Uses of the Circle of Fifths – Lesson 2

Welcome to lesson 2 on the Circle of Fifths!

In lesson one, we learned how to read the Circle of Fifths and how to make it ourselves.

If you’re not up to date with that, it might be better to read lesson 1 first. I think the two lessons work better in pairs.

This lesson will be more practical. We’ll talk about the uses of the Circle of Fifths. There are many ways we can use it to our advantage. I’ll be showing you a few techniques that will make music theory, in general, a lot easier.

Uses of the Circle of Fifths

There are many practical uses to the Circle of Fifths. In this article I’m going to talk about:

  1. Transposing Songs
  2. Borrowing Notes
  3. Finding Relative Chords
  4. Building Chord Progressions

Transposing Songs

The Circle of Fifths helps us identify scales and see their relationship with neighboring scales. This is great for songwriting purposes. If you were to play a song in C and wanted to modulate into a new key, G would be a great option. Why?

We can see on the circle that C has no sharps or flats. We know this because it’s all the way on top of the circle (at 0). G major has only one sharp (it is at 1 o’clock). This means C and G share six out of seven notes.

All the notes are the same except for F and F#.

The further notes are apart on the circle, the fewer notes they have in common, and the less natural they will sound together. So coming from C (0 sharps), a modulation into B (5 sharps) would be a lot harder.

Borrowing Notes

We don’t even have to do a full transposition. Sometimes adding one note from a neighboring key signature can already be magical. The keys of C major and G major had six out of seven notes in common, except for that F# in G.

So let’s stay in C but borrow that F#. Here’s simple chord progression:

Am – Dm – Em – G

These are all chords from the C major scale. We now just need to add an F# somewhere.

A nice chord to do this is D minor. F is the minor third in that chord. If we were to replace the F with an F#, it wouldn’t be a minor chord anymore. It would simply be D major because F# is the major third of D.

We can now play:

Am – D – Em – G

And those are the beginning chords of Karma Police by Radiohead, so you know you’re onto greatness here.

Finding Relative Chords

Each major scale has a relative minor scale. These are basically the same scales. They share the same notes, but they just start somewhere else. The minor scale starts on the sixth note in the major scale.

The relative scale of C major is A minor.

When you look at our Circle of Fifths, we can see that the A is three notes removed from C.

This goes for every note on the circle of fifths. The relative of G is E, the relative of Eb is C, the relative of A is F#.

This means we can make a separate inner circle. The order of the notes is exactly the same, but all notes are positioned three “hours” earlier.


(Click on the picture for full size)

-The notes on the outside are from the major scale, so they are in uppercase.
-The notes on the inside are from the minor scale, so they are in lowercase.

This will be important when we use the Circle of Fifths to build chords progressions.

Building Chord Progressions

We talked about chord progressions before. The Circle of Fifths is a great tool to simplify the process we talked about in that lesson.

When we pick a note, let’s pick C, and select all the notes that surround it, we can see something really cool.

All the notes in the highlighted circle are notes from the C major scale. That alone is valuable, but it becomes even more valuable when you start thinking about them as chords.

They are already separated in major and minor chords. The uppercase letters (F and G) are major, the lowercase letters (d, a and e) are minor.

So just from drawing a circle around a few notes, we instantly know which chords are in its key. It’s now just a matter of placing the chords in order from I to vii.

Considering it’s the Circle of Fifths going clockwise and the Circle of Fourths going counterclockwise, the major chords are relatively easy to figure out.

-Going clockwise = the circle of fifths, so G = V
-Going counterclockwise = the circle of fourths so F = IV

Considering the I, IV and V are the most used chords in modern pop history, the circle of fifths without relative chords already is incredibly useful.

The order of the minor chords is a bit harder to remember.

I personally do it like this:

  1. You start on the root chord. This chord is in the middle (I).
  2. First, there are two minor chords. Both are on the sides. You start on the left counterclockwise (ii) and go along with the clock (iii).
  3. Then there are two major chords. Both are on the sides. You start on the left counterclockwise (IV) and go along with the clock (V).
  4. Lastly, there is the relative minor chord. This chord is in the middle (vi).

You can follow these steps along in the picture below.

We now have six out of seven chords. Our last chord, the vii chord, is not in our highlighted area. But not to worry. It’s really close.

The vii chord is always the nearest minor chord going clockwise.

So there it is. In a few simple steps, all the chords in a key are now available to you. This technique works anywhere on the circle.

Examples:

The chords of E major are E, F#m, G#m, A, B, C#m, and Ebm (or D#m).
The chords of F major are F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm, and Em.

Etc…

Outro

I personally find the Circle of Fifths extremely useful. If you learn how to draw the circle yourself, it’s just a matter of minutes and you have all this information available to you, wherever you are. And the more you use it, the better you get at it.

At one point you will notice that you don’t have to use mnemonics anymore to write the letters down. It will be common knowledge to you that F# is at 6 o’clock and that it, therefore, has six sharps. Or that G is the fifth of C and C the fourth of G because Caroline got drunk, but you’re really not thinking of Caroline anymore, even though she’s really weird.

So take your time on this. I get that this is a lot of information, but like anything, practice makes perfect. Just knowing that the Circle of Fifths exists, is already a huge advantage.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Happy strumming,

Timo

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