How to practice using the Circle of 5ths

As pianists, we’re always told to practice our scales and different key signatures, and that doing so will improve our musicianship. But with different major and minor scales to go with all 12 notes in an octave, it’s easy to get overwhelmed!

Thankfully, we have a tool that can make practicing scales not only easier, but infinitely more applicable to the way music functions in the real world. The Circle of 5ths lays out all 12 major and minor scales in order of difficulty, and clearly outlines some of the most common relationships in western music theory. In my Circle of 5ths course, I’ve created a comprehensive resource for introducing musicians to the many ways the Circle of 5ths can enhance your understanding of music theory. Let me offer you a few examples, and then I hope you’ll join me in the course for more!

Practice Scales Around The Clock

The first crucial step to understanding the Circle of 5ths is to look at it as a clock face. There are 12 numbers on a clock, and there are 12 notes in an octave, each arranged around the circle! Looking at the circle in this manner, we can see that C is at noon, G is at 1 pm, F# is at 6 pm, and so on. We can think of each of these note names in the outer orange circle as our major scales.

Now, if you’ve played a C major scale before, you know that it’s entirely white notes, with no sharps or flats of any kind. This makes it the easiest scale for pianists to learn. Now if we go one position to the right on the circle, we find G major with 1 black note, F sharp. Other than that F#, G major and C major have the exact same notes in their scales! This means these two keys and their chords are very closely related.

Now let’s go counterclockwise to 11 pm, where we find F major next door to C. Like G major, F has one black note, Bb. Other than that Bb, F and C major have exactly the same notes! As you go around the circle clockwise (or counterclockwise), you’ll add one new black note to each new scale, making each key a little more challenging than its predecessor. Going clockwise, you’ll always sharp (raise by a half step) the seventh note in the scale; counterclockwise, you’ll flat (lower by a half step) the fourth note in the scale. By practicing scales around the circle in this manner, you’ll be practicing scales in order of difficulty: from no black notes to all of the black notes!

How to Find I IV V in 3, 2, 1

No matter what kind of music you’re trying to learn, you’re going to come across I IV V progressions (1 4 5). If you’re in C major, a C major triad will be your I chord, F major will be your IV chord, and G major will be your V chord. These three notes/key centers/chords are directly next to each other on the Circle of 5ths, and this rule will apply to anywhere you start on the Circle! Once you understand this relationship, you can find the I IV and V chords of any key very quickly using the circle. If your I chord is Eb, your IV chord is Ab, and your V chord is Bb, both found on either side of Eb in the Circle of 5ths. If your I chord is A, your IV chord is D to the left and your V chord is E to the right. If you can find I IV and V in any key, you’re well on your way to understanding the theory behind most blues, pop, and rock!

Relative Minors & 4 Chords of Pop

Now you may have been wondering about the inner, blue circle within a circle that you see in the above diagram. Well, the circle also tells us the relative minor scales of every major key! To find any relative minor, start a major scale on its 6th note. In C major, the 6th note is A, so all white notes starting and ending on A gives you an A minor scale. We see this represented by the “Am” symbol in the inner blue circle. This relative minor pattern stays consistent all the way around the circle, no matter what key you’re in.

Now let’s return to thinking of our circle as chords, not scales. We already know we can find our I IV V progression in C major at the top of the circle: C major is I, F is IV, G is V. But the final, fourth chord that makes up a MAJORITY of popular music from the last 100 years is found inside that inner blue circle: A minor, Am for short! Draw a T shape from any chord on the circle and you will find the famous 4 Chords of Pop. Your I chord is where you start, the IV chord is direclty to the left, the V chords is directly to the right, and the relative minor is in the inner minor circle. By using the circle in this way, you can find the 4 Chords of Pop in any key more or less instantly!

If this has piqued your interest, I hope you’ll join me in the Circle of 5ths course. We’ll start in ancient Greece where math and music intersect, and travel to the present day, where the circle can be applied to countless musical settings. The Circle of 5ths is truly a road map for understanding music theory, and I’m excited to explain it in detail to you!

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