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Circle of Fifths: A Music Theory Learning Tool

Posted on July 15, 2022

As any aspiring musician and songwriter might know, music theory is not always simple. That’s why you’ll want to use every possible tool that makes memorizing and learning things, such as key signatures, simpler. One such useful tool is the circle of fifths that is relied on by countless musicians, songwriters, and composers. Although it may take some time to nail down completely, the circle of fifths will come in handy as long as you put in the effort to learn how to read it. So let’s have a brief overview of the circle of fifths and how it can help you understand key signatures, building chords, and more.

History of the circle of fifths

The circle of fifths dates back to the 1670s when it was invented by a Ukrainian man named Nikolay Diletsky. The circle of fifths was introduced in Diletsky’s work Grammatika. The circle was intended as a tool for songwriters and composers to help them in their work. A few decades later, in the late 1720s, Johann David Heinichen improved upon Diletsky’s version of the circle of fifths. The end result is what we know as the circle of fifths today.

What is the circle of fifths?

The circle of fifths is a useful tool for learning the general structure of music, and explaining the tool in full would be too much in a short and to-the-point definition. However, simply put, the circle of fifths is a way to visualize the 12 chromatic pitches as a sequence consisting of perfect fifths.

The circle of fifths is a way to visualize all chromatic pitches that are one fifth away from each other. All keys in the circle of fifths correspond to a major scale. On the outer edge of the circle of fifths, you have the major key, whereas the inside of the circle shows the corresponding minor key.

On top of the circle of fifths, you have the C major. The notation above it tells you that it has no sharps or flats. As we read the circle of fifths clockwise, we see that the next one, G major, has a single sharp. The one after that, D major, has two sharps, and so forth. As we move counterclockwise starting from C major, we can see the number of flats in a similar manner all the way up to seven flats.

Circle of Fifths

What is the circle of fifths used for?

The circle of fifths is a useful tool for learning music theory and the general structure of music. However, it is simultaneously a great help in songwriting. The uses for the circle of fifths are numerous, and it has been compared to other similar useful tools, such as the color wheel or the periodic table. Thanks to the circle of fifths, you don’t have to learn all keys by heart but can use the circle instead. Although there are other ways of learning key signatures, chord transitions, and more, the circle of fifths is one of the easiest ones, so make sure to take full advantage of it.

Learn about the circle of fifths and other music terminology

Read more about the circle of fifths and other concepts in our complete Musician’s Glossary article full of music-themed terminology.

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