Music Foundations: Understanding the Circle of Fifths

In this guide exploring the Circle of Fifths, we go in depth into the relationships between chords, why certain chords progressions seem to work better than others, and how to use this knowledge to widen your compositional pallet.


Circle of Fifths Overview

The Circle of Fifths chart is a helpful visual representation that shows the relationships between the twelve tones of the Chromatic Scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated Major and Minor keys. The Circle of Fifths is used in music theory to find the key of a song, transpose songs or progressions to different keys that work harmonically, and help musicians to understand key signatures, scales, and modes better.

The reason this chart is called the Circle of Fifths is because the sequence of pitches or key tonalities displayed around the circle are seven semitones higher from each other, which is a perfect 5th. Musicians, composers, and DJs use the Circle of Fifths to understand musical relationships among those pitches when composing and harmonizing melodies, building chords progressions, modulating to different keys within a composition, and mixing songs that are harmonically in key with each other.

How It Works

The letters displayed on the outer area of the circle represent the major scale, and the inner letters represent the minor scale. The top of the circle starts with the letter C, which represents C major. Proceeding clockwise, the next letter is G major, which is a fifth higher than C major. Go up another fifth and you get D major. If you keep ascending fifths, you eventually visit all twelve notes in the chromatic scale before landing back on C major. The minor scale works in the same way, starting with A minor.

The Circle of Fifths can also be represented as the Circle of Fourths when moving counter-clockwise around the circle. Moving clockwise around the circle adds sharps to the key signatures while moving counter-clockwise around the circle adds flats to the key signatures. If you start on C major and descend a fourth, you get F major. Go down another fourth and you get Bb major. Keep going down by fourths, and once again, you visit every note in the chromatic scale before landing back on C.

Scales and keys that are close to each other on the circle sound pleasing and are harmonically related because they share many common notes. For example, C major and G major have six shared notes in their scales. C major and F major also have six shared notes, while C major and A minor share all seven of the same notes. Because C major and G major are very closely related, a move from one to the other sounds smooth and logical. However, moving from C major to B major would sound jarring and strange because they are further distanced on the circle, and have only one note in common. What this means is if you write a melody in C major it will work musically with either G or F major. This relationship is why the chord progression (I-IV-V/C-F-G) is so common. The further you go either to the right or left on the circle, the fewer notes the scales have in common, which increases the chance for clashing melodies, chords, or songs if you are using the chart to keep your DJ mixes harmonically in key.

This closeness factor also works for relative minor scales. For example, if you play the chord progression C maj / E min / D min / G maj / C maj, the chords will all work together nicely, and any combination of melody notes in the scale of C major will work as well. Notice, E minor is the relative minor of G major, which is also one step away from C major. However, if you change E minor to E major: C maj / E maj / D min/ G maj / C maj, the E major will sound very out of place because it is four steps away from C major and only shares three notes (E, A, B). Whereas all the other chords in the progression are only one step away from each other and share more common notes, which makes transitions sound more smooth. The change from E minor to E major seems like a minor alteration, but it dramatically affects the harmonic progression we are expecting to hear.

Michael Emenau P.K.A. “MNO” demonstrates this chord progression relationship below.

Please note, just because it a chord is far away from the tone center (Key) does not mean it is wrong.  There are no wrong notes! The chart describes what we have agreed upon over the last 1000 years what is “Correct”, and with a deeper understanding of harmony, the circle can logically get you from Cmaj to E maj and sound fluid.  Believe me, the chart is pretty useful:)” - Michael Emenau 

Expand Your Musical Options

Working with the Circle of Fifths is extremely helpful and creative. It’s a great tool to identify a group of similar chords, notes, or songs that work together musically while still respecting the original key. As a creative tool, the Circle of Fifths can be used to push your music in different ways by choosing a series of seemingly unrelated chords and rearranging them to discover new possibilities or find new ways to structure your songs using distant keys for different sections.

Whether you’re looking to make subtle changes in your chord progressions or take your music to different horizons, the simple harmonic relationships of the Circle of Fifths will augment your compositional toolbox.


BONUS: Ableton Live users, check out this site featuring a free project that takes the Circle of Fifths to the extreme.


EDU Summer Sessions

Music Foundations Program

Unravel electronic music’s origins, build your chops, learn musical language and theory, and make and play music the way you want. Students will develop a deeper understanding of the roots and lineage of a variety of electronic and dance music genres, strengthen their keyboard skills, and learn valuable music theory, deepening their creative practice and facilitating effective collaborations with musical partners.

About This Program

The best producers, DJs, and musicians in the world strive to be well-rounded. So should you. In Dubspot’s Music Foundations Program, you’ll explore three major aspects of music: rhythmic theory, melodic theory, and critical listening.

Most pioneering early electronic musicians had years of conservatory training in theory and performance but had access to very limited technologies. In today’s musical world, it’s the opposite: we have a powerful and versatile array of electronic music making tools at our fingertips, but often fall short in our theoretical understanding of how electronic music works.

Our Music Foundations program is designed to fill this gap and provide training in fundamental skills and concepts with the electronic musician, DJ, and producer in mind. In this course, you’ll build your chops and learn the basics of musical language and theory so that you can make and play the music you want. You will also develop a deeper understanding of the roots and lineage of a variety of electronic and dance music genres, and explore compositional techniques and song structure. The weekly homework lessons for all three courses have been designed using Ableton Live, and along the way you’ll also learn the basics of Ableton and how to use it as a powerful tool to improve your musicianship in a variety of ways.

What’s Included

  • Music Foundations Level 1: Pads & Rhythmic Theory
  • Music Foundations Level 2: Keys & Melodic Theory
  • Music Foundations Level 3: Critical Listening

Additional Information

Visit the Music Foundations course page for detailed information on this program here.

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