The Cycle of Fifths - essential theory for guitars and keyboards

The Cycle of Fifths

The Cycle of Fifths is the key to understanding Western music. It is truly a thing of beauty in its symmetry, simplicity and fruitfulness. As a Classic Guitarist, the cycle of fifths has taught me a great deal about harmony and transposition. But whatever your instrument, learning the cycle of fifths is time very well spent.

Creating the Cycle

Conventionally, the cycle of fifths is introduced by first discussing major scales in all keys. This is the keyboard harmony approach. But for guitarists, I think it's easier to come at it directly - first create the cycle, then see what we can do with it.

Imagine a clock face.

Where the 12 would be, write the note C.

Where the 1 would be, write the note G which is a perfect fifth above C.

Where the 2 would be, write the note D which is a perfect fifth above G

Continue by fifths - A, E, B, F#, C#, which takes you to 7 o'clock.

Now go back to the top and this time go anticlockwise

Where the 11 would be, write the note F which is a perfect fifth below C

Where the 10 would be, write the note Bb which is a perfect fifth below F

Continue by descending fifths - Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb

Now look at what you've created:

The Cycle of Fifths

The Cycle of Fifths - a thing of beauty!
The Cycle of Fifths - a thing of beauty! | Source

Cycle of Fifths - major keys

We created the cycle by thinking of notes, but let's now think of it in terms of major keys. Starting with C which has no sharps or flats, clockwise we go through progressively sharper keys. G has one sharp, D has two, A has three, and so on, with C# having the maximum seven.

Again starting from C, anticlockwise we have the sequence of flat keys. F has one flat, Bb has two, Eb has three, and so on, with Cb having the maximum seven.

Because we nowadays use Equal Temperament tuning on keyboards and guitars, F# and Gb are exactly the same pitch, as are C#/Db and B/Cb. (I explain this in detail in my Equal Temperament Guitar Tuning page).

Using the Cycle

Most guitarists are familiar with the Three Chord Trick used for accompanying hundreds of simple songs. Playing in C, you need the chords F and G. But F and G appear one step anticlockwise and clockwise from C in the cycle. This is true for every key. For example, to play in Ab, you'll need Db and Eb, the adjacent chords.

Then, playing in C, you'll often need Am (the relative minor of C). In the cycle of fifths, the relative minor is always three steps clockwise round the cycle. So, in our Ab example, you'll need Fm.

These are simple examples, but the beauty and power of the cycle lies in its perfect symmetry. Though we started with C at the top, thanks to the ingenuity of Equal Temperament, the circle is complete and relationships between keys hold good at every point.

Making a Transposing Tool

A useful transposing tool (mostly for guitarists) can be made from two cycle charts, one smaller than the other, pinned together at the centre so that they can rotate. See below:

A Transposing Tool

quickly play in any key
quickly play in any key | Source

Suppose you have a chord sequence for a song, like this:

Cm / G / | Cm / Bb / | Eb / / / | G / G7 / |

(which is the start of St James's Infirmary, in Cm)

If you want to play it in Fm, rotate the inner disc till the C lines up with the F on the outer disc. Then simply read off the new sequence. The sequence of majors, minors, sevenths etc doesn't change. Only the letter name changes:

Fm / C / | Fm / Eb / | Ab / / / | C / C7 / |

This is a relatively simple transposition into a closely related key, and many players could do it 'on the fly'. But for more remote key changes, or sometimes for arranging on paper without an instrument handy, the transposing tool can be a great help.

Finally, this was intended simply as an introduction to the cycle of fifths. At the risk of sounding mystical, the more you look into this beautiful structure, the more insights it will give you into how music works.

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Comments 24 comments

tom mullen profile image

tom mullen 8 years ago from Apollo Beach, FL

Oh, my head! I haven't seen this stuff since the 80's! I like the pin wheel tool - never thought of that. Now, if you could come up with something that reminds me what harmonica to play with in each key, I would be eternally grateful. :)

t.keeley profile image

t.keeley 8 years ago from Seattle, WA

I used this heavily in musical theory growing up, and I have yet to forget it!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks both - and it all works because of the beautiful invention of Equal Temperament, without which Western music would still be stuck in limited modulation between closely related keys.

johnny 8 years ago

This explanationis is too vague

8 years ago

Wow! All of your guitar hubs have been a BIG help to me. Thank you so much for putting this together and I hope to continue to see/use your work.

captinmike 7 years ago from UK

Thanks for this. Don't you just love music theory

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Music theory can be a lot of fun, and productive too. So, yes!

nicksstuff profile image

nicksstuff 7 years ago from Going for a swim in the ocean.

Ah - I never understood the cycle of 5th's before. Great hub - thanks man.

nick 7 years ago

if a song starts from a monor chord then???

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Nickstuff - thanks, glad it helped.

Nick - same thing. In minor keys the three principle chords are Im, IVm and V, e.g. in Am, the closely related chords are Dm and E, which are one place either side of A in the cycle. Try it and you'll hear it's right.

charlotte 7 years ago

the fog has cleared - now I see. Thank you

prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

Wow Dave, this is good in harmonica too, good, I find it very helpful, am novice in guitar....

Thanks once more, have a good day always! Maita

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Maita - it works on any instrument :) Except drums, that don't need to care about pitch !

activewriter profile image

activewriter 6 years ago from Heber Springs, Ar

Great article. Even us double bass players rely on basic music theory. Look forward to following you from now on!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Activewriter - I'd say bass players need it more than anyone, especially if they venture into jazz!

activewriter profile image

activewriter 6 years ago from Heber Springs, Ar

Exactly. The 'bass dude' is expected to know where everyone is and what the next change is. Guitar players have the luxury of noodling around. Really enjoy your articles.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

And if you're playing a 'walking bass' line, you really have to be two steps ahead, to make sense of the direction you're heading!

Matt 6 years ago

Cool summary - I'm trying to get my head around it as well.

Let me ask this: is this tool/cycle used only for transcribing chord progressions into a different key? I'm trying to come up with ways to apply this to my playing. Judging from the comments (i'm a bass player) i'd better know this stuff inside and out!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Matt - the tool (with two discs) is just for transposing, but the cycle itself is at the heart of western harmony. Well worth learning, for bass.

reuben 6 years ago

great stuff, keep up the great works

stratocarter profile image

stratocarter 6 years ago

Very interesting article!

AD 4 years ago

As a pianist I find this knowledge invaluable if you are improvising jazz or composing and every now and then it even crops up in classical peformance as well

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi AD - yes, it's never far below the surface in western harmonic music.

raghuveer rathore 14 months ago

This is the magic of music its doctor of diseas of music.verrrrrrrrrry thanksssssss.

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