Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is the Circle of Fifths? Learn Popular Chord Progressions That Use the Circle of Fifths

Written by MasterClass

Apr 30, 2019 • 5 min read

Western music is divided into 12 pitches, and each of those pitches can be the root note of a wide array of chords—major, minor, dominant, diminished, augmented, and more. Those chords can appear in any order within a song or composition, but some chord progressions just seem to naturally “sound good.” One such progression is where the chords move in fifths.

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What Is the Circle of Fifths?

The circle of fifths is a sequence of keys (and their root chords) graphically represented in a circle, where each key or chord is seven semitones away from the key or chord next to it in the circle.

Circle of fifths

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  • Most circles of fifths begin with a C major at the top of the circle. One tick clockwise is G major—and the notes in a G major chord are seven semitones away from the notes in a C major chord. However, we can also say that G major is the fifth chord derived from a C major scale, so it is “a perfect fifth away” from C.
  • The next tick in the clockwise direction brings us to D major, which is a perfect fifth away from G major. Then we get A major, which is a perfect fifth away from D major. So with each clockwise tick around the circle, we continue to move in fifths until we eventually end up back at C major.
  • On the inner ring of the circle of fifths, we encounter minor keys and the root chords associated with them. The key/chord at the top of the inner ring of the circle of fifths is A minor. (A minor is known as the relative minor of C major. Its scale contains all the same notes as a C major scale; it just has A as its root instead of C.) If we move one tick clockwise from A minor, we get E minor, which is a perfect fifth away. Another tick clockwise brings us to B minor, which is a perfect fifth away from E minor. Once again, we keep moving in fifths until we eventually return to our original key/chord of A minor.

What Are Enharmonic Pitches? Enharmonic Pitches on the Circle of Fifths

Enharmonic pitches are pitches that sound the same but have different names. C# and Db are enharmonic equivalents. They produce the exact same note, but the names vary depending on harmonic motion and the home key of the song you’re playing.

As a general rule in the circle of fifths, when you move clockwise around the circle, you use the sharp key name for enharmonic pitches (for instance you’d use C# instead of Db), but when you move counter-clockwise, you use the flat key name (for instance you’d use Gb instead of F#).

In music theory, some keys are only called by one of their two potential enharmonic names. For instance, music theorists do not consider there to be a key of A# major. This is because the names of the individual notes in an A# major scale are thorny to deal with. For instance:

  • The second note in the scale would be a B# (which is enharmonically the same thing as C).
  • The third note in the scale would technically be C-double-sharp.

Rather than deal with this mess, music theorists discard the notion of an A# major scale and simply call it by its enharmonic name: the Bb major scale. It has all the same notes, but none of the messy nomenclature. That’s one reason why you’ll see Bb major on the circle of fifths but not A# major.

What Is the Circle of Fourths?

If you follow the circle of fifths in the opposite direction—counter-clockwise—you end up tracing the circle of fourths. Let’s once again start at the top of the circle. One tick counter-clockwise from C major is F major. And indeed, F major is a perfect fourth below C major. The next counter-clockwise tick brings us to Bb, a perfect fourth below F. The movement in fourths continues until eventually returning to the top of the circle where we’re back at C major.

Chord Progressions That Use the Circle of Fifths

Chord progressions that move in fifths sound very pleasing to the western ear, and they’re all over popular music. Here are a few examples:

  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Hey Joe” (1966). This song was written by a man named Billy Roberts and was recorded by multiple groups in the 1960s before Jimi Hendrix and his trio cut the definitive version. The song literally cycles through the circle of fifths. When played in the key of C major (as it often is) its progression starts on a C major chord, followed by a G major, a D major, an A major, and finally an E major, which it lingers on before repeating the cycle.
  • George & Ira Gershwin, “I Got Rhythm” (1930). This tune, written for the musical Crazy Girl, practically defines the term “jazz standard.” Unlike “Hey Joe,” which moves up in fifths, “I Got Rhythm” moves down in fifths. Its chord progression is so famous that it’s earned its own name—rhythm changes—and these have appeared in hundreds of other jazz tunes, from Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail” to Charlie Christian’s “Seven Come Eleven.” Note that in addition to analyzing “rhythm changes” as moving downward in fifths, one can also say they are moving upward in fourths. It’s like moving counter-clockwise around the circle of fifths. Indeed perfect fifths and perfect fourths are mirror images of one another.
  • Santana, “Europa” (1976). This instrumental, co-written and performed by guitar legend Carlos Santana, is based on a 16-bar progression that follows the circle of fifths. Santana uses a composition technique that he calls “playing a poem.” He writes down lines of poetry and then attempts to express the poem’s words through music. In this case, the poem itself was written by Santana: he composed it to help a friend dealing with a bad acid trip. The opening notes of the song mimic the cadence from a line of the poem: “The mushroom lady is coming to town.”

The circle of fifths is really just a jumping off point for your own musical explorations. Very few songs strictly adhere to it. Instead, players and composers will take a larger composition and insert a section that moves in fifths. These passages sound naturally pleasing to the ear, but, in a sense, they can sound a little too familiar, which is why it’s often wise to mix them in with other types of harmonic motion.