The Circle of Fifths: What It Is and How to Use It in Your Songwriting

By Patrick McGuire

If you’re not familiar with music theory, the circle of fifths and key signatures might fill your brain with intense boredom or confusion.

But the truth is, tackling music theory concepts will only make you better at what you do. With tools like the circle of fifths, they don’t have to be complicated either…

Hearing music is one thing, but seeing music through the circle of fifths turns something complicated and messy into something condensed and easy to follow.

In this article, I’ll show you how the circle of fifths diagram works and help you understand how to apply it to your songwriting.

What you’ll need to understand the circle of fifths

To get the most out of this article, you’ll need a solid understanding of what chords are and how they operate in music.

If you need a quick refresher, check out these guides on how to build chords and chord progressions.

Once you’re up to speed, make sure you have a pencil and sheet of paper available. The best way to memorize the circle of fifths is to draw it on your own and take notes. Ready?

First, let’s look at key signatures.

What are key signatures?

Key signatures are unique sequences of sharps, flats and natural notes in music. A key signature is all the accidentals found in a key’s scale.

Sharps (#) (not to be confused with hashtags) are symbols that represent notes positioned a semitone or half-step above another note. For example, a C natural can be found on a white key on a piano, a C# is located a semitone above C on the black key:

Flats (b) (not to be confused with cute little b’s) function in the opposite way as sharps. For example, A natural is represented by a white key on the keyboard, so Ab would be the black note directly below it.

The key of C major is comprised of all natural notes, so no sharps or flats: C – D – E – F – G – A – B

In contrast, a key like C# major has seven sharps: C# – D# – E# – F# – G# – A# – B#

Oh, also, flats and sharps can share the same note locations. Confused yet? I am.

No sweat! understanding everything I just said is why we have a nifty little thing called the circle of fifths!

Let’s study the circle, write out some key signatures, and use it to build some chords— Soon everything will start to click.

The circle of fifths [Infographic]

The circle of fifths is a visual representation of the keys you hear in music. Starting at the top with the key of C major. The circle is split between the sharps (right side) and flats (left side) we encounter as we travel around it.

Use middle C on your keyboard to follow along.

Start on the right side

Let’s start with the major keys on the right side of the circle.

It’s called the circle of fifths because each key signature is separated by the distance of a fifth interval (for example: C to G on the circle above represents a fifth).

Start at C major. Since there are no sharps in the key of C major, the notes in the key are: C – D – E – F – G – A – B

Now move one space to G, the next key. You’ll notice in the outer ring of the circle that a new sharp (teal box) comes along with it.

So the notes in the key of G major are: G – A – B – C – D – E – F#