The circle of fifths. An introduction to chord progressions.

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This free lesson on the circle of fifths will help you to memorize the key signatures and the number of sharps or flats in each key.

It is also a useful lesson for all musicians who want a better understanding of common chord progressions and their use in playing and writing music.

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What is the circle of fifths?

It is foundational in music education for all instrumentalists and songwriters.

It is very helpful in deciphering and memorizing all the key signatures.

Because  of its clever design, the circle of fifths is also very handy in composing, and harmonizing melodies and moving to different keys within a single composition.


The circle of fifths is a great tool for memorizing Key Signatures!

If you review the lesson on major scales, you will recall that the C Major scale contains no sharp or flat notes - C D E F G A B.

This is the only Major scale with only white notes on the piano keyboard.

The key of C is one of my favorites both for teaching basic theory formulas as well as for ease of fingering.

All other keys will one or more sharp or flat notes.

Each key has a unique key signature. (that grouping of sharps or flats just after the time signature at the beginning of a piece.)

If we start with the fifth note of the C major scale and build a major scale starting there we get the G Major scale - G A B C D E F#.

If you built the scale correctly using your major scale formula you will notice that the G major scale contains one sharp (F#).

Now, lets build a third scale starting from the 5th note of the G Major scale .

You will now be looking at and sounding the D major scale - D E F# G A B C#.

Notice that we added an additional sharp and now have two sharps (F# and C#).

Let's repeat the process again starting from the 5th note of the D Major scale.

We now have the A Major scale - A B C# D E F# G#.

Can you see the pattern starting to develop?

The A Major scale has one more sharp than the D Major scale.

Another pattern is that the added sharp in each case uses the letter name of the note preceding the name of the scale in our musical alphabet. G scale adds F#, D scale adds C# etc....

Any self respecting circle begins where it ends and if we follow the developing pattern and continue to form our scales building on the fifth note of the previous scale we will end up where we started with the Key of C again.

G is the 5th note of the C Major scale.

D is the 5th note of the G Major scale.

A is the 5th note of the D Major scale.

E is the 5th note of the A Major scale.

B is the 5th note of the E Major scale.

F# is the 5th note of the B Major scale.

C# is the 5th note of the F# Major scale.

G# is the 5th note of the C# Major scale.

D# is the 5th note of the G# Major scale.

A# is the 5th note of the D# Major scale.

F is the 5th note of the A# Major scale.

C is the 5th note of the F Major scale.

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Circle of Fifths.


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So what about the Flat Keys?

If we start again with the C major scale (C D E F G A B), but start our next scale on the forth note rather than the fifth we get the F Major scale- F G A Bb C D E.

Notice that the key of F Major has one flat.

If we build our next scale from the 4th note of the F Major scale, we get the Bb major - Bb C D Eb F G A.

Notice that we now have two flats.

Notice the same pattern emerging as with the sharps.

If you build a Major scale from the 4th note of another Major scale, the new scale will have one more flat than the scale you started with.

Once again the circle will begin where it ends.

C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb B E A D G C

The bottom of the circle.

It gets a little messy when it comes to the keys with 6 or 7 sharps or flats.

In music theory they can be spelled either way.

If you are a sight reader or a theory junkie it will make a difference.

As for myself, when I am playing in those keys I prefer to think of them as B major, G flat and D flat.

The circle of fifths as a chord finder.

As a songwriting tool the circle can be most helpful.

Pick any Key and call it the I, chord. for example E.

The symbol to the left or counter clockwise will be the IV chord in this case A major, and the symbol clockwise will be the V chord, or B major.

The relative minor chords.

The inside the circle symbols written in small letters tell us the relative minor scales or chords.

So from any given position on the circle of fifths wheel there are 5 different places to go chord wise that will flow in a harmonically pleasing way. Two major and three minor.

So a C major chord will flow naturally to F major, G major, D minor, E minor, or A minor.

Of course there are many more possibilities for chord motion but those are the most common.

A helpful exercise.

Playing the exercise below will lead you through all the major seventh chords moving in 4ths or counter clockwise through the wheel.

The root motion will be up a perfect 4th then down a perfect fifth. and will give your hands the feeling of common chord motion.

About this exercise.

Read it only until you can see the and feel the patterns in you fingers. It is not a sight reading exercise.

It is designed to help you to recognize the chords you are playing as well as to get you comfortable with how they feel.

Try the chords in both hands together. You will need to learn the chord motion in both hands as well as the root motion.

Final note.

As always if you have any questions, additions, or comments about this lesson on the circle of fifths drop me a line using the contact form provided below. Love to hear from you!!

Continue with common chord progressions.

Click the link below for a discussion and helpful exercises on some of the more common chord progressions.

Some common chord progressions

from circle of fifths to HOME

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