What is the circle of fifths, and how do you use it?
If you’re a music producer or went to music classes in school, you’ve probably heard about the circle of fifths.
You have maybe even seen pictures of a wheel outlining all the different notes.
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When you look at first glance, the circle of fifths may seem complicated. But trust me, it's a lot simpler than it looks.
In this article, you will learn how to use the circle of fifths in your music production. You will also learn how to memorize it and how to find the relative minors to major keys.
Let’s dive in!
What Is The Circle Of Fifths?
The circle of fifths is a way of organizing all the twelve chromatic pitches as perfect fifths.
It’s usually shown as a wheel or circle, outlining all twelve pitches in increments of fifths and their minor relative pitches, also in fifths.
But what is a fifth in music, and why is it important to know all the fifths and their relationship to each other?
First, read this article on How To Create Chords Fast (Complete Guide).
A fifth is a harmonizing note, chord, or key above or below your root note. For example, if you play C, the perfect fifth is a G, seven half-steps, or semitones above your root note.
The circle of fifths tells you the perfect fifths of the keys and their minor relatives, including their relationship to each other.
Using the circle of fifths with keys close to each other, use a sure way you’re making the most sense musically. So instead of going from C to F#, you can get a more pleasurable result by going to G or your major keys relative minor key.
Relative Minor Key
The circle of fifths is also a way of organizing the relative minor keys of all major keys.
A fast way to find the relative minor key of your major key is by counting down three semitones or three half steps from your major key.
When you look at the circle of fifths, you can see that the A minor is the relative minor key of the C major. So if you count down three half-steps from C, you get B, A#, and A – your relative minor key.
Or let’s find out the relative minor of G. Three half steps down mean F#, F, and E – making E the relative minor key of G.
How To Use The Circle Of Fifths
The circle of fifths is a great tool to use in many aspects of music creation. For example, when writing music, it shows you what keys are similar to each other, allowing you to create great chord progressions. You can use the circle of fifths for notes, chords, and keys.
When creating melodies, you can use the circle of fifths to find notes that work together. You can also layer melodies quickly with perfect fifths – a very common and effective way of harmonizing your sound.
Creating chords with the circle of fifths gets a lot easier as you directly see how all different keys relate to each other. This knowledge allows you to make the right decisions to create chord progressions that makes sense musically.
That also goes for keys. With the circle of fifths, you quickly see all the keys and how they relate to each other.
How To Memorize The Circle Of Fifths
There are many (fun) ways of memorizing the circle of fifths. A favorite is from this video with the memorizing pattern of...
“Carolyn gets drunk and eats butterflies.”
“Carolyn fondled beads.”
People use different ways of memorizing the circle of fifths, but like many other things, funny or crazy memorization techniques usually stay the best in your memory.
The circle of fifths is a vital part of music theory and makes almost all parts of music creation that much easier.
When you understand the circle of fifths and learn how to use it, you can use it for notes, chords, and keys.
Many producers learn music theory quite late. But the minute they do, they realize what an advantage it gives them in the studio.
Just understanding the circle of fifths gives you the ability to create better music by harmonizing pitches.
If you need a sign to start learning music theory to make better music, faster – this is it. Start today, and you'll thank yourself tomorrow.
Thanks for reading, and see you in the next article.
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and writer, active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psytrance. When he's not producing, he surfs, skates, and chugs coffee.