Music Theory

Discovering the Circle of Fifths: A Guide for Beginners

People often see music theory as a complex system of abstract and inaccessible concepts. To a certain extent they’re not wrong – there is something abstract and perhaps magical behind all our favourite melodies. But let’s forget about the more mystical aspect of music theory and focus on the Circle of Fifths – a very practical and useful tool that you’ll be able to get your head around in no time. 

Table of contents

  1. The origin of the circle of fifths 
  2. The structure of the Circle of fifths
    1. The circle of fifths, major keys
    2. The circle of fifths, minor keys
    3. The circle of fifths, accidentals
  3. Three ways you can use the circle of fifths 
    1. First Use: Working Out the Key of a Piece of Music
    2. Second Use: Building a Major and Minor Scale 
    3. Third Use: Writing Sweet Tunes

1. The origin of the circle of fifths 

The circle of fifths is a circular representation of 12 major and minor tones with their respective accidentals;  and according to a progression by ascending fifths or descending fourths, depending on which way around the circle you go.

The first example of the circle of fifths date back to the end of the 17th century. It is said to have been invented by Nikolai Diletsky and then popularized by the German composer and music theorist David Heinichen in the mid-18th century.

It is therefore a tool that has been used for several centuries and is a pillar of music theory.

Why is it still relevant today?

The cycle of fifths grants you access to the different potential tones all in one place. It’s like the milky way with the 12 tones (i.e. the 12 notes of the chromatic scale), all gravitating around the circle like planets. 

Understanding how the fifths cycle works will  give a whole new dimension to your playing, as it allows you to develop 3 fundamental aspects:

  • understanding all the keys (finding the key of a piece of music, transposition a piece from one tone to the other, modulating different scales, improving your sight-reading ability)
  • composition (building chords and chord progressions)
  • improvisation (to impress your friends during your next jam session!)

2. The structure of the Circle of Fifths 

>Structure 

The circle of fifths is divided into two parts

  • in yellow: the major keys
  • in blue: the minor keys

You can read the diagram in different directions

  • clockwise: a succession of perfect fifths
  • anticlockwise: a succession of perfect fourths

IMPORTANT: The fifth and the fourth are complementary. Check this out:

  • C-F: an interval of a perfect fourth 
  • F-C : an interval of a perfect fifth 

Confused about the meaning of perfect fourths and perfect fifths? Check out our article explaining the different intervals in music.

The circle of fifths, major keys

The keys are found in the outer ring of the circle, represented in yellow in the diagram above. 

It’s a succession of perfect fifths, moving in a clockwise direction. To go from C to G, you need an interval of a perfect fifth. The same thing applies if you move from D to A, etc. 

This is a succession of right fifths in a clockwise direction. To go from C to G, you need a correct fifth interval. The same thing to go from D to A, etc.

In the other direction, it is a succession of perfect fourths counterclockwise. To go from C to F, it is necessary to have an interval of a perfect fifth. The same thing applies if you move from A ♭ to E ♭ etc. 

Circle of fifths, minor keys

Minor keys are found in the inner circle, represented in blue in the diagram above. It is read exactly like you would the major keys. 

  • Clockwise – a succession of fifths 
  • anticlockwise – a succession of fourths.

IMPORTANT: These keys are actually the relative minor keys of the major keys and are found just below their relative major keys.

C major has a relative minor key of A minor…

F major has the relative key D minor, etc. 

The ♭ major has for relative key F minor, etc. 

Think of the relative minor of a major scale as its little cousin, i.e. they’re part of the same family. The Minor has exactly the same notes but follows a different interval order.

Circle of fifths, accidentals

Below the keys is another circle with accidentals, highlighted in pink on the diagram below.

The circle of fifths was designed to start with the note C major, which has no sharp and no flat in the scale.

Once again, there are two directions in which you can read the diagram. 

Every time you advance by a fifth, which means you go right in the circle, you add a sharp to that scale.  Thus, the scale of G major will have 1 sharp, D will have 2 sharps, etc. 

Each time you advance by a fourth, i.e. go left in the circle, we add a flat to this scale.  Thus, the scale of F major will have 1♭, the one ofGi♭majeur will have 2 flats, and so on.

IMPORTANT: the accidentals apply to both major and minor keys. Thus, G major and its relative minor E minor will both have one sharp in their scales.

3. Three ways you can use the circle of fifths 

The circle of fifths is an extremely useful tool. Think of it like a Swiss Army knife – you can use it for so many different things. Quite frankly, I could write a book about it… 

Here are its three most useful and accessible uses:

First Use: Working Out the Key of a Piece of Music

Thanks to the cycle of fifths, you can guess the key of a piece very easily. All you need to know is the order of sharps and flats in the key signature (order of fifths and fourths).

Let’s take the example of Adele’s Someone like You (see the full score here):

Notice that there are three sharps in the key signature. Reading the circle of fifths, three sharps correspond to C major and its relative minor F# minor. We can therefore deduce that this piece is in the key of C major our its relative minor F# minor. 

Check out the late note of the piece – this is the tonic. In the case of Someone Like You, A major is the final note, so we can be sure that the key is A major. 

HELPUL HINT: With an understanding of the order of sharps in the key signature, we now know that the accidentals will be on F, C and G. 

Incredible, right? Now you should be able to use this information to help you with all the sheet music you come across on Jellynote!

Second Use: Building a Major and Minor Scale 

If you’re like me and find yourself scribbling down on a piece of paper whenever you need to use a major or a minor scale, the circle of fifths will be an enormous help!

Finding the notes of the major scale in a few seconds. 

Let’s say you want to use the scale of F major to compose your next song. Here are the steps to follow: 

The cycle of fifths tells us the F major scale includes one flat.

Our understanding of the order of flats allows us to deduce that the flat note is B♭.

Thus, we find in a few seconds the names of the notes of the F major scale:

F G A B♭C D E

Find the notes of a minor scale in seconds

The same goes for the minor scales. So let’s try to find the notes of the C minor scale. The procedure is exactly the same: 

  • The cycle of fifths tells us the C minor scale has 3 flats and that its major relative is E♭major
  • Our understanding of the order of flats allows us to deduce that the flat notes are :  B, E and A.

So, in a few seconds, we can work out the names of the notes of the C minor natural scale. 

C D E♭F G A♭B♭

Third Use: Writing Sweet Tunes

The circle of fifths shows you the relationship between the twelve parts of the chromatic scale. Remember: is that the closer the tones are to each other in the circle, the better they sound one after the other.

The Circle of Fifths is Particularly Useful For Identifying Neighbouring Keys and Writing Some Sweet Melodies

Similarly, the circle of fifths allows you to easily modulate a key (i.e. switch between keys) when composing a song. The closer the keys are to each other, the easier it will be to switch from one scale to another.  

For example, between C major and G major, there is only one key difference, F#. Between C major and D major, there are 2 different notes : F# and C#. So you can easily navigate from one scale to the other without too many problems.

On the other hand, it will be much more complicated to modulate keys that are very far apart because they will end up having very few common notes.


And there we are! It may seem rather challenging now, but I promise you it’s a really fascinating system and will serve you well throughout your musical career!

Article written by Amy Cimpaye in its original version, translated by William  –

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About author
William Ridd is a writer based in London. After a messy divorce from the clarinet, William decided that playing music wasn’t for him, but he continues to appreciate it and likes writing about it.
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