Understanding the Circle of Fifths (Get Your PDF)

The Circle of Fifths

Let’s look at the circle of fifths on the piano (scroll down for the Circle of Fifths PDF).

What Is the Circle of Fifths?

The Circle of fifths sounds intimidating, but it really isn’t. Here’s a great visual to help us understand:

Circle of Fifths PDF

Get Your Circle of Fifths PDF

Before moving on, be sure to get your Circle of Fifths PDF, and use it as a reference for following along. Get your copy below:

How Does the Circle of Fifths Work?

Major scales are groups of eight notes, in alphabetical order, starting and ending on the same note. They’re groups of notes used to write songs (learn how to build a major scale here).

Now let’s break down this graphic. At the top we see the C major scale.The C major scale has no sharps or flats.

If we take the fifth note of the C major scale – a G – and build a major scale off of it, we now have a G major scale. G major has one sharp (F♯).

Now, if we take the fifth note of the G major scale and build a major scale off of it, we have a D major scale. D major has two sharps (F♯ and C♯).

If we take the fifth note of the D major scale, and build a major scale off of it, we have an A major scale. A major has three sharps F♯, C♯ and G♯).

Can you see the pattern?

When we start with C major, every major scale built off the fifth note of the previous major scale will have one additional sharp.

We can continue this pattern until every note of the final scale is sharp (C♯ major has seven sharps, which is as many as possible). Use your Circle of Fifths PDF to follow along here.

These are called the “Major Sharp Scales” because they are the major scales containing sharps.

The Order of Sharps

The order of sharps as they are added to a major scale is:

F♯ C♯ G♯ D♯ A♯ E♯ B♯

That means if a major scale has three sharps, they will be the first three on this list. If a major scale has five sharps, they will be the first five on the list, and so on.

learn piano chords charts printable pdf

Learn Piano Chords Printable

Get started learning piano chords with this 32-page PDF. These charts will lay a great foundation for you at the piano, and will be referenced again and again!

What Are the Major Sharp Scales?

Here are all the major sharp scales:

G major
G A B C D E F♯ G

D major
D E F♯ G A B C♯ D

A major
A B C♯ D E F♯ G♯ A

E major
E F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D♯ E

B major
B C♯ D♯ E F♯ G♯ A♯ B

F♯ major
F♯ G♯ A♯ B C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯

C♯ major
C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯ G♯ A♯ B♯ C♯

Major Flat Scales

Now let’s take a look at the left side of the graphic. On the right, we were counting up (ascending) five notes of the previous scale to find our new starting note. Now, we’re going to count down (descending) five notes of the previous scale to find our starting note.

So if we start with a C major scale and count down five notes, we’re at F. If we build a major scale off of F, we find it has one flat (B♭).

If we start with F and count down five notes, we have a B♭. And if we build a major scale off B♭, we find it has two flats (B♭ and E♭).

Now if we start with B♭ and count down five notes, we have an E♭. If we build a major scale off E♭, we find it has three flats (B♭, E♭, and A♭).

And we have another pattern!

Starting with C major, every major scale built off the fifth descending note of the previous major scale will have one additional flat.

We can continue this pattern until every note of the final scale is flat (C♭ has seven flats, which is as many as possible). Use your Circle of Fifths PDF to follow along again.

These are called the “Major flat scales” because they are the major scales containing flats.

And now we have a circle.

This circle shows us all possible major scales! Pretty neat!

Order of Flats

The order of flats as they are added to a major scale is:

B♭ E♭ A♭ D♭ G♭ C♭ F♭

That means if a major scale has three flats, they will be the first three flats on this list. If a major scale has six flats, they will be the first six flats on this list, and so on.

Labeling the Notes

The reason some scales use flats and others use sharps is because scales must progress in alphabetical order. An F major scale is: F – G – A – B♭ – C – D – E – F. The black key is labeled as B♭ even though it’s the same note as A♯ on the piano, because the notes must progress in alphabetical order. Since the note before B♭ is an A, the note that follows must be some sort of B.

What Are the Major Flat Scales?

