the E Major key (or the C# Minor key)…
  • 5:00 represents the B Major key (or the G# Minor key)…
  • 6:00 represents the F# Major key (or the Eb Minor key)…
  • 7:00 represents the Db Major key (or the Db Minor key)…
  • 8:00 represents the Ab Major key (or the F Minor key)…
  • 9:00 represents the Eb Major key (or the C Minor key)…
  • 10:00 represents the Bb Major key (or the G Minor key), and
  • 11:00 represents the F Major key (or the D Minor key).

Perfect Fifths

If you’ll notice, each hour (or key) is separated by a perfect fifth (moving clockwise). A perfect fifth is an interval made up of three whole steps and one half step. For example, A perfect fifth above C is G, and a perfect fifth above E is B. This is where the pattern gets its name . It follows a unique pattern on our imaginary clock where:

  • … the perfect fifth of the C Major key is G.
  • … the perfect fifth of the G Major key is D.
  • … the perfect fifth of the D Major key is A.
  • … the perfect fifth of the A Major key is E.
  • … the perfect fifth of the E Major key is B.
  • … the perfect fifth of the B Major key is F#.
  • … the perfect fifth of the F# Major key is C#.
  • … the perfect fifth of the C# Major key is G#.
  • … the perfect fifth of the G# Major key is D#.
  • … the perfect fifth of the D# Major key is A#.
  • … the perfect fifth of the A# Major key is F.
  • … the perfect fifth of the F Major key is C.

This pattern helps us determine the sharps and flats of a signature because they’re always a perfect fifth away (moving clockwise). Just remember that sharps increase in the clockwise direction while flats increase in the counter-clockwise direction (note: when you move counter-clockwise, each hour- or key- is separated by a perfect fourth).

Related Keys

As an example, the C Major and A Minor keys are related because they both lack sharps and flats. Based on the circle of fifths, we discover that a single flat relates the F major key to the D minor key while a single sharp relates the G major key to the E minor key as well. Two flats relate the Bb major key to the G minor key while two sharps relate the D major key to the B minor key too. Three flats relate the Eb major key to the C minor key while three sharps relate the A major key to F# minor key. Starting to see a pattern? The concept is of course easier to understand with a visual.

circle of fifths Understanding The Circle of Fifthscircle of fifths chart

The Enharmonic Notes

The 5:00, 6:00, and 7:00 hours are unique in that they help you identify different notes with the same pitch. These notes are said to be enharmonic to each other:

  • “5:00″ can either be B Major (G# Minor) with five sharps (from the clockwise perspective) or Cb Major (Ab Minor) with seven flats (from the counter-clockwise perspective).
  • “6:00″ can either be F# Major (D# Minor) with six sharps (from the clockwise perspective) or Gb Major (Eb Minor) with six flats (from the counter-clockwise perspective).
  • Lastly, “7:00″ can either be C# Major (A# Minor) with seven sharps (from the clockwise perspective) or Db Major (Bb Minor) with five flats (from the counter-clockwise perspective).

Click Here And Finally Learn What Circle Fifths Are All About!

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

eileen October 28, 2009 at 9:53 am

Eileen,

Have Eliesse memorize this chart, it will give her at least 15 points in Theory 1.

Eric

UCHY November 17, 2009 at 7:23 am

i am a fresher in piano and i need major and minor scale progressions on blues

Brian November 17, 2009 at 10:09 am

Hi Uchy,

There really only one type of blues scale that’s usually played…

Here’s how to get them:

From the major scale (http://www.piano-lessons-central.com/piano-scales/all-12-majors-scales/), you merely, take the 1,b3,4,b5,5,b7 and you have the blues scale for that key.

For example, blues scale in the key of C is C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb.

That’s it!

Also, check out: http://www.piano-lessons-central.com/category/blues-piano/

Good luck.

Cornelius Young November 21, 2009 at 8:30 am

So I was looking at the clock analogy for the circle of fifths. That works well for the sharp keys and if you took C# and Cb it could work well at 12 oclock, but for the flats it would definitely be confusing.

Brian November 21, 2009 at 9:36 am

Hey Cornelius!
C# is enharmonic (same pitch) with Db
Cb is enharmonic (same pitch) with B

So the analogy still applies for both at Db and B, respectively.

Remember the notes that are enharmonic (e.g. Gb/F#, Ab/G#, Eb/D#, etc.)…If you take this into account, the Circle of 5th’s works.

…Also, the circle of fifths represent the keys most commonly used. You’ll rarely find a piece written, for example, in the key of Cb…I would be written in the key of B, which has the same pitches, etc.

Lynn November 23, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Thank you soooooo much!!!! I have been a musician for as long as I can remember (I play multiple woodwinds, bass guitar and piano) and..believe it or not… this is the FIRST time the Circle of Fifths has ever made sense to me. I learned all my scales the hard way – memorization. For some reason the Circle-of-Fifths just confused me. I realy can’t thank you enough for bringing ease to one of the biggest frustrations in my musical career.
Thank you!!!

Brian November 23, 2009 at 6:09 pm

My pleasure, Lynn!

…I hope to add even more tips soon…Have FUN :D

Jenny December 11, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Hi, when it gets to 6 0′clock i just swap the F for G AND remember to add a flat eg; B C D E F# CHANGE TO GFLAT G A B C D add flat, count of 5 works all the way round.

