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’re important or how to remember all of them? In this article, we will learn about the circle of fifths, key signatures, and how to apply this knowledge to our piano practice. Download our free Circle of Fifths Reference Guide.
What is the circle of fifths?
The circle of fifths is an organizational tool for the fifteen major and natural minor scales. That may seem like a lot of scales to remember, but don’t worry. They’re arranged in a logical order that is based entirely on one interval: the perfect fifth. Once you know the rules, it’s much easier to internalize and understand.
Why should I learn the circle of fifths?
Mastering this tool will help you learn how to play the piano faster and with greater understanding. Nearly all music (other than atonal or serialist music) is written using major and minor keys. This is called tonal music, meaning that there is a specific tonal center (a pitch or chord that the piece keeps returning to). This holds true whether you’re playing jazz, classical, pop, rock, or country music. All the chords you can play in a particular key revolve around this center. In order to play chords in different keys, it’s important to know the sharps or flats used by those keys. The circle of fifths organizes all the different keys and makes them much easier to remember.
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What is the easiest way to memorize the circle of 5ths?
Start on C and count letter names UP in perfect fifths (to the right on the piano keyboard). Remember: always include your starting letter when you count intervals. A perfect fifth above C is G (C-D-E-F-G). A perfect fifth above G is D (G-A-B-C-D), and so on. This is the order of sharp keys in the circle of 5ths: each new key starts a fifth above the previous one. Memorize this pattern:
What is a perfect fifth? Visit this article if you need to brush up on your intervals.
We start at the top of the circle of 5ths with C major, which has no sharps or flats:
Going up a fifth (to the right on the circle of 5ths), we find our first sharp key, G major, which has one sharp, F-sharp:
Up another fifth, the next sharp key is D major, with two sharps, F-sharp and C-sharp:
One more for now: a fifth above D is our next sharp key, A major, with three sharps, F-sharp, C-sharp, and G sharp:
You may be starting to notice a pattern. With each new sharp key, the newly added sharp comes one letter name before the name of the key. In G major, the new sharp is F-sharp. In D major, C-sharp is the new sharp. In A major, we add a G-sharp. This is because the newly sharped note is always the seventh note of the scale, one note below the tonic. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the sharp keys, and gives you a quick way to identify any key signature. Look at the last sharp in any sharp key signature, and then go up a half step. That’s the name of the key you’re in!
You might also notice that the ordering of the sharps in the key signature is also based on the fifth. The first sharp is F-sharp, then C-sharp, then G-sharp, and so on. Each new sharp is a perfect fifth above the previous one.
Start on C and count letter names DOWN in perfect fifths (to the left on the keyboard). A perfect fifth below F is G (C-B-A-G-F). A perfect fifth below F is B-flat (F-E-D-C-B-flat), and so on. This is the order of flat keys in the circle of 5ths: each new key starts a fifth below the previous one. Memorize this pattern:
For flat keys, the order of the keys and flats are determined by counting down the keyboard (to the left). Once again, the first key included on the circle of 5ths is C major, with no sharps or flats:
Going down a fifth (to the left on the circle of 5ths this time), we find our first flat key, F major, which has one flat, B-flat:
Down another fifth, the next flat key is B-flat major, with two flats, B-flat and E-flat:
A fifth below B-flat is our next flat key, E-flat major, with three flats, B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat:
Now, the neat trick we learned to identify sharp key signatures won’t work here. Fortunately, there’s another trick for flat keys. Simply look at the next-to-last flat in any flat key signature: that’s the name of the key!
And, just as with sharps the ordering of the flats in the key signature is also based on the fifth. The first flat is B-flat, then E-flat, then A-flat, and on it goes. The only difference is that each new flat is a perfect fifth below the previous one.
So the order of sharps in the key signature is:
And the order of flats is:
One final trick to help you memorize all this: the order of flats is the exact reverse of the order of sharps!
With all of this in mind, here is the complete circle of 5ths for major keys. Included are all the relative minor keys as well; they obey the same organizational rules as the others!
How do you play the circle of 5ths on piano?
At Hoffman Academy, we teach a simplified version of the circle of 5ths called the ladder of fifths, which follows the same patterns as outlined 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 no sharps or flats) at the bottom, and the keys with the most sharps or flats at the top. Check out these Hoffman Academy videos to learn more about the ladder of fifths and circle of 5ths. 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 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 5ths! 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!