F major
F G A B♭ C D E F

B♭ major
B♭ C D E♭ F G A B♭

E♭ major
E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C D E ♭

A♭ major
A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G A♭

D♭ major
D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C D♭

G♭ major
G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F G♭

C♭ major
C♭ D♭ E♭ F♭ G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭

Enharmonic Scales

You’ll notice the word “Enharmonic” near the center of the circle. Enharmonic means having the same sound, but two names. D♭ and C♯ are enharmonic notes on the piano, because they are actually the same key, but that key has two possible names.

Scales can be enharmonic too. The last three major sharp scales and major flat scales are enharmonic, because they are actually the same notes. D♭ major and C♯ major are enharmonic scales. So are G♭ major and F♯ major, and C♭ major and B major.

Conclusion

And now you understand the circle of fifths! I love seeing patterns on the piano, because those patterns form the building blocks for chords, which I love using when playing creatively at the piano. And now you are on your way!

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72 Comments

  1. Connie

    Very well explained! A good teacher makes things easy to understand. I think you have that gift!

    Reply
    • Julie

      Thank you so much!

  2. Dave Miller

    I so admire the care and precision you lend to educating pianists. Well done!

    Reply
    • Julie

      Thank you so much!

  3. jim

    I play the guitar can i use the circle of fifths pdf to help me .
    i have just subscribed but i am liking your web site.

    Reply
    • Julie

      Yes, you can! The circle of fifths shows all the major scales, so this will apply to guitar as well as the piano. One way you could use this would be by finding primary chords. The first, fourth and fifth note in each of these major keys can represent major chords for that key. So for example, in the key of C major, the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale are C, F, and G. These are also the three primary chords in the key of C major.

  4. Dharmendra Thacker

    Very useful information with # & b Scales to practice. Thank you very much, Julie.

    Reply
    • Julie

      You’re welcome Dharmendra!

  5. john gardner

    Thank you, Julie. This is the best explanation of this concept I have run across. I went through it once and I GET IT. Very well done.

    Reply
    • Julie

      I’m so glad to hear that! Thank you so much!

  6. Peggy

    Thank you so much for the way you explain that so simple God has truly given you beautiful gift & I thank you for sharing

    Reply
    • Julie

      What a kind comment, thank you so much Peggy!

  7. Jerry

    You really explain things so well. What seems complicated you make simple! Thanks so much.

    Reply
    • Julie

      That’s so encouraging, thank you!

  8. Terese R Conklin

    Julie, Your explanations are clear and extremely helpful along with the actual circle. You are a superb teacher.

    Thank you,

    Reply
    • Julie

      What a kind comment, thank you so much!

  9. Andrea

    I am so glad I found your website. 60 years ago piano theory was not part of the weekly piano lesson. I learned to read music and have played for many yrs. Some things I learned over the number of years. I do wish that you had been around 60 yrs ago. Understanding the “backbone” of piano would have been so much easier! Thank You!

    Reply
    • Julie

      Your comment is such an encouragement to me, thank you so much!

    • Davene Price

      i will agree with Andrea I have been playing piano since i was eight — church pianist at 13 but the theory i learned was great but not a lot of it and often not how to apply to playing pieces. I am now 75 and the internet has provided so many opportunities to expand my knowledge I improvise by ear but neer new the theory behind it. Still so much to learn. Circle of 5th. I Never understood the relevance but new the therory Thank you

    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome – I’m so glad it’s helpful for you!

  10. Chesie

    This is the best so far. Simple yet so clear and very understandable, glad i found your site, Thanks Julie!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad it’s helpful for you Chesie!

  11. David Ling

    Hi Julie.
    Been very impressed with your theory of ‘Circle of Fifth’. I am from Mumbai , India and in a worship team , following the chord sheet, without which I’m lost.During this period of Pandemic I was able to visit your site . Just copied the circle of Fifth PDF. I play bass , a little piano. Thanks Julie .Lets see how far it takes me .
    Thanks once again.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome, I’m so glad you’re finding it helpful!

  12. Vaibhav Gupta

    Hey Julie, Thank you for explaining the Circle of Fifths in such a simple and uncomplicated way! I am learning to play the guitar and this has helped me a lot. Stay Safe and healthy!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m so glad it’s helpful for you!

  13. DR HANEEF MOHD

    really interesting and easy to understand

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad it’s helpful!

  14. Marcie Moseley

    This very helpful…I will use it with my students!
    Thank you foryour generosity in sharing this!
    We all know this and teach it, but it’s so very helpful to have snd use these pages! Again, thanks from my ❤️!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re very welcome!

