Understanding the Circle of Fifths
Updated: Feb 17, 2019
The circle of fifths in music theory is used to represent the intervals between each of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale ( C, C#/Db, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, B, C ). In the chromatic scale, the interval between each note in one half step. On the outside of the circle, the notes are separated by seven half steps which is equivalent to seven half steps.
In the very beginning of my learning journey, I tried hard to memorize the circle of fifths without actually understanding the fundamentals behind why it works and how. This was extremely difficult for me to do. I had to force myself to learn how to create the circle from scratch without just remembering where the notes are placed. I will try demonstrating with images, each of the intervals represented on both the inner and outer circle.
1. Lets first start with the relationship between the two notes, C natural and G natural.
Starting on C natural, the first note on the top of the circle, move seven half steps or five whole steps up from C and stop. You'll find yourself on G natural. This relationship is known as a "perfect fifth." All the highlighted yellow keys on the piano represents all the seven steps within the interval. C Natural is the highlighted red note. The red highlight indicates the starting note to count up from. G natural is the last note landed on after counting and is the next note to write on the circle. Below, I will place images for the rest of the right side of the circle.
2. Interval Between G Natural and D Natural
3. Interval Between D Natural and A Natural
4. Interval Between A Natural and E Natural
5. Interval Between E Natural and B Natural
6. Interval Between B Natural and F Sharp
Lets look at the relationship between these two notes. Why is there a sharp next to the F? When you start on B natural and complete all of the seven half steps, you land on the black key, F#/Gb. This note can go by either letter name, but in this case, it must be called F#. The note cannot be called Gb because when counting 5 letters away from B, you land on F. If we let the note be called Gb, that would be 6 letter names up from B, which does not work in this circle.
B C D E F# - Correct
B C D E F Gb - Incorrect
7. Interval Between F Sharp and D Flat
You will notice that on the left side of this circle where we land on some black keys, we refer to the notes as their flats as opposed to their sharps. When we use the sharp letter names for some of these notes, we tend to run into double sharps, double flats and excessive uses of accidentals. Even though the note will sound the same, regardless of which letter name we use, in music, we'd much rather use key signatures that are easier to write and comprehend, depending on the circumstance. Heres an example :
This shows two ways to write the same black piano key, but clearly, Bb is the easier option to understand with less accidentals and no double flats or sharps. With A sharp, every note in the scale has an accidental, along with three double sharps. The note C double sharp is technically the note D on the piano. This can cause unnecessary complications when composing and reading, all which can be avoided when choosing to use the flat letter name for the same sounding note.
With the case of this interval between F# and C#/Db, the easier key signature is Db, consisting of 5 flat accidentals in it's key signature instead of C sharp, where every note in the scale has a sharp accidental, totaling 7 sharps.
8. Interval Between D Flat and A Flat
9. Interval Between A Flat and E Flat
10. Interval Between E Flat and B Flat
11. Interval Between B Flat and F Natural
12. Interval between F Natural Back to C Natural
Thats it! We've completed the outside of the circle! I hope that these diagrams helped to show the relationships between each note in a way that makes sense. Feel free to leave any questions, comments and any suggestions for me! Check out my post on relative minors to understand the corresponding note on the inside of the circle.