The circle of fifths is your road map to the twelve musical keys.

The term might sound like a dry music theory lesson, but the circle of fifths is one of the most useful concepts to learn in music.

It will help you remember key signatures, situate yourself on your instrument and unlock creativity with chords and progressions.

With such a practical concept, it takes a bit of background to understand it right. But that doesn’t mean it has to be confusing or difficult.

In fact, all you really need to know is the basics to get started with the circle of fifths.

In this article I’ll explain what it is, how it works, and how it can help you make music.

Let’s get started.

What is the circle of fifths?

The circle of fifths is a way to visualize the twelve musical keys and put them in a convenient order.

It’s used in music to help remember the notes that make up each key and group similar keys based on the notes that they share.

Following the steps of the circle in order will also give you the order of sharps and flats for writing musical scores.

It’s called the circle of fifths because each key is arranged a fifth interval away from the next on the circle.

The circle of fifths is a way to visualize the twelve musical keys and put them in a convenient order.

If that sounds tough to visualize, let’s clear it up with an infographic:

circle of fifths infographic

Background info—notes and keys

If you’re already got the basics of music theory down, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.

But if you’re new to it you’ll need a quick recap of the fundamentals to get the most from this article.

Keys in music

A musical key is the group of 7 notes that forms the basis of a musical composition.

Using the notes inside the key in your chords, melodies and progressions will ensure all your musical elements sound pleasing together.

The key signature is the set of accidental symbols that defines which pitches are included in the key. There are 12 of these—one for each key on the musical keyboard.

Accidentals

The octave is divided into equal tempered semi-tones, but there are only six notes in the musical alphabet.

Accidentals are the symbols used to alter the letter pitches by a semitone up or down.

For example, adding the # symbol to C will create C#—one half-step higher.

And adding the flat symbol to A will create Ab—one half-step lower.

The key signature is the set of accidental symbols that defines which pitches are included in the key.

That might seem confusing, but remembering which accidentals are required for which keys is a big reason musicians use the circle of fifths.

How does the circle of fifths work?

The circle of fifths arranges the musical keys by the number of accidentals in their key signatures.

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Moving right on the circle

If you’ve heard some music theory basics you probably know that the key of C major contains no sharps or flats.

If you start with the key of C major and move up by a fifth, you’ll land on G major.

Hot tip: if you need a refresher on how intervals like fifths work in music, head over to our in-depth guide.

The key of G major contains a single accidental—F#. As you continue moving clockwise by fifth intervals around the circle, you’ll add a sharp with each step.

circle of fifths infographic

How do you know which sharp to add? That’s on the circle as well!

The order of sharps starts one step to the left of C major and follows the same pattern, although most musicians remember it with a mnemonic.

The one I use is: Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle

Moving by fifths and adding a sharp each time will give you all the keys that contain sharps in their key signature—up to C# major with its whopping 7 sharps!

The circle of fifths arranges the musical keys by the number of accidentals in their key signatures.

Moving left on the circle

So far we’ve covered the sharp keys, but what if you want to play in Bb major?

To find the keys with flats on the circle of fifths you’ll start the same way at C major, but move counterclockwise instead.

This time you’ll move down by a 5th and add a flat at each step.

circle of fifths infographic

You can use the same mnemonic to remember the order of flats, which conveniently makes sense in reverse—Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father

In our example, to find Bb you’ll have to move left two steps, adding two flats to the key signature—Bb and Eb!

You can continue like this all the way to Cb major which contains 7 flats.

Hot tip: For the enharmonic keys, or keys that can be spelled with either sharps or flats (i.e. Cb/B), there may be a way to write the key signature with fewer accidentals depending on which you choose.

Minor keys on the circle of fifths

So far I’ve covered all the major keys you can build with sharps and flats in the key signature.

Next up are the minor keys.

Luckily, there’s nothing new to learn here since the minor keys all have a relative major that shares the same key signature.

You can use the same method of moving left and right by fifths while adding sharps and flats if you start in the right place.

Here’s what I mean. The relative minor of a major key is the scale that begins on scale degree six of the major scale.


Simply follow the key signature of the major key and count up six scale degrees to find its relative minor.

Simply follow the key signature of the major key and count up six scale degrees to find its relative minor.

In C major, that means that A minor is the relative minor key. These keys share the same key signature that contains no accidentals.

The same holds true for the rest of the relative minors. That means that if you arrange the minor keys around the circle the same way beginning on A, you can easily find the key signatures.

For example, take the key of F# minor. To find the signature, move clockwise on the circle by three steps adding sharps each time. You’ll end up with F#, C# and G#—same as the relative major key of A major!

How to use the circle of fifths in your music

So far this explainer might seem theoretical, but there are plenty of ways to apply the circle of fifths in real life.

Here are just a few ways it can work in your music.

Find out where you are

When you’re improvising music, jamming with a friend, or trying to play along to a song, the first thing you’ll need to know is the key.

That way you’ll know which notes to play and which chords have the most important harmonic functions.

There are multiple ways to find the key, including a super handy automatic method if you’re working in a DAW.

But with a little ear training, most musicians can easily identify the tonic (or scale degree 1) due to its stable sound and sense of harmonic “home.”

Once you have the tonic, you can fill in the rest of the notes by remembering the sharps and flats in the key signature with the circle of fifths.

Change keys

Plenty of great songs stay in the same musical key throughout. But others make use of a dramatic technique called a key change or modulation.

Some songs modulate directly to a new key for fresh sound after a repeated section.

But others change keys smoothly by moving to a related key.

The circle of fifths gives you clues about which keys share the most DNA. If two keys are next to each other on the circle, their key signatures differ by only one accidental!

This means changing between them won’t sound jarring for listeners.

Hot tip: Some keys are so similar that they share some of the same chords. When used as a bridge between two related keys, these are called pivot chords.

Borrow chords

Once you’ve played around a bit with the diatonic chords, you might want to branch out a bit.

Some of the most interesting chord progressions feature chords brought in from outside the home key.

These are called borrowed chords and they can add excitement and uniqueness to a song.

Borrowed chords come most often from keys that are related to the home key. For example, the most commonly used secondary dominant chords are V7/V and V7/IV. These come from adjacent keys on the circle of fifths.

But no matter which keys your borrowed chords come from you’ll still need to build and spell them properly to use them. You can’t do that without knowing the notes of the keys where they appear!

Circular logic

The circle of fifths is taught everywhere in music education.

While it may sound like a boring technical detail, it’s a foundational concept that can help you find your way around the basics of music theory.

Whether you’re looking to feel at home on your instrument, jam along with your friends or find fresh chords, learning how it works will help build your skills.

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