  15. Samson Mangin

    Hi Julie, thank you for sharing your talent.
    This is the best explanation in learning piano I have ever read so far!
    God bless You

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      What an encouragement to hear, thank you!

  16. Peter Goh

    Dear Julie,
    Your teaching is is indeed a blessing to me in learning music to worship Him. You have made it simple and clear for me to understand. Keep up the good work. Thank you for the inspiration to keep on learning music. Praise the Lord.

    Shalom,
    Peter Goh

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Thank you so much for the encouraging message! I’m glad it’s helpful!

  17. George is Giles

    Thank you so very much Julie. (I am 85 ( going on 58) smile. I am a crooner from the past ( old school). And my bucket list is to learn more about how to play the piano for myself and others. No one wants to hear me sing anymore they all say that I am to old but I want to play for God’s glory and the love of Peace I have found in music. Sing about him 👋😌

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m glad you’re jumping in and learning the piano – it’s never too late!

  18. Roderic Robinson

    Along with a few real talented buddies, I’ve written some “accidental” music that came out pretty good, not really knowing what I’m doing – just going by ear. Primarily guitar and keys, with some vocals thrown in after the fact. It’s great to go back into them after all these years – learning what you teach and seeing what we were actually doing – and actually understanding it now! You have great content and an outstanding delivery. Thanks for what you do Julie.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Oh I’m so glad to hear that! I know what you mean – and I’m so glad you’re understanding the theory behind the music you were creating!

  19. J.JAMES DOMINICSAVIO

    Respected Mam,
    This is JAMES DOMINICSAVIO, I have gone through all your Preparations just really wonderful. We are expecting service all future.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Thank you, I’m glad it’s helpful!

  20. Gerly

    gracias por facilitarnos de tu archivo, que Dios te bendiga

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome, I’m glad it’s helpful!

  21. Sandeep Sharma

    Wow , Julie you never know how much you helping to people like me from all around the world 🌎.
    Thanks a bunch and hugs 🤗

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad to hear that, thank you!

  22. Ray Molekoa

    Hi Julie, I don’t have enough words to thank you for the priceless lessons. Thank you again. Just been to the music store to check out their digital pianos and have an eye on one to practice and learn your lessons

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Oh that’s wonderful, I’m so glad to hear that!

  23. Teddy Philips

    Hi, Julie.
    I play the bass guitar.
    All my life, I’ve played by ear and never went to music school, so I basically taught myself everything I know. With your help, I finally have a way to understand what I’m doing.
    Thank You Very Much🤗

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      That’s wonderful! I’m so glad to hear that!

  24. Rich

    The Circle of 5ths does not show the minor keys,

    Reply
  25. LP

    Hi Julie. Thanks so much for your article I just found. I have a question about something that confuses me all the time. For instance, you have an article about an A-sharp-minor scale. But if I look at the circle of fifths there is no A-sharp. There is an A and there is an A-flat, but no A#. I know I that an A-sharp is the same thing as a B-flat on the piano keyboard. I am just wondering why you don’t call it a G-flat scale when there is no A-sharp scale on the circle of fifths. Thanks for your help.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Yes, this is a great question! Each major scale has a relative minor scale. This means these two scales use the same notes to build their scales, but start and end on different notes. Each minor scale is built off the sixth note of its relative major scale. An A sharp minor scale is relative to a C sharp major scale, since A sharp is the sixth note of the C sharp major scale. So A sharp is the first note in the relative minor scale, and the notes in the scale then proceed alphabetically. I hope that helps!

  26. Enrique Flores

    I read some of your reader’s comments , and find them unable to perceive your explanation of the flats . where you use fifths , instead of fourths?

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Yes, the circle of fifths moves by fifths ascending to build the major sharp scales, and by fifths descending to build the major flat scales. So while F is a fourth up from C, is we descend from C down to F we are moving down by a fifth. If we ascend by fourths, by starting on C and moving up to F, we are building the major flat scales, and if we descend by fourths, starting on C and moving down to G, we are building the major sharp scales.

  27. Steve

    Hi Julie: thanks for the chart. I love music and play guitar, then added saxophone. The latter taught me sharps and flats.

