Hezekiah has been an online writer for over eight years. A longtime musician, his articles often focus on music theory and instrumentation.
What Is the Circle of Fifths?
The circle of fifths is a rather simple theory that shows an interesting relationship of chords. Once you learn these it makes improvising a lot easier since you will understand better which chords can follow without having to resort to trial and error.
Simply playing the chords around the circle in any direction gives a gospel-sounding vibe. This is because even though the chords are related to each but will have different scales. Playing a set of chords within a given scale may sound and feel technically correct but there will be very little tension or emotion in your production. It will also lack originality. The circle of fifths will enable you to explore chords in a variety of scales for a deeper sound.
Looking at the chart it is actually easier to read counter-clockwise, in steps of four. In every scale there are two major chords; e.g., in the scale of C Major the two majors are C Major and F major four steps away. So C Maj then F Maj are the first two steps and naturally go together. The F major is also of course the first chord in the F scale. The next major chord is the B flat Major. If you try playing C Maj, F Maj then Bb Maj you will notice how natural they sound together. It's very useful and easy to memorize all of these in a circle, since it will help you jump around scale for improvisation.
Many people who improvise tend to be stuck in their (comfort zone) scales and keys, including myself before understanding the circle of fifths (fourths). A good idea is to simply memorize them by continuously playing around the circle. The inner circle follows the same principle except its the minor chords.
You could easily base a whole song using the chords in a circle; however, you would need a very good singer who could handle the constant changes in key. An amateur singer would no doubt have difficulty since they would be looking for a single key. It would also be good for a bridge in a song where the key often goes on a tangent then gets resolved back to the verse. Try introducing some of these extra major chords into your productions and notice how you will get strong tension from the chords.
Where Is the Circle of Fifths Used?
You will hear chord sequences based on the circle of 5ths in gospel/neo-soul-sounding music. Since every chord is a Major (or minor) there is naturally a lot of tension in the changes, which suits the gospel/soul genre. Jazz differs a little in that jazz will be based in one key (in most cases) but will "borrow" chords from others scales for mood/tension and then resolve back to the main scale. In any case this theory is very useful to know for musicians of any genre.
It is also good for improvising since you can easily move into other scales by going five steps up from the Major.
A Simple Technique on the Keys
If you are playing on the keyboard, there is a really easy shortcut to follow.
For example, if you play a Cmaj7th or even a plain Cmaj, have a look where your the fifth key is, it's on the "G", therefore the Gmaj is the beginning of the second chord. The fifth of the Gmaj chord is the "D" therefore simple play the Dmaj and so on simple. For a guitar player is it much different, you will unfortunately need to memorize the chords in the circle, but they shouldn't take that long to learn anyway.
Singing Over It
This will be the biggest obstacle for many singers unless you are used to singing gospel. Since all the chords are major chords, there are constant key changes, well at least other chords since the keys overlap. The singer really needs to be able to follow the correct key and harmonize in the correct melody; otherwise it will sound very off and out of key.
The singer in the video below is able to do this extremely well; however, she is a gospel singer and very used to the keyboardist (her husband) playing very complex chord arrangements in various keys.
Finding That Perfect Fifth
Some people don't actually know where the perfect fifth is on the piano. An easy way to remember is to simply start on any key (e.g. C) and count seven steps to the right including the black keys. So if you start on C and count seven keys to the right to end of with G which is the perfect fifth and the root of the next chord in the sequence.
Try it again with G, count seven steps to the right including the black and to arrive at D—magic. Each step in the fifth has a relationship in terms of music. It doesn't add up quite correct in terms of mathematics, but it is half of a octave in terms of music.
Try playing these notes round and round again on the keyboard and you will be able to hear clearly the relationship of the notes in tone.
Incidentally, going around the opposite direction gives you the circle of fourths instead which some people actually find easier to relate to. The circle of fifths is a good chance to learn how to improvise over all 12 scales, since every over technical change of chord is a new key. Therefor it can be a really good exercise for you to continuously go round and round with the scales.
Circle of 4ths (5ths)
- Soulful Keys: Neo Soul and R&B Production
Learn neo soul chords by downloading the MIDI files.
- Improvise cool R&B chords for piano
R&B/soul chord progressions tend to have a lot more tension than other common chord chords for piano.
Sergio on November 22, 2018:
Do you mind writting the Chords they are using to understand it better?
Matt on June 17, 2015:
Thanks for breaking down this theory. Very useful to know. Especially for this music genre.
Darkman on January 15, 2015:
Very Jazzy sounds there.
Hezekiah (author) from Japan on April 01, 2012:
mrs. Mahogani on April 01, 2012:
Ok so this is a very good song starter lol love it!
chirag on February 28, 2012:
1 thing: the circular diagram is of the 6th of the outside chord, or the relative minor, not 5ths:
ex: the relative Am is for C. the 5th for C is G
Hezekiah (author) from Japan on September 02, 2011:
Ghost Producer on August 31, 2011:
Great article man.
Hezekiah (author) from Japan on August 22, 2011:
RedElf, thanks. It's very usefull theory to learn, especially for freestyle playing.
RedElf from Canada on August 22, 2011:
Rated interesting, useful, and up - thanks for the clear discussion of theory. You have inspired me to start practicing again.
Hezekiah (author) from Japan on August 14, 2011:
DDS, thank you very much.
David Sproull from Toronto on August 14, 2011:
Ok very useful and very cool article. Voted up!