THE CIRCLE OF FIFTHS - DEMYSTIFIED -

Music Theory
No Software

As musician or music producer, you have probably heard orseen the very well-known music theory tool, the circle of fifths! To be veryhonest with you, the first time I show the circle of fifths on a music theory website,I saw something like this:

It took me a while to figure out what was reallyhappening, how to read it and most importantly, how to use it! After some timeof practice, this mysterious trippy circle of void started to make sense, and startedto shape into the real circle which look exactly like:

It took me a while to figure out what was reallyhappening, how to read it and most importantly, how to use it! After some timeof practice, this mysterious trippy circle of void started to make sense, and startedto shape into the real circle which look exactly like:

At first, the circle of fifths seems overwhelming and maybeconfusing! Don’t worry, in this article we are going to decode all of itsmystery and we will see practical examples on how we can take advantage of itin our studio productions and live performances. The only pre-require to followme in this article is a basic theory of notes, intervals and how to build majorand minor scales. Let’s dive in!

So, what is the famous circle of fifths?

The circle of fifths is just a way of organizing our 12 notesin a circular way: when going clockwise, each note is a perfect 5th interval apart(7 semitones) upwards from the previous note; when going anti-clockwise, eachnote is a perfect 4th interval apart (5 semitones) upwards from the previous note.In fact, the circle of fifths can also be called the circle of fourths; thename changes depending on which way you are moving on the circle. It’s veryimportant to clarify that no matter our motion - clockwise or anti-clockwise - weactually moving upwards in the piano keyboard, as you see at in the piano schemebelow:

If we now think each note as a root of a major or a minorscale, the circle of fifths is transformed from a circle of organized notes to acircle of organized scales! Is this great?

In fact, the circle of fifths consists of two circles; anouter circle and an inner circle. On the outer circle we have the major scales,while on the inner circle we have their relative minor scales. In case youdon’t know, relative scales are the scales that share the same notes. Forexample, the scales C and Am are relative because they share the same notes:

The scales G and Em are relative because they share thesame notes:

To recap, we have two circles, one with all major scales,one with all minor scales, and a relationship between them. Now that wedescribed the principles let’s try to decode it more with some examples:

§  Fromthe note F (F scale) and going upwards a perfect 5th, we end up to the note C (Cscale).

§  Fromthe note E (Em scale) and going upwards a perfect 5th, we end up to the note B(Bm scale).

§  Fromthe note E♭(E♭scale) and going upwards a perfect 4th, we end up to the note A♭(A♭major scale).

§  Fromthe note C♯ (C♯mscale) and going upwards a perfect 4th, we end up with the note F♯ (F♯m scale).

Is reading the circle of fifthsthat easy? Yes, it’s easy as that!

 

I am sure you certainly wonder at this point, whyperfect 5ths and perfect 4ths?

Well, the scales whose root notes are a perfect 5th or aperfect 4th apart, share 6 of the total 7 of their notes. In other words, theyshare the same notes except one. Let’s some examples:

The C scale has the following notes:

The G scale, which is a perfect 5th interval apartupwards, has the following notes:

As you see, the only difference between C scale and Gscale is that in C scale we have the note F, while in G scale we have the noteF♯. All other notes are the same. When goingclockwise (a perfect 5th upwards on the keyboard) we add one more sharp (♯) on a note of the previous scale (*).

Let’s now move on the opposite direction, by moving anti-clockwise.Again, the C scale has the following notes:

The F scale, which is a perfect 4th apart upwards, hasthe following notes:

As you see, the only between C scale and F scaleis that in C scale we have the note B, while in F scale we have the note B♭. Allother notes are the same. When going anti-clockwise (a perfect 4th upwards onthe keyboard) we add one more flat (♭)on a note of the previous scale (*).

Of course, the same rules applyfor the inner circle, the circle of the minor scales!

(*) FOR MUSIC THEORY DEEPEXPLORERS

          Howdo we know to which notes we apply sharps ()or flats () every time we move on the circle?

Believe it or not, the answer here is hidden in thecircle of fifths! You just have to know from which note you start adding sharpsor flats. The best way to understand this is by some examples. Let’s examinethe major scales; first the major scales with sharps, and then the major scaleswith flats. Also, I provide you with two videos for these two cases that willsolve all this mystery!

§ Major scales with sharps (♯)

We start from the note C, the C major scale. The C majorscale does not have any sharps or flats. Moving clockwise, we have the G majorscale. The G major scale has one sharp, the note F♯. So, the starting point for the sharps is the note F. Movingon, we have the scale D. The D major scale will now have the two sharps, thenote F and the note C, as you move clockwise on the circle. This processcontinues for all major scales with sharps.

§ Major scales with flats (♭)

We start from the note C, the C major scale. The C majorscale does not have any sharps or flats. Moving anti-clockwise, we have the Fmajor scale. The F major scale has one flat, the note B♭. So, thestarting point for the sharps is the note B. Moving on, we have the note B♭ (B♭ major scale). The B♭ major scale has two flats, thenotes B♭and E♭.This process continues for all major scaleswith flats.