    I too love patterns for to help simplify remembering the number of accidentals (??) each per key.

    When I laid out the scales, diatonically and started counting sharps and flats to help me memorize, I found for A,B,D,E,G alwasy totals 7.
    A major sharps (3) + A major flats (4) = 7
    B ” ” (5) + B ” ” (2) = 7

    etc

    however C and F are oddballs with 0 and 1 accidental respectively (probably that 1/2 step thing)

    any insight into that?

    thanks

    AMa

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m glad you’re enjoying studying the patterns of music! Do I understand correctly you’re noticing that an A major scale has three sharps, and an A flat major scale has four flats, for a total of 7 sharps or flats when both types of A scales are added together? And the same being true for B major with five sharps, and B flat major with 2 flats, etc?
      If I understand correctly, then F would also fit the pattern as an F major scale has one flat, and an F sharp major scale has 6 sharps.
      However, C major not having any sharps or flats, but then C sharp major having seven sharps and C flat major having seven flats will break the pattern, yes.
      I hope that helps!

  28. Philippe G. Bernard

    I’m a 78 y.o. learning to read music and piano and studying the “Circle of Fifths.” Where do I find on the keyboard the note C-Flat appearing on the image and text appearing with the circle of fifths? And if there is a C-Flat, would there be an F-Flat, too? And thanks for your generosity and patience in helping us novices, Julie. Especially an ignoramus like me.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome, I’m glad the content is helpful! Yes, that’s a good question. The flat sign indicates the note 1/2 step down, which is the note just to the left, and the sharp sign indicates the note 1/2 step up, which is the note just to the right. So a C flat is the same note as a B, and an F flat would be the same note as an E. The reason there isn’t an F flat key in the circle of fifths is because the circle of fifths teaches the major scales, and there isn’t an F flat major scale, although there is an E major scale. The scales are labeled this way based on how the circle moves. There are a few “enharmonic” scales, which are scales that have two possible names, such as G flat and F sharp, or C flat and B. However, you’ll notice there is an F flat note in the C flat major scale, and it is labeled as “F flat” instead of “E” to keep the note names in alphabetical order, since the scale starts on C flat. It can be kind of confusing at first, but gets easier over time!

  29. Lisamarie Chant

    i play the psaltery. always looking for good music theory

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Oh neat, I’m glad this is helpful!

  30. Stefan Melnychenko

    This was fantastic! Well explained. I would love to see the same for minor keys and how modes fit into everything if you have them?

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Thank you, I’m so glad to hear that! I do have this post explaining minor scales and how they correspond to their relative major scales here: https://www.julieswihart.com/minor-scales-piano/
      I don’t have anything on modes right now, but I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you!

  31. Tar

    Hi Julie. I’m Portuguese and it’s very difficult to understand technical English. However, this lesson about the cycle of 5th and 4th was very good. This subject has always been very complicated for me. I never fully understood it. However, now it seems that a light is beginning to appear at the end of the tunnel on this topic. Your explanation brought more light to my understanding of this subject. Thank you very much for this teaching!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      What an encouraging comment! I really appreciate it, and I’m so glad to know it’s helpful!

  32. Marilyn Noffsinger

    Another helpful tip is that when building knowledge of scales in terms of numbers of sharps or flats, SHARPS GO UP and FLATS GO DOWN 5 NOTES.Vocalists and instrumentalists can relate to this because if a pitch is SHARP it is ABOVE the note. If a pitch is FLAT it is BELOW the note.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Thank you Marilyn, that is a helpful tip!

  33. Linda Shinn

    Oh my gosh Julie thank you so much. Starting my second semester of theory in college. And my third semester of piano. Like other comments I am 61 years old, retired military nurse, and playing Piano to the best of my ability — has been on my bucket list forever. Thank you. Thank you so much.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Oh I’m so glad to hear that! Thank you for the encouraging words, and I’m so happy this is helpful for you!

  34. Linda Shinn

    Do your cards for all major and minor scale include the correct fingering of each scale

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Hi Linda, thank you for your interest! I don’t have any cards, but I do sell PDF printables which you can download and print at home. The major scales printable and minor scales printable do show the fingering for left and right hands. Thank you!

  35. Susan

    I have found the way you explain the Circle of Fifths easy to understand. Than you!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome, I’m so glad to hear that!

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