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

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

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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?

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

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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).

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.


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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.


I was SO hoping that 4152637 was going to be consecutive digits of pi, but alas not. Not any early ones, at any rate.

Blues in Ab - An aging, cantankerous Albert King threw that particular curved ball at the emerging young gun Stevie Ray Vaughan at one point in their jam filmed in Ontario 1983. (It’s 90mins concert length, available on youtube, highly recommend)
Reckon SRV must have taken a sneak look at the Circle off-camera, cos he seems to manage it OK

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Thanks for this Richard, very helpful.

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Oh yes, that would have been pleasing! :slight_smile:

SRV had his guitar tuned to Eb so a blues in Ab would have been just like a blues in A in terms of positional play, open strings etc.

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That’s been a cunning way to stealthily make me put my transcribing skills to the test. That’s so sneaky. :rofl:
Didn’t know that he tuned down, but I’m pretty sure that in this film he’s in standard tuning. They are doing this epic version of Texas flood in F# minor, taking turns at solos and then at 30mins into the vid Albert says “Hey I wanna take it up to… A flat” as they go into Stormy Monday
It’s not that easy to tell what’s going on because there is alot, alot of string bending happening but in SRV’s solo at 36 mins you get a pretty clear shot and he lands “home” the tonic Ab clearly second string 9th fret

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Not only that but I will write and record a hit record using a 2-6-3-7 chord progression for you! haha :wink:

Yes, more to come on other uses / chords.

He must have been in standard then … perhaps Albert was being a little naughty and giving little Stevie something to chew on!

He certainly was!
Albert’s gamesmanship in this session also included lighting up and smoking a pipe, plus filing his nails during some of SRV’s solos, pretending to be bored,
If you’ve not seen the film, it’s well worth a look
It was made in 1983, just as SRV was breaking the big time, and Albert is the old guard. Plus there’s not many places where you get to see Albert King playing rhythm
(1) Albert King & Stevie Ray Vaughan In Session 1983 - YouTube


The Circle of Fifths Part 4 - where does it go? [b] major & relative minor scales plus pentatonic scales

We have already seen how the Circle of Fifths can be a quick reference tool to find all seven notes of any major scale. Continuing with scales for the moment, it should be known that the seven notes of any major scale are identical to the seven notes of their relative minor scales. All relative minor scales have their root at the 6th scale degree of the major scale. From the constant sequence that we saw earlier, the root notes of the major and relative minor would be 1 and 6 in this list:

4, 1, 5, 2, 6, 3, 7

The root of the major scale is in the second position and the root of the relative minor is a further three places beyond it (the 1 and the 6 above).

Using the same three examples of C major, Ab major and E major, we can now view and describe these clusters from the Circle of Fifths in two ways – major scale and relative minor scale.

The C major scale and the relative A minor scale

C Major scale
C, D, E, F, G, A, B

A minor scale
A, B, C, D, E, F, G

The Ab major scale and the relative F minor scale

Ab Major scale
Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G

F minor scale
F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb

The E major scale and the relative C# minor scale

E Major scale
E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#

C# minor scale
C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A, B

To repeat - when finding the major scale, for any consecutive seven notes, the root of the major scale is in the second position and the root of the relative minor is a further three places beyond it.

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Another way of viewing this is that the roots of any major scale / relative minor scale pairing can always be found by imagining pointers set at right-angles to each other. Visualising the hands of a clock can help.

Another way of viewing this is to rotate the Circle of Fifths so that the major scale root is at the 12 o’clock position. The relative minor root will then always be at the 3 o’clock position.

C major ← → A minor

Ab major ← → F minor

E major ← → C# minor

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Following on in smooth fashion, this view of major scales and their relative minors leads us to somewhere hopefully comfortable and even familiar - pentatonic scales.

We need to know, if we don’t already, that the major pentatonic scale is a subset of the major scale, formed by removing two of its notes. Similarly, the minor pentatonic scale is a subset of the minor scale, removing two of its notes.

Let us look once again at the sequence of scale degrees as they appear around the Circle of Fifths.

4, 1, 5, 2, 6, 3, 7

It just so happens that the two extremes in this sequence, the 4th and the 7th, are the two notes removed from a major scale to create a major pentatonic scale.

4, 1, 5, 2, 6, 3, 7

And it just so happens that those remaining five notes are also the exact same notes that comprise the related minor pentatonic scale.