Updated: Nov 10, 2022
In the world of music creation and engineering, one important aspect that is often overlooked by newcomers is music theory and the knowledge required to make your sounds sonically fit. While it can seem like either a daunting or boring concept to master, in reality, it empowers you to craft your music into something that you can visualize and see as opposed to only hearing.
The circle of fifths is an amazing and important concept in music theory that can drastically transform confusing and messy notes into a condensed and easy-to-follow formula that makes chords and melodies come together properly.
Read on to learn more about the circle of fifths and how to apply it to your production and songwriting talents to produce the highest-quality work you can imagine!
Before you can truly utilize and implement the circle of fifths into your songwriting and production process, you must be familiar with key signatures and the overall concept of music theory. If this is already sounding too complicated, be sure to brush up on the basics of music theory to ensure that you have an ample amount of experience to continue!
If you’re still here, you already have more than enough experience to move on. Key signatures are unique sequences of sharps, flats, and natural notes in music. All of the accidentals found within that specific scale indicate the key signature of the overall music composition.
Sharps (represented by the sign #) are symbols that represent notes that are positioned a half-step (semitone) above the natural note.
Flats (represented by the sign b) act in the opposite manner as sharps. They have positioned a half-step (semitone) below the natural note.
In some instances, the same note can be viewed as both a sharp and a flat note. For example, the note in between A and B can be viewed as either an A sharp note or a B flat note (A# or Bb). While that can sound very confusing at first, that is why the circle of fifths is here! After studying the circle of fifths and generating chords based on the discoveries, things will begin to click soon enough.
The Circle of Fifths Basics
The circle of fifths is a visual representation of the various key signatures heard in music. It begins at the top with the key of C major. From there, it descends on both the left side and the right side, each indicating various keys. The keys with sharps appear on the right side of the scale, and the left side displays keys that utilize flat notes.
For any learning about the circle of fifths and how to best utilize its knowledge, we recommend using a keyboard and beginning with the C note to best visualize and play accordingly. Though this circle of fifths relates to all instruments used in music production, the keyboard/piano will make the most sense in relation to all other instruments.
Moving Down the Right Side (Sharps)
Moving down the right side of the circle of fifths, you have various key signatures that utilize sharp notes on the scale. It’s called the circle of fifths because each key signature is separated by the distance of a fifth interval on the overarching scale.
Beginning at C major, there are no sharp notes. Therefore the notes are simply C-D-E-F-G-A-B.
Moving to G (the next key), you have one sharp accompanying the scale. This makes the notes G-A-B-C-D-E-F#.
C major has no sharps, G has one sharp, D has two sharps, and so on around the circle. A new sharp is added every new fifth until the bottom is reached at F#, which can also be viewed as the key of Gb.
Moving Up the Left Side (Flats)
When reading the circle of fifths chart, we are going to start at the bottom position where you left off with the sharp key signatures. From there, we will move up along the left side to notate all of the scales that incorporate flat keys.
Moving clockwise up the circle, you will notice that the bottom position (Gb) has 6 flat notes within the scale. As you travel up, you will notice something strange that counteracts the sharp scales down the right side. Instead of adding a flat note as you move along the scale, you will actually be reducing the number of flat notes in the scale as you move clockwise.
For example, Gb has 6 flat notes, Db has five, Ab has 4, and so on until you are back at the top. Once you get back to the top (C major) you will see again that there are no flat or sharp notes.
Translating into the Minors
With a general foundation and knowledge of the major scales, the minor ones should hopefully come at ease.
Starting back at the top with A minor, you will notice that the pattern of fifths and the addition of sharp works the same as it does with major keys.
A minor is the sibling of C major, as noted by the presence of the same notes that start in a different order.
While the circle of fifths is extremely useful in determining the flats and sharps in a key, there are numerous other uses for it, including a neat way to build basic chords too.
Major chords are built from the root note, the major third, and the perfect fifth note. When looking at the circle of fifths, the perfect one will be one spot clockwise from your root note. For instance, a C root note will use G as the perfect fifth. So with two notes down, you only have to find the major third note. It is located diagonally down from the perfect fifth (an E in this instance). You now know that a major C chord incorporates C-E-G. This simple trick works all the way around the circle for major chords.
Building minor chords is as simple as major chords, but the pattern is slightly different.
Minor chords build off the same base as major chords (for example, C has G as its perfect fifth). The difference is that the third note is a minor third. To find this note, drag diagonally out from your perfect fifth. With a C minor, it is Eb. This makes the full chord C-Eb-G.
As you experiment and get more comfortable with generating chords based on the circle of fifths, you can begin utilizing these in your own songwriting ventures. This will help you build out and determine your chord progressions in creating music.
Utilizing the Circle of Fifths in Songwriting
The circle of fifths helps to add a new context and visualizer to the way you create and interpret music. Eventually, every songwriter runs into the issue of writing the same old things over again because it’s safe and familiar.
The circle of fifths helps to give you a net to fall back on if you want to begin experimenting with sounds more. You can take risks that are calculated, and find new ways to push your music and sounds to the next level.
Like most other things, the complex idea of music theory can be broken down and interpreted with ease once it has been broken down into concepts that are visual and understandable. The circle of fifths helps to get you to that point quicker.
Leaving the Circle of Fifths to the Experts
If this is still too complicated, or you believe that it is something that is better left to the professionals, then don’t hesitate to turn to Mike’s Mix and Master! Our company has decades of experience mixing and mastering music of all kinds, with scales and chord progressions of any variety. Our acute ears and hearing for the small fallacies that most consumers do not pick up on allow us to engineer music to the highest quality. For more information on what we do or how we do it, and how it can enhance the quality and delivery of your music, don’t hesitate t contact Mike’s Mix and Master today!