The Circle of Fifths - where does it come from, where does it go?

This alternate tale makes use of brevity and relies on remembering the little trick of using right-angled pointers to identify relative major and minor scales.

Let us start on comfortable and familiar ground before we venture to new territories.

We have previously seen three major-minor relatives namely:

  • C major and A minor
  • Ab major and F minor
  • E major and C# minor

Using this new concept of an inner wheel, we could depict those relatives thus:

Those are just three examples of relative major-minor scale pairings. There are, of course, twelve major scales each having its own relative minor. Using the right angle pointers we can quickly identify all at once.

Starting at the 12 o’clock position with C major & A minor and moving clockwise each time, the following diagram has right-angled pointers which show all twelve major scale - minor scale relative pairings.

  • C major - A minor
  • G major - E minor
  • D major - B minor
  • A major - F# minor
  • E major - C# minor
  • B major - G# minor
  • Gb major - Eb minor
  • Db major - Bb minor
  • Ab major - F minor
  • Eb major - C minor
  • Bb major - G minor
  • F major - D minor

The outer wheel remains fixed. For our purposes here, the outer wheel represents major chords, tonic chords, I chords. The inner wheel can now be completed and populated with relative minor chords. Every major chord will have its relative minor housed within.

We reach a swift conclusion to this story and a happy ending for all.
A picture of domestic bliss, joyful unions, harmonious homes.
And they all lived happily ever after.
The complete Circle of Fifths with both outer and inner wheels.

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Nice work!

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Comment, questions, discussion …

Topic continues with part 6 here.

Chuffed to be tagged in one of my favourite bits of theory :smiley:
another minor victory :wink:


And I’m chuffed that you dropped by and brought your wit with you. :slight_smile:

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The Circle of Fifths Part 6 - where does it go? [d] finding all major & minor chords in any key

We have now established several crucial aspects to our Circle of Fifths.

The notes reading clockwise are the 5ths that give rise to its name.

Those notes, taken as a seven-note consecutive group will give the notes of any major scale – with the root of the major scale being the second note clockwise.

From there it is an easy leap to being able to view those notes as scale degrees. And the order, as we saw earlier, of scale degrees clockwise is 4, 1, 5, 2, 6, 3, 7.

We then can make another small and obvious leap that those scale degrees can represent the root notes of the diatonic chords of the major scale being viewed. The first three in order clockwise can be taken as the root notes of the IV, I and V chords – diatonic major chords that form the basis of pretty much all rock ‘n’ roll and blues). The subsequent three in order are the root notes of the ii, vi and iii minor chords. The diminished comes last.

We then created an inner wheel in two ways, both with the same net result. The inner wheel was labelled with (minor) chord symbols rather than just alphabetical note names as its purpose is to group minor chords on the inner wheel with major chords on the outer wheel.

The means by which we did this illustrates the main functionality of having the inner wheel also.

And it is that we shall look at next.


The first stop off is so obvious as to require little introduction or exposition.

For any single given position on the outer wheel, when taken as a major chord, the exact same position on the inner wheel shows the minor chord that is the relative minor to that major chord. Two matching positions on the two wheels show the major I and the minor vi chords of any major key.

To use the same keys as we have throughout, namely C, Ab and E we have:

  • C major and A minor
  • Ab major and F minor
  • E major and C# minor

What of the other minor chords?

What can we do with the grouping of three majors and three minors on the outer and inner wheels respectively?

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Let us begin by, once again, considering the C major scale and the diatonic chords of C major.

circle5ths 6 01

To repeat, when viewed as major chords, the outer wheel orders those as the IV, I and V major chords diatonic to the key of C. The order of the minor chords on the inner wheel is Dm, Am then Em reading clockwise. Those match with the ii, vi and iii chords from the harmonised C major scale.

The most commonly used diatonic chords (the majors and minors) are all grouped together as a cluster of six.

This is a main point of emphasis.
Major chords IV, I and V on the outer wheel, minor chords ii, vi and iii on the inner wheel.

We have a IV, I, V sequence on the outer wheel (F, C, G) and we have a ii, vi, iii sequence on the inner wheel (Dm, Am, Em).

We can see also that C major and Am, the I and the vi, the relative major and minor, are in alignment, in matching positions.
The major IV and the minor ii (F and Dm) are aligned.
The major V and the minor iii (G and Em) are aligned.

We have a clear pattern, a notable sequence.
We have IV, I, V on the outer wheel and ii, vi, iii on the inner wheel.
Is this pattern exclusive to the key of C major or does it apply to other keys?
Let us discover more by revisiting our old friends Ab major and E major.

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The Ab major scale and the diatonic chords of Ab major.

circle5ths 6 05.

We have a IV, I, V sequence on the outer wheel (Db, Ab, Eb.
We have a ii, vi, iii sequence on the inner wheel (Bbm, Fm, Cm).
The same sequencing of major and minor chords as seen with the key of C major.
We can see also that Ab major and Fm (the relative major and minor) are in alignment.
The major IV and the minor ii are aligned.
The major V and the minor iii are aligned.

The E major scale and the diatonic chords of E major.

circle5ths 6 06.

Once again we have a IV, I, V sequence on the outer wheel and a ii, vi, iii sequence on the inner wheel.
Just as with the key of C major and Ab major.
We can see also that E major and C#m, the I and the vi, the relative major and minor, are in alignment.
The major IV and the minor ii, the A and the F#m, are aligned.
The major V and the minor iii, the B and the G#m are aligned.

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From these three examples we can, again, draw a conclusion that the patterns, the sequences we have discovered, apply to all twelve of the major scales, all twelve of the ‘root notes’ on the outer wheel, all twelve positions on the Circle of Fifths.

