Circle (of Fifths) Your Wagons!

In business or in life, don’t follow the wagon tracks too closely.     ~H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (author of Life’s Little Instruction Book)

All things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle. ~Marcus Aurelius 121-180 C.E. (Roman emperor, best known for his meditations on Stoic philosophy)


If you’re practicing a melodic instrument, the circle of fifths (also called the cycle of fifths or circle/cycle of fourths) is a fantastic tool to help you navigate most musical waters. It’s a tool that helps to explain how music moves harmonically, and applies to almost all forms of tonal music. When you practice your scales or chord progressions, this guide can help you practice them in the way that you’ll find them in actual performed music. If you practice scales in this order, you’ll be doing triple duty: not only will you be getting the scales/chords under your fingers, but you’ll be practicing the order in which you’ll find them and you’ll be getting the sound of how these move from one to the next into your consciousness.

One of the fundamental reasons we get satisfaction from sound is the way the sounds create tension and relaxation (check out Leonard Meyer for more theoretical info), and the way this works is reflected in the circle of fifths. Because this is a blog on practice and not music theory, I’ll only give a brief overview of the circle and will instead focus on how to use it with your practice. For more free information, go here and visit page 164/166. Here’s a diagram of the circle. Included in this diagram are the sharps and flats of the major key signatures. Motion around the circle is COUNTERCLOCKWISE(aka, widdershins :-)). This is important. When you practice using the circle, go counterclockwise because that’s how most music moves. More after the diagram.

If the concept of the circle of fifths is unfamiliar to you, the best thing to do is just to play each note around the circle, one note at a time and really listen to how these sounds move from one to another. One of the reasons that there is some confusion (Fifths/Fourths) about the name of this device is that depending on whether you go up or down in pitch, you get a different number. For example, if you move downward from C to F, that is what’s called a fifth (again, go here for free music theory help), but if you move upward from C to F, that is a fourth. Let’s move on because what’s important and cool about this relates to how chords move in Western music (that’s classical, jazz, rock, blues, punk, hip-hop, etc. etc.).

We use Roman numerals to show chord types in music theory, so that’s what I’ll use below. The I chord (the “one” chord) is the name of the key in which you’re playing and the V chord (the “five” chord) is a sound that leads our ear to the home key. The most commonly heard chord movement is from the V chord to the I chord. It’s the sound that ends most pieces of music. If you look at the circle, you’ll see that the V and I chords are right next to each other. To practice this, play around the circle counterclockwise two notes at a time, with the first note shorter than the second. You’ll be practicing a basic version of the V-I progression. Take a break between each two-note cadence to separate the sounds. You’ll play C to F, take a break. F to Bb, take a break, etc. Practice this until it’s memorized. Like so:

Practicing around the circle, then practicing the root notes of the V-I progression might be enough for you for a while. If you’ve got that down, take the next step, which is outlining the chords for this V-I progression. It’s also a good idea to practice scales in this “circle-of-fifth” order. Start from different places in the circle, try naming them all if you’re away from the instrument. Sing them.

Of course, there are more progressions than the V-I progression. Some other very common ones are the ii-V-I progression (lower case Roman numerals indicate minor chords), the vi-ii-V-I progression, and the iii-vi-ii-V-I progression. Again, all of these are closely related to each other and can be shown on the circle of fifths. Let’s take the iii-vi-ii-V-I progression in the key of C (so remember C is Roman numeral I):

All those chords/notes are right next to each other in the circle. Knowing that, you can now get the chord note names for any key. For example, if you need to practice in the key of Ab, mark Ab as I. The V chord happens right before it counterclockwise, so the V chord is Eb. Before the Eb V chord is the ii chord, which would be Bb, etc. etc. There are many ways to practice these and at first it’s probably a good idea to just stay in one key for a while until the movement is familiar. Play through the progression several times until your fingers and ears begin to recognize the pitches and then move on to another.

Getting these sounds in your ears and under your fingers might be one of the most important things you can do for your practice! Truly. But it’s going to take time, probably many months. Don’t obsess over it (unless of course you want to), but include this type of motion when you practice scales or chords during the technical part of your practice time. Keep chipping away, start simply, and you’ll slowly build up your understanding and execution of this technique.

There are many other ways that chords can move, but these are the most fundamental and useful ways and are the best place to start. I hope this was helpful. Feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions.

Have fun. Good luck!


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