A Little Music Theory For Songwriters: Understanding the Circle of Fifths

by Freelance Writer Sally Writes

If you have spent even a little time exploring the murky waters of music theory as a vocalist, you will have come across the Circle of Fifths. Yet while it is a hugely useful concept once you have got to grips with it, it is not always the simplest thing to get your head around from first principles.

So sit back, while we explain exactly what it is all about and how understanding the Circle of Fifths opens up the whole relationship between the major and minor keys in music that will help across a variety of musical techniques. From the perspective of the vocalist, it is the perfect way to get to grips with keys and melodies – give it a try!

Major and minor keys

Each major key has a relative minor, and both use the same key signature – in other words, they use the same sharps and flats when you go through their scales. When you look at a diagrammatic representation of the Circle of Fifths, you will see the major keys on the outside of the circle and the relative minor keys on the inside.

So at the top is the key of C major – as we know, this has no sharps or flats in its key signature. As you progress clockwise, each key has one more sharp than the last. And as you go anticlockwise, each has one more flat.

Using the Circle of Fifths

You can soon memorize the Circle of Fifths, or keep a picture handy, and use it to instantly work out what key any given song is in. Just count how many sharps or flats are in the key signature and move that number of steps around the circle, always starting at C.

So if, for example, there are three sharps in the key signature, go three steps clockwise and you’ll find that the song is evidently in A major or F# minor. Likewise, if there are four flats, it must be in A?major or F minor.

Using the Circle Of Fifths In Writing

As a songwriter, you have probably noticed that the most popular songs have very simple and predictable progressions. For this reason, the Circle of Fifths is a perfect tool in creating catchy, memorable melodies.

You can create a simple Circle of Fifths progression by choosing a key and identifying the seven chords that naturally exist in that key. Start your progression on the chord of your choice, build the next on the chord that is next to it and their relative minors higher or lower. So you might choose the key of G major, with the chords G, Em, D, C, Am, B minor and so on.

You will notice a sense of repetition as you play through the progression, giving you an ideal framework to construct your melody.

Once you have the Circle of Fifths committed to memory, you will feel as if the scales have been removed from your eyes, whether you are trying to get to grips with the best key for singing a particular song, or working on your own composition from scratch. So print out a copy, and have it with you wherever you go!