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

The Circle of Fifths is, simultaneously, the Circle of Fourths. Depending on whether we read around the circle in a clockwise or an anticlockwise direction.


Some musicians prefer their reference to be the viewpoint of the Circle of Fourths and place that clockwise around the circle, meaning on such circles the fifths read anticlockwise. That is all down to preference and usage. There is no inherent difference between them apart from their circular direction.
Some musicians spend their lives playing in keys with lots of flat notes and they may prefer to view it as the Circle of Fourths. Not guitarists of course - ask a guitarist to play in the key of Ab and they might just choke on their own horror!

Anyway, after this little sojourn, the next part will take us nicely back to the Circle of Fifths, in a clockwise direction.



Comment, questions, discussion …

Topic continues with Part 3 below.

All good stuff Richard and a timely review. Will have to park your latest excursions, until the family are back in Blighty. Keep up the good work.



1 Like

I’m curious about this. I know certain instruments have preferred keys, or that certain keys are more suited to certain instruments.

Obviously, on guitar C, G, D, A and E (circle of 5ths!) are the most common keys. I think Bb and Eb (?) are associated with horns (trumpet, sax). For example, I’ve heard that Johnny B. Goode was pitched in Bb to accomodate the horn section (wait, are there horns on Johnny B. Goode?)

Also, I think I read somewhere that expert piano players prefer to play on the black keys, does anybody know if that is true? I’d be curious to find out which keys are “typical” of which instruments and why.

1 Like

Yes, a standard trumpet is tuned to Bb (with a limited range of about two octaves) and a piccolo trumpet to Eb.

I don’t know any technical reasons and am no piano player so this is my imagination answering - the black keys present a changing landscape (two together then three together) so give the player some points of interest and waymarkers to keep them alert and able to navigate, rather than the flatlands of the unbroken white keys.

The Circle of Fifths Part 3 - where does it go? [a] major scales

The next instalment of our story will take us to places where the Circle of Fifths begins to reveal some of its uses and usefulness.

We have seen where it comes from, now … where does it go?


The first, perhaps most obvious, start would be to mention that the twelve notes around the Circle of Fifths are the twelve notes of western music, the twelve notes around the note circle, the twelve key signatures. There are no duplicates. All notes / key signatures are represented, once each. Clearly, they do not follow one another in alphabetical order. As mentioned earlier, the arrangement derives from another source, not the alphabet.

It must follow that if all notes are represented then all notes of all major scales can be found somewhere around the Circle of Fifths. Not only is this necessarily true, it is also spectacularly true that all seven notes of any major scale can be found grouped in succession, all adjacent to each other with no gaps.

1 Like

Hopefully everyone reading this knows that the C major scale contains only natural notes, no flats or sharps. Let us look at the Circle of Fifths. Let us find seven notes that are all natural, containing no sharps or flats, the seven notes that make up the C major scale in fact.

You should be able to identify these seven adjacent notes:

They all sit happily alongside one another, friendly neighbours around the circle.

The root note C is not in any obvious position, it does not conveniently come first when reading the notes clockwise for instance. It happens to be in second position from that perspective. Nor, as has been mentioned several times, do the notes appear in alphabetical order. But these inconveniences are really not that at all. Merely minor surprises or small deviations away from any expectation we may have had. And they will reveal some hidden patterns and order soon enough.

Look at the notes again, knowing that they all belong in the C major scale:

C Ionian

We could reasonably ask whether there be any logic or sequence to the ordering of the scale degrees when we read them on the Circle of Fifths.

circle5ths 3 03

That seems rather ad hoc and random, certainly nothing to raise any hopes of an exciting or revealing pattern as yet.

1 Like

Let us look at a different major scale.
What about Ab major? A real favourite key … said no guitarist, ever haha!

circle5ths 3 04

Can we find all of those seven notes somewhere in adjacent positions on the Circle of Fifths?


That’s interesting – once again the root note is in the second position when reading clockwise. Let us rearrange to match the clockwise order on the Circle of Fifths.

circle5ths 3 05

4, 1, 5, 2, 6, 3, 7 – we saw that with the scale degrees of the C major scale also.

Is that just coincidence?


Let’s push on and try another major scale.

Ab major may not be the most guitar-friendly but E major surely is right?
The blues in E.
Come on!
Everyone’s played the blues in E.

