What is the Circle of Fifths?

The circle of fifths is a visual way of showing the relationships between the twelve notes of the chromatic scale (or the twelve different notes). It is a concept that has been around for centuries and used by many musicians.

In other words, we can see it as a way to visualise music theory easily. Even without basic knowledge, the circle of fifths enables you to understand songs better and helps you create your tunes. It is therefore the perfect tool for any musician!

First things first, you may have been wondering for pages on end where that name, 'the circle of fifths', actually comes from. It's quite logical: the circle consists of a sequence of fifths. Do you remember that we discovered the fifth ourselves by using the interval formulas? Instead of searching for it, we can now easily read it from one (or both) circles. How to find a fifth from a certain scale? Easy, by moving one position to the right.

In the opposite direction, the circles represent a succession of fourths. Not only the fourth or the fifth can be read from the circle. In a moment, we will learn to read all the right notes and chords within any major and minor scale.

Specifically, when you can read your watch without a problem, you can find the right notes and chords within any family with just one glance. And it doesn't stop there! Once you've got the basics down, you can make variations and use your watch in different ways. We will go deeper into this at the end of the course.

Thanks to the previous theory, you will soon understand how the circle of fifths works. I wish you a lot of fun, and remember, in case of uncertainties you can always go back to the Theory Basics.


The essence: the major and minor circle

When you look at your watch, you immediately notice that the watch consists of two circles. One is the 'outer circle' or the major circle on which all letters are in capital letters. So a C-major chord corresponds to a C, a D-major chord to a D, and so on.

Later in this chapter, we add the Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. Here again, the same principle applies: for major chords, we use capital letters.

In addition to the ‘outer circle’, there is also the ‘inner circle’, or the minor circle. Here we reverse the principle and use small letters. It is important to know that C-minor can be written in different ways. It can be written as ‘c’, but also as Cmin or Cm. Let's agree that we will mainly use the first way, just like the small circle on your watch. Here too, we will later work with Roman numerals, but not in capitals. Specifically, we will use i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi and vii on the inner circle.

Before applying this concept, we are going to learn how to read the different notes within any given family. This can help you compose a melody line or a solo by providing you with the right notes in any major and minor key.

Afterwards, we will dig deeper into the circles and use the Roman numerals to form a scale and corresponding chords in major and minor scales.