Brian December 13, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Thanks, Jenny! That works too :)

Sean December 21, 2009 at 9:29 pm

I thought there were two more enharmonic keys, like with Db there is C#, and with B there is Cb?

Brian December 21, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Yes…I say this under “The Enharmonic Notes”…thx

Tim December 16, 2010 at 9:51 am

Just a heads up; on your clock example under 7:00, the key of Db you need to change the relative minor from Db minor to Bb minor. Also if a person wants to be pickey, under 6:00 F#’s relative minor should probably be called D# instead of Eb, or change F# to Gb, to avoid confusion, that’s all.

Stephen February 3, 2011 at 11:40 am

“Two flats relate the Bb key to the C major key while two sharps relate the D major key to the C major key too. Three flats relate the Eb key to the C major key while three sharps relate the A sharp key to C major key.”

If I may, the statements I quoted above, taken from the “relative keys” area in this articel are incorrect. According to the Circle of Fifths: Bb is relative to G minor, D is relative to B minor, Eb is relative C minor, and I am not sure what to say about A# (as Bb it is relative to G minor).

Erik Thiede February 13, 2011 at 2:05 am

Thanks, Stephen! I’m in school and haven’t had time to correct these typos…I corrected this section :)

anj107 May 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm

i need help i dont understand what chord comes next in a song an i been teaching my self an bought many books an for 4years now i cant get it some times i think chord progressions will teach me thenwith out fillin they dont sound good so i want to give up ut i love the piano an refuse to give up i can do a few songs but someone showed me th chords to use please help me i want to no how chords blend together to make music

David June 4, 2011 at 5:25 am

I guess I’m prone to be lazy but I was hoping this would simply be:
FCGDAEB 5th intervals and contain only the sharps!…but F has a flat??

then…

BEADGCF 4th intervals and only contain flats ??

Everyone

Thanks in advance

David

Erik Thiede June 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm

If you go clockwise, the steps are perfect 5ths and the key signature is represented with sharps (#s).

But you usually have #s from C to C# (you could keep going and represent everything using #s but that gets messy and no one does that)

If you go counterclockwise, the steps are perfect 4ths and the key signature is represented with flats (b’s).

But you usually have b’s from F to Cb (you could keep going and represent everything using b’s but that gets messy and no one does that)

Erik Thiede June 7, 2011 at 5:26 pm

This depends on what sounds good to you and the music genre…There are many common chord progressions (2-5-1, 1-4-5, etc). Find out chord progressions of the songs you like and play around…

rj June 8, 2011 at 6:37 am

Wonderfully formatted, thanks for sharing; an invaluable tool for teaching (as well as continuing to learn!)

Erik Thiede June 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Thank you! Learning piano is a life long enjoyment :)

Cameron July 5, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Hi, Thanks for a wonderful explanation. The circle of 5ths/4ths is a stumbling block for many, me included. The clock metaphor is awesome as it really brings your eye into the concept. The is one part I am still struggling with though!

In the Key of F#/Gb (Major Scale) there are only 5 flats or sharps, so why does the circle of 5ths show 6 #/b’s?

Major Scale Gb (F#) Major – Gb Ab Bb B Db Eb F (only 5)?

Erik Thiede July 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Hi Cameron! You say “in the Key of F#/Gb (Major Scale) there are only 5 flats or sharps“…There are actually 6 flats/ sharps not 5…

You say “Major Scale Gb (F#) Major – Gb Ab Bb B Db Eb F (only 5)?” but technically, in terms of music theory, there is no “B” in the Major Gb scale.

It’s actually a called “Cb” not “B” (although “Cb” is enharmonic with “B” & “B” is usually how you’d say it in music theory). Scales are part of music theory, so here’s the Gb Major scale: Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F

Lars September 30, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Good info, but just a typo for you to correct, near the top. Your text says …
“If you can imagine a clock for a moment, where each hour represents a particular key, you can identify that key’s sharps and flats. Let’s say that: ….
“12:00 or “0:00” represents the C Major key (or the A Minor key)… ”
etc., etc., and you get to

“7:00 represents the Db Major key (or the Db Minor key)… ”

Which of course should read instead …
” 7:00 represents the Db Major key (or the Bb Minor key)… ”

Please look at it and correct it if you agree with me that it is wrong (or correct me if I am wrong. :D (Of course my point is that since Bb is the RELATIVE MINOR of Db, your text has to be a typo.

The CORRECT info is on the diagram already, in any case. Which explains why, I guess, nobody noticed it before: because they are all looking at the graphic only.

Regards. And keep posting the Good Stuff!

guero December 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm

I think there’s a mistake here. On the top where you start explaining how “12:00″ is A minor, if you go down to “6:00″ it’s correct when you say it’s an Eb minor key. “7:00″ though, is supposed to be Bb minor since the perfect fifth of Eb (7 half steps from Eb: Eb-1)E-2)F-3)Gb-4)G-5)Ab-6)A-7)Bb ) is Bb. Instead though, it reads Db. On the visual, it’s correct but not up top.

Adrian January 4, 2013 at 4:43 am

Thanks a lot for this!

I am trying to understand the concept but my key question was simply why you use flats b and not sharps?

My understanding was they can be used interchangeably?

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