E major scale

circle5ths 3 06

Let’s find those notes on the Circle of Fifths.

Well damn and blast!
Where the heck are those notes?
Are we being led a merry dance along a blind alley here?

Well … no, not exactly.
But we do need to think carefully.

Only one sharp note is shown on the Circle of Fifths as presented so far. And it is F# at the six o’clock position, the enharmonic with Gb. All for the reasons discussed previously when we placed the four note clusters in their overlapping positions. But we need to always be mindful that all notes can be named by an enharmonic equivalent. Which means all remaining flat notes around the Circle of Fifths can be given a second name.

Bb = A#
Eb = D#
Ab = G#
Db = C#

With those inclusions we can view the Circle of Fifths with a more complete set of labels.

We should now be able to quickly find the seven notes of the E major scale, knowing that they will all be in consecutive positions. We should also now be anticipating that E is the second note when reading clockwise. And indeed it is. We find these notes.

Do we get the same (seemingly) random ordering of scale degrees too?

circle5ths 3 09

Yes we do.
That is quite the thing isn’t it?
Random turns out not to be random but extremely consistent and predictable.


If we were to continue identifying major scales in this manner we would find several immutable properties.
The seven notes of all major scales can be found in a single arc with all notes in adjacent positions.
The root note is always in the second position (when reading clockwise).
The order of the scale degrees reads 4, 1, 5, 2, 6, 3, 7 (also reading clockwise).

1 Like

There are some important points to understand here. Both of which should be so obvious that if they were not already in our conscious thoughts we will be wondering why not.

Clockwise from the root note is the 5th scale degree, Come on – we expected that didn’t we? This is the Circle of Fifths.

Also, anticlockwise from the root note is the 4th scale degree. That was hopefully made clear when we diverted to the Circle of Fourths earlier and travelled anticlockwise right-to-left.

4 — 1 — 5

4th — Root — 5th

Pick a note, any note, anywhere at all on the Circle of Fifths.
Call it the root of a major scale.
One step clockwise is the 5th scale degree of that major scale.
One step anticlockwise is the 4th scale degree of that major scale.



Let’s think in chords for a moment.

The root, 4th and 5th scale degrees give rise to the I, IV and V chords.

I - the tonic.

IV - the sub-dominant.

V - the dominant.

Now we’re trailing along them blues alleys. Three chords, twelve bars, all of life’s emotions.

Or, looked at in a straight ahead, galloping rhythm, we’re rocking and rolling. Three chords and the truth.

Rock ’n’ roll and blues and a million hit songs use the I, IV and V.


1 Like

Wow. Whoa. What a beauty.

Pick any position on the Circle of Fifths.
Make it the root / tonic of a major chord.
Go clockwise for the V and anticlockwise for the IV.
Ladies and gentleman - we have an instant reference, access all areas, sure-fire winner of a tool to help us find the I, IV and V chord of any key.

Let’s try it.

1 Like

The key of D major

I = D IV = ? V = ?

The key of Ab major (oh no … not that awkward thing again)
I = Ab IV = ? V = ?

The key of F# major (careful with the enharmonic equivalents here)
I = F# IV = ? V = ?

All good? Click to check …


The key of D major:
I = D IV = G V = A

The key of Ab major):
I = Ab IV = Db V = Eb

The key of F#:
I = F# IV = B V = C#
Here we must use C# for the V (not Db) as the key signature is named using a sharp and flats / sharps do not combine in the same key.

Hopefully that is a useful and easily used feature for the Circle of Fifths.
Next time you’re having a jam and someone shouts out … a 12-bar in the key of Bb you will know the I, IV and V chords are Bb, Eb and F respectively.


Comment, questions, discussion …

Topic continues with Part 4 here.

1 Like

So the 1-4-5 is pretty easy to remember. But are you going to give us a sure-fire way of remembering the 2-6-3-7? :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like

Here’s how to do that: 1) write down the major scale; 2) under each note write a number; 3) read off the chords you need. In the key of C:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B
1  2  3  4  5  6  7

2-6-3-7 is Dm, Am, Em, Bdim. I suppose you have to know that 2, 3 and 6 are minor chords and 7 is a diminished chord. You also have to know the notes in a major scale. Some things you really do just have to learn.