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.
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!