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Circle of fifths lesson 1 - Introduction

Welcome to the first Circle of fifths lesson.

Below is a Circle of 5ths diagram, with an explanation of how it is structured, and what the diagram labels mean.

This lesson should be read before the other 4 lessons that explain the major / minor sharps and flats in detail.

Learning how to draw this diagram quickly from memory is one of the most useful things to do in mastering music theory.

It will save hours learning the notes in each major and minor scale individually, and provides insight into the naturally occuring intervals and relationships between musical scales.

Circle of fifths
Lesson1. Introduction2. Major sharps3. Minor sharps4. Major flats5. Minor flats

1. Circle of fifths - why is it useful ?

This lesson shows a Circle of fifths diagram, explains what it represents, and why it is a useful thing to learn and memorize.

The Circle of fifths diagram shows the most commonly used major and (natural) minor scales used in music theory. It is useful for the following reasons, so far as scales are concerned:

a) It is easy to build and construct scale note names

Using the system described in the remainder of these lessons (lessons 2, 3, 4 and 5), when drawing the diagram from a blank sheet of paper, it is easy to work out which notes are in every scale shown in the diagram. ie. which scales have sharps or flats, their note names, and how many sharps and flats there are in each scale.

By following the system below, you will not need to know in advance which notes are in which scales before you draw the diagram - all note names will naturally fall out as part of the process of drawing the diagram.

It is arguably much easier to learn to draw this single diagram than calculating and memorizing the notes in all 30 scales individually (and manually).

For an example on how to construct a scale manually, have a look at any major scale eg. Gb major scale, which shows the process of arriving at the note names by using tone-semitone intervals, then deciding the note names. It is not always straightforward, especially when certain white notes need to be sharpened or flattened and renamed completely.

b) It shows scales that are similar to each other in name, and sound

Not only does the Circle of 5ths show all the most useful scales, but it shows which scales sound similar to each other.

It groups together different scales which differ only by one note name (a sharp or a flat), and it also groups together those scales where a major and minor scale actually contain the same note names.

It also groups together scales which have different names eg. F-sharp major and G-flat major, which contain different note names, but the note pitches ie. note sounds are identical.

This is useful when composing music and being able to quickly identify which chords and scales sound good together.

c) It makes basic music theory concepts hang together in a logical way

This system for drawing the Circle of fifths uses easy-to-remember phrases / facts to show the placement of the scale names, so the diagram can be drawn without knowing anything about musical theory (scales etc.) beforehand.

This is useful to get the diagram completed, but it is not a very musical way of understanding the relationships between scales grouped together on the diagram.

So as part of the process of drawing the diagram, this system will describe the musical intervals that underpin all the circle of fifths relationships - specifically the importance of the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th scale notes as entrypoints into related and similar scales.

The Circle of fifths diagram below just shows the outline - the structure of the spiral, and the major and minor scale names. It does not yet show the notes of individual scales - these will be explained in the remaining lessons.

It might be useful to save it and print it off the diagram for reference.

The rest of the Introduction below explains the diagram structure in detail.