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Music theory can seem like a boring topic at times. But the truth is that it’s a lot of fun when you begin connecting the dots and have “aha” moments.

If you’re trying to write a song with a great chord progression, theory will help.

If you’re trying to come up with a killer guitar or saxophone solo, theory will help.

If you want to jam with others and be able to play more spontaneously, theory will help there, too.

Once you’ve learned the basics, the next step is to explore the circle of fifths. And, there are plenty of interesting discoveries you can make while studying it. Let’s look at a few examples.

How Music Theory Works

From a bird’s eye view, the circle of fifths reveals the fundamentals of music theory.

And, the more time you spend with it, the better you will understand theory.

It teaches you about the 12 key signatures and how they work – how many sharps and flats are in each.

It teaches you about the relationship between each key. The closer they are together on the wheel, the more “related” they are.

It teaches you about intervals or the distance between any two notes.

And much more.

How To Identify All Key Signatures

This is what the circle of fifths is primarily used for.

It tells you exactly how many sharps or flats are in any key. And, you can also see which keys would be considered sharp (#) keys and which would be considered flat (b) keys at a glance.

Now, if you don’t understand the relationship between each key, that’s where you’d start. Moving clockwise around the circle, the circle of fifths moves up by fifths.

That’s easy to say, but what exactly does it mean?

Start with the C major scale. What notes are in it? C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

What’s the fifth note (degree) in the scale? G, right? So, the fifth of C is G.

And, you can do the same thing with G and every key that follows. The fifth of G is D. The fifth of D is A. And so on.

You can also discover relative minor keys. Typically, a circle of fifths diagram will tell you what the relative minor keys are. In the case of C, it’s Am. With G it’s Em, and so on.

As with how we took the fifth degree of C to identify G, we can identify the relative minor key by taking the sixth degree of C, which happens to be A.

Also note that there is a pattern moving in a counterclockwise direction too. F is the fourth degree of C. So, going in this direction, it becomes the circle of fourths.

You can also learn about enharmonic keys, which is a fancy way of saying a key signature that goes by more than one name.

I tend to think of it as a compensatory way of explaining keys like F#, which is also the key of Gb. They are the same key, but they would be depicted differently in sheet music.

This is where a lot of students tend to stop with the circle of fifths. But there is more to discover, so keep reading to find out what else you can learn.

How To Find Scales & Modes

A scale is merely a set of notes that sound good together.

If that caused you to wonder whether you can invent your own scale, in a sense you can, but there’s a good chance it’s been discovered already.

Anyway, let’s start with the absolute basics – the major scale.

The major scale is a diatonic scale, meaning it has seven notes. You may also recall that we looked at the C major scale a little earlier.

If you start directly to the left of the target note on the wheel and count to seven, you will have found the major scale for the note you started on.

So, in the case of C, if you start at F and count to seven, you get F, C, G, D, A, E and B. That’s the C major scale, even though the notes are a little out of order.

What about modes of the major scale?

A mode, if you aren’t aware, is essentially a variation on the major scale. Since there are seven notes in the major scale, that means we can create seven variations with it.

The names of the mode are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.

But how exactly do you find modes using the circle of fifths? Simply start at the tonic and count seven notes to the right.

In the case of G, that would give you the notes G, D, A, E, B, F# and C#.

Again, you’d have to reorder the notes (G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#), but that would give you the fourth mode of the major scale: Lydian.

You can follow the same formula to find all Lydian scales.

G Lydian is derived from D Ionian since the key of D has two sharps: C# and F#.

If that doesn’t make any sense to you right now, that’s okay. It’s just one thing you’ll discover by studying the circle of fifths.

How To Build Chords

Chords are built in thirds.

Looking at the C major scale again, if we wanted to create a C major chord, we’d take the first, third and fifth notes of the scale:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

So, a C major chord would be made up of the notes C, E and G.

You can repeat this process to get all the chords in the key of C (or any key you happen to be working with) by starting on second degree, third degree and so on.

Now, do keep in mind that there are major, minor and diminished chords in every key.

There is a formula to this, and I’ve committed it to memory. It’s major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished.

There is a different process for building every type of chord using the circle of fifths. Here, I’ll look at major chords and minor chords.

So, first a major chord. All we need to do is draw a triangle on the circle of fifths to reveal our major chord.

I already shared that the notes in a C major chord are C, E and G. We already know that G is a fifth above C, so finding that note is easy.

To find the third, we need to move four spaces to the right. That’s where you’ll find your E.

So, you can follow this exact process to build any major chord of your choosing.

Now for a minor chord. The only difference in a minor chord is a flatted third.

That means C minor must be composed of C, Eb and G.

Again, we already know where the fifth is. The third, however, is three spaces to the left of the tonic.

You can use the same formula to find any minor chord.

As I already mentioned, you can use the circle of fifths to find other types of chords too, whether it’s dominant 7th, major 7th, minor 7th or otherwise.

How To Modulate More Effectively

Modulation is also known as a key change.

Key changes occur in a variety of songs. They’re not exactly “hot” these days, but even pop songs sometimes have a modulated chorus section for dramatic effect.

You can hear this on “Love On Top” by Beyoncé. During the last four chorus repeats, the song keeps modulating by a half step.

Modulation can bring interest to an interlude, bridge section, guitar solo or otherwise.

What the circle of fifths shows us is how each key signature is related to the other. So, starting with C, we know that the keys of F and G must be siblings of C, which they are.

And, the keys of Eb and D would be cousins.

What this tells us is that we can move effectively from C to one of the neighboring keys without a big stretch.

There are different ways of handling modulation, whether it’s with common chords, common tones, modulation by a step or other. That’s something for you to discover.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t break the rules. There are plenty of songs that do. Def Leppard writes a lot of songs with odd modulation. But it always sounds cool and it works.

So, experiment for yourself.

How To Write Better Songs

Knowing what chords sound good together is a major advantage.

Knowing how to modulate from one key to another can add color and interest to your music.

Understanding scales and modes can help you come up with cool melodies and chord progressions.

There are plenty of ways the circle of fifths can help you write better songs, if that’s something you’d like to do.

You can always experiment with chord progressions that move up or down in fifths or fourths. This has been done before, but so have most pleasant-sounding chord progressions.

So, have some fun with the circle of fifths and see what you can come up with.

It’s Time To Get Cracking!

We’ve only scratched the surface in this lesson. I’d suggest digging deeper into the circle of fifths if you don’t already know how it all works. There’s more for you to discover than I’ve covered

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