The Circle of Fifths is a mystery to many as it has many uses depending on how you look at it. It can be used to find related chords for composition, for practice, to show you the sharps and flats of any key and loads of other tricks! Below are a few of my favourite uses for it.
Techniques using the Circle of Fifths
Creating Chord Progressions
Composing music can be a daunting thing and knowing where and how to start is key. The circle of fifths takes out the guess work of which chords will work together.
First step - Chose a 'key', this is the total centre of your piece and will be used to determine which chords you can use. We will chose the key of C Major.
Second step - Pick your first chord, this doesn't have to be but will usually be the root chord or the 'I' chord, which would be 'C', now your next chord can be any of the 7 closest chords to the root chord as shown below. We will take 'Am'
Third step - Add more chords using the related chords either side of your root chord C including the minor chords. Here is a progression I've created using this method: C - Am - F - G
Here's another progression in C:
C - G - Em - G | C - Am - F - G
While this method is useful is can be constricting and looking to change up and dip out of the circle of fifths every so often is not a bad idea either, for example playing the major 7 & minor 7 chords instead of the regular major/minor.
OR playing the dominant 7 chord instead of the major chord when ever you're moving to the 'V' which is one step left from your 'I' chord ,this would be moving from C to G and playing G7 instead of G.
Memorising the Sharps & Flats in each key
Another use and perhaps the primary use for the circle of fifths is using it to determine how many sharps/flats each key has, and what notes the sharps/flats are on. It's very simple -
The 12 o'clock position or 'C' has no sharps or flats, then counting clockwise to 'G' you have one sharp, each time you move clockwise you add on an extra sharp, giving you 'D' with two sharps and 'A' with three sharps and so on. This is also the same for the minor keys on the inside layer.
For flats it's the exact same procedure but you go anticlockwise or backwards, giving you 'F' with one flat and 'Bb' with two flats and so on.
How do you remember which sharps and flats that each key has and in which order? With this-
ORDER OF SHARPS
Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle
ORDER OF FLATS
Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles' Father
This would mean that the key with one sharp (G major) has it's F note sharpened, the key with two sharps (D major) has its F AND C note sharpened, and the same goes for using the flats, let's take one example -
The key of Eb major, we know by going anticlockwise that is has three flats, we know from the 'order of flats' rhyme that these flats are B, E and A, this means that the notes are: Eb - F - G - Ab - Bb - C - D
Learning chord shapes across the fretboard
Check out this lesson on the circle of fifths that develops chord recognition across the whole fretboard, it's great for learning new chord shapes and is a great warm up or guitar drill for the mind and the fingers.
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