Interested in the circle of fifths? Piano players can use this resource to learn all about the circle of fifths.
What is the circle of fifths and why is it important when learning to play the piano? Have you ever been confused by key signatures? Have you ever wondered why they are important or how you can remember all of them? In this article, we will learn about the circle of fifths, the arrangement of key signatures, and how to apply this knowledge to our piano practice.
What is the circle of fifths?
The circle of fifths is an organizational tool for the twelve major and minor keys of the chromatic scale. That may seem like a lot of keys to remember, but don’t worry – these keys are arranged in a logical order that is completely controlled by fifth intervals! Once you know the rules, it’s much easier to internalize and understand.
Why should I learn the circle of fifths?
Why is it important to learn the circle of fifths? How will this help me learn how to play the piano? Nearly all music (other than atonal/serialist music) is written using major and minor keys. This music is called tonal music, meaning that the music has a specific tonal center (a pitch/chord that the piece keeps returning to). Whether you are playing jazz, classical, popular music, rock music, or country music, you are most likely playing tonal music. As stated in the previous paragraph, major and minor keys are arranged using the circle of fifths. In order to play chords in different keys, it’s important to know those keys and the sharps or flats within those keys! By learning the circle of fifths, you are gaining this knowledge.
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What is the easiest way to memorize the circle of fifths?
The easiest way to memorize the circle of fifths is to learn to name the notes up and down the keyboard, be able to name them in fifth intervals, and then memorize that pattern. Below is a description of how you can apply this pattern to the piano.
The first key included on the circle of fifths is C major, which has 0 sharps/flats. If we count C as 1 and count up the keyboard (to the right) 5 pitches (ex: C(1), D(2), E(3), F(4), G(5)), we land on G as 5. G major has 1 sharp, which is F#. In order to get the next key, we count up another five pitches (ex: G(1), A(2), B(3), C(4), D(5)) and land on D as 5. D major has 2 sharps. The order of sharps are determined in intervals of fifths as well. F# is the first sharp, and if we count up five pitches, we land on C#. So, D major’s two sharps are F# and C#. We can see this pattern continue to work as we move on to the next key. Counting up another five pitches (ex: D(1), E(2), F(3), G(4), A(5)), we will land on A as 5, meaning that A major has 3 sharps. These sharps are F#, C#, and G#. Notice that G# is a fifth higher than C#. This pattern continues throughout the circle of fifths and moves clockwise for sharp keys.
For flat keys, the order of the keys and flats are determined by counting down the keyboard (to the left). For example: The first key included on the circle of fifths is C major, which has 0 sharps/flats. If we count C as 1 and count down 5 pitches (ex: C(1), B(2), A(3), G(4), F(5)), we land on F as 5. F major has 1 flat, which is Bb. In order to get the next key, we count down another five pitches (ex: F(1), E(2), D(3), C(4), Bb(5)) and land on Bb as 5. Bb major has 2 flats. These flats are determined in intervals of fifths as well, meaning that Bb is the first flat and if we count down five pitches, we land on Eb. So, Bb major’s two flats are Bb and Eb. We can see this pattern continue to work by moving on to the next key. Counting down another five pitches (ex: Bb(1), Ab(2), Gb(3), Fb(4), Eb(5)), we will land on Eb as 5, meaning that Eb major has 3 flats. These flats are Bb, Eb, and Ab. Notice that Ab is a fifth lower than Eb. This pattern continues throughout the circle of fifths for flats the same way it does for sharps, except that it moves counterclockwise for flat keys.
How do you play the circle of fifths on piano?
At Hoffman Academy, we teach a simplified version of the circle of fifths called the ladder of fifths, which follows the same principles and patterns as outlined in the paragraphs above. The difference is that instead of arranging the keys in a circle, the keys are arranged on a “ladder” that has C major (with 0 sharps/flats) at the bottom and the keys with the most sharps/flats at the top! Check out these Hoffman Academy videos to learn more about the ladder of fifths and circle of fifths! The information is recorded in a step by step manner, so I recommend watching them in order. Here’s video 1, The Circle of 5ths Challenge:
Video 2: Introducing Key Signatures and the Ladder of Fifths
Video 3: Ladder of Fifths
Video 4: Ladder of Fifths Part 2
Pro Tip: In order to practice the knowledge that you’ve learned in this article, I recommend practicing your finger power assignments like octave scales, arpeggios, and chord inversions in order of the circle of fifths! If you do this everyday, you will internalize the circle of fifths and different key signatures.
I hope that you have the joy of playing in many different keys while you are creating music! Happy playing!