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:
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 Printable
Get started learning piano chords with this 25-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 A B C D E F♯ G
D E F♯ G A B C♯ D
A B C♯ D E F♯ G♯ A
E F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D♯ E
B C♯ D♯ E F♯ G♯ A♯ B
F♯ G♯ A♯ B C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯
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 G A B♭ C D E F
B♭ C D E♭ F G A B♭
E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C D E ♭
A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G A♭
D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C D♭
G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F G♭
C♭ D♭ E♭ F♭ G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭
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.
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!
Very well explained! A good teacher makes things easy to understand. I think you have that gift!
Thank you so much!
I so admire the care and precision you lend to educating pianists. Well done!
Thank you so much!
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.
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.
Very useful information with # & b Scales to practice. Thank you very much, Julie.
You’re welcome Dharmendra!
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.
I’m so glad to hear that! Thank you so much!
Thank you so much for the way you explain that so simple God has truly given you beautiful gift & I thank you for sharing
What a kind comment, thank you so much Peggy!
You really explain things so well. What seems complicated you make simple! Thanks so much.
That’s so encouraging, thank you!
Julie, Your explanations are clear and extremely helpful along with the actual circle. You are a superb teacher.
What a kind comment, thank you so much!
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!
Your comment is such an encouragement to me, thank you so much!
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
You’re welcome – I’m so glad it’s helpful for you!
This is the best so far. Simple yet so clear and very understandable, glad i found your site, Thanks Julie!
I’m so glad it’s helpful for you Chesie!
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.
You’re welcome, I’m so glad you’re finding it helpful!
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!
Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m so glad it’s helpful for you!
really interesting and easy to understand
I’m so glad it’s helpful!
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 ❤️!
You’re very welcome!
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
What an encouragement to hear, thank you!
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.
Thank you so much for the encouraging message! I’m glad it’s helpful!
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 👋😌
I’m glad you’re jumping in and learning the piano – it’s never too late!
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.
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!
This is JAMES DOMINICSAVIO, I have gone through all your Preparations just really wonderful. We are expecting service all future.
Thank you, I’m glad it’s helpful!
gracias por facilitarnos de tu archivo, que Dios te bendiga
You’re welcome, I’m glad it’s helpful!
Wow , Julie you never know how much you helping to people like me from all around the world 🌎.
Thanks a bunch and hugs 🤗
I’m so glad to hear that, thank you!
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
Oh that’s wonderful, I’m so glad to hear that!
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🤗
That’s wonderful! I’m so glad to hear that!
The Circle of 5ths does not show the minor keys,
Yes, however you can find the list of relative minor keys here: https://www.julieswihart.com/minor-scales-piano/
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.
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!
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?
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.