With this secret, we can use thecircle of fifths to find all accidentals of major (and of course minor) scaleswithout applying the formula (whole step - whole step …) to construct the majorscale.

          Withthis little secret, we can actually build any major (and minor scale) with justlooking by the circle of fifths! Let’s see two examples:

          Buildthe A major scale:

Build the E♭major scale

 

 

Why is this all information useful?

With all the examples above, we have revealed that each ofthe scale in the circle of fifths is surrounded by scales that share morenotes. The more we leave apart from each scale, the more different the scaleis. In other words, the circle of fifths is a very easy way to see which scalesare harmonically closer to each other! For example, by quickly looking at thecircle, we can say that the F scale is harmonically closer to the Am scalerather with the B scale.

EXAMPLE

 

 

Also, the colors in this particular circle helps us alsoto see the harmonic connection better.

 

 

What are some practical examplesof where we can use the circle of fifths?

There are several practical uses of the circle of fifths!Let’s see some of them:

 

TUNINGSAMPLES TO FIT INTO YOUR TRACK

 

So, you found a sample online, you chopped a sample from areleased track, or another producer sends you their own sample. How do you knowif the sample will fit in to your track? The easy answer is by ear. And yes,this answer is always correct when we are talking about music, because at theend of the day what sounds good, it is good. But what if you want to exploremore options and make more intentional decisions? The tool that is the best forthis job is the circle of fifths! Let’s see an example.

Yourtrack is in Am.

Obviously, if the sample is in Am, you don’t have totranspose it! The next option is the scale C, the relative major of Am, becausethey share the same notes:

If the sample is in C scale, you don’t have to transposeit.

If the sample is not in Am and C, we need to transpose itup or down by a number of semitones. How many semitones? The answer is by thenumber of semitones so at the end the sample will be Am or C. At the picturebelow, we show the possible scales that if we transpose the sample by 1semitone, we will end up in Am or C scales. For example, if the sample is in G♯m, we need to tune it up 1 semitone, we tune it so itis in Am. If the sample is in C♯, weneed to transpose it by -1 semitone in order to tune it to C.

The next option is to have the sample on one of theneighbor scales of Am and C, because the neighbor scales in the circle offifths are harmonically closer, they share all notes except one.

If the sample is in one of the scales F, Dm, G and Em, wedon’t have to transpose it! Of course, as always, we need to test if it worksby listening.

The last option is to transpose the sample by a number ofsemitones in order to tune it in one of the neighbor scales of Am or C, thescales F, Dm, G and Em.

Let’s see and listen to an example. You made thefollowing loop in Am, and you are searching for a sample to fit into yourtrack.

                             

It’s very important to mention here that the best way offinding the right sample is not to search by the scale in which the sample waswritten in, but what the sample actually is. Then you probably want to find howyou can tune the sample to fit it into your track.

Because you track is in Am, you keep the following partof the circle of fifths:

 

 

Remember, first you are search how to tune the sample inone of Am or C, depending if the sample is in major or minor scale. If thetuning of the sample is far from these two scales, then you will examine if youcan tune it in one of the neighbor scales.

After a long search, you end up liking the followingsamples

§ Vocal sample in Bmaj:

The sample is in a major scale so the best way totranspose it is in C. B major is very close to C major scale. You need totranspose the sample +1 semitone:

§ Saxophone sample in Gm:

You have to tune the sample +2 semitones, so it is tunedin Am. Let’s listen with the track:

§ Viola sample in C♯:

 

You have to tune the sample -1 semitones, so it is tunedin C. Let’s listen with the track:

§ Synth sample in Bm:

You have to tune the sample -2 semitones, so it is tunedin C. Let’s listen with the track:

 

§ Keys sample in Em:

You have to tune the sample -2 semitones, so it is tunedin C. Let’s listen with the track:

HARMONICMIXING & MASH-UPS

 

In the last decade, a lot of music software started toprovide audio file scale detection that is very reliable. Now you can have awhole library of tracks that you know their scale that were written. Thisopened the door to what we call harmonic mixing, which basically is mixingtracks based on their scales for smooth transitions. As we examined in theprevious section, how to fit samples to our track, if we think the sample as awhole track, the process is identical. Most DJ software color stamp the tracksso you don’t have to think on the fly which tracks are harmonically closer toother tracks. Let’s see two examples.

EXAMPLES WITH MIXING TRACKS

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHANGE OF SCALEIN YOUR TRACK

 

Let’s say that you want in your track to change the scalein one part and another in other part. Depending of what you are going for youcan use the circle of fifths for sudden or smooth transitions.

 

 

 

Is this all? No! With the circle of fifths, you can alsothe chords of major and minor scales! What??

Let’s see how.

 

 

 

FIND THE CHORDS OFMAJOR AND MINOR SCALES WITH THE CIRCLE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONSTRUCTINGMAJOR & MINOR SCALES WITH THE CIRCLE

 

 

 

CONCLUSION -

THE CIRCLE OFFIFTHS - THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF MUSIC THEORY

Conclusion
Written By
Vassilis Malamas
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