The IV, I, V on the outer and the ii, vi, iii on the inner is a fundamental arrangement that applies in all cases.

It can be thought of as a grid that can be laid over any cluster of six chords (three major / three minor) to identify not just the first six diatonic chords of a key, also, crucially, which is which in terms of their order.

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Here is the fully labelled Circle of Fifths again.

Remember that every note on the outer wheel, when taken as a major tonic, has its relative minor in a matching position on the inner wheel.

Take the note F at the 11 o’clock position on the outer wheel.
When viewed as the tonic, when considering the key of F major, it is the major I tonic chord and the D minor is its relative minor vi chord.
That same F note, when viewed from the perspective of the harmonised C major scale (above) was the major IV chord and the D minor within was the minor ii chord.
The position of the F on the wheel has not altered but its function within the key being considered, its diatonic role, has. So too has the function of the D minor within.

This is the result of all those overlapping scales we saw in the early stages of developing the Circle of Fifths. The function of the chords on the outer and inner wheel varies depending on which note is taken as the root of the tonic chord - hence which major key is being analysed.

There are other patterns and properties worth noting.

The major IV and the V chords for any of the twelve keys appear in alphabetical order. For example F and G (in the key of C major) or Db and Eb (in the key of Ab major). As we should expect from knowledge of the major scale and harmonising to find the diatonic chords. The IV and V will always follow each other alphabetically.

Note too that on the Circle of Fifths outer wheel, the IV and V chords have the tonic note positioned between them. They are situated two spaces apart. When reading clockwise, the V is always two places beyond the IV. This simple concept can easily be converted to a guitar fretboard to match the fact that the major V is always found two frets higher than (two semitones above) the major IV chord. (Excepting if played at fret 20 or higher.)

Similarly, the minor ii and the iii chords are two spaces apart on the inner wheel. On a guitar fretboard, the minor iii is two frets higher than the minor ii chord. And their letter names follow sequentially in alphabetical order.

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It is time for another quiz.
Using the outer wheel’s major IV, I, V sequence and the inner wheel’s ii, vi, iii sequence, try to answer these questions.

  1. What are the ii and the iii chords in the key of D major?
  2. Which key has Cm and Dm as its ii and iii chords?
  3. If you were to play a I, vi, IV, V progressions in the key of B, what chords would you play?
  4. A diatonic progression has the chords Em, D, A, G and F#m. What key is it in?
  5. Which Roman numerals would describe the diatonic chords Bbm, Ebm, Db, Fm and Ab and in which key would you find them?
  6. You play a I, iii, IV, ii, V chord progression in the key of G but want to transpose it to better suit your vocal range. You place a capo at fret 5 and play the same chord shapes. What key are you now playing in? What actual chords would you be playing?
Click here to read the hidden answers ...
  1. E minor and F# minor respectively.
  2. The key of Bb major.
  3. B, G#m, E, F#. NB: Gb is not an acceptable enharmonic equivalent for the V chord in the key of B
  4. The key of D. They are the ii, I, V, IV and ii chords respectively.
  5. vi, ii, I, iii, V in the key of Db
  6. The key of C with actual chords of C, Em, F, Dm, G

Comments, questions …

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Bookmarking these for a September read, once the house gets back to normal and family are UK side. In the mean time thanks again for these really digestible and easy to swallow explanations !


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Cue a Green Day song there Toby …

Ha tell me about that one. Been on it for a few years and still can’t tie the vox n gtr in one. One day, maybe before October starts but need to get back on that particular darned horse !!
Shoot maybe I’ll just multi track it and get the freakin box ticked and move on.

Hi Richard, I’m enjoying your explanations. The relationships shown in this ‘simple’ diagram are really quite amazing!

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Thanks very much Dave. :slight_smile:

The Circle of Fifths Part 7 - where does it go [e] playing chords and having fun in major and minor keys

We have now seen how taking a full grouping of six chords comprising three major from the outer wheel and three minor from the matching portion of the inner wheel give us the six main chords of a major key, the six diatonic chords of a major scale. And from that basis, using some or all of those chords in combination, we can play thousands of songs.
In the practical theory course Justin lists ten common chord progressions, using the Roman numeral system.
They are:

  • A → I – V – vi – IV

  • B → I – vi – ii – V

  • C → I – vi – IV – V

  • D → I – vi – iii – V

  • E → I – iii – IV – V

  • F → I – V – IV – V

  • G → I – V – ii – IV

  • H → iii – vi – ii – V

  • I → vi – IV – V – I

  • J → I – IV – I – V

Progression A] is the four-chord progression famously used by Axis of Awesome in their four-chord medley.

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It is worth pausing here and taking some time to explore these ten progressions.

Play them in different keys. Select a root note / tonic chord from the outer wheel of the Circle of Fifths. That will be the I chord. Locate and use whichever of the ii, iii, IV, V or vi chords are then within the chosen progression. Play the progressions slow, medium or fast tempo. Play the progression in 4/4 (4 beats per bar) or 3/4 (3 beats per bar – waltz time) or 6/8 (6 1/8th beats per bar accenting the 1 and 4).

It will be valuable to take some time and linger in this space, to experiment, to try things out to have fun, to stretch and listen and see what sounds good. You will likely hear some familiar progressions that you can identify and associate with many songs. You may, hopefully, create some progressions that inspire you, make you want to hum a melody, write a lyric, compose a song or record a looper backing track to improvise over (using the appropriate major scale for your key).

Have fun and enjoy the simple act of doing here, being musical.