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Let's Talk About the Circle of 5ths

Students learning to play an instrument are encouraged to practice regularly in order to improve. Another important part of one’s musical growth is to study music theory and learn the explanation behind scales, chords, and key signatures.

While music is an emotional art form, the framework used to compose it is as logical as mathematics. One visual aid used to explain many different concepts is known as the circle of 5ths. It demonstrates the relationship between twelve keys, or the six major scales and the six minor scales. How important is this concept? Scales are one of the first concepts introduced to musicians learning to play any instrument.

Major and minor keys

All major and minor scales are composed of 12 chromatic tones (notes) and are differentiated by the number of sharps and flats they contain. Located at the beginning of a piece of written music, the key signature (scale) appears right after the clef sign and identifies the key by displaying the notes that are either sharp or flat.

A good way to visualize the relationship between all of the major and minor scales in order is the circle of 5ths overlaid onto a clock face, as pictured below. This visual tool illustrates the relation between the keys and the chords within them.

Circle of Fifths chart

To read the circle, start with C major or A minor, which are grouped together because neither have any sharps or flats. If you want to know which key has only one sharp, go to the next key clockwise on the circle. G major and E minor are each five steps up from C and A, and both have only one sharp in their key signature. For flats, repeat the same process counterclockwise.

Advancing in modes

The key - no pun intended - to understanding keys lies in the Circle of 5ths. Music theory books can help you deepen your understanding of these concepts and much more, including advanced music theory like modes, from Ionian to Locrian.

Music theory provides valuable insight into the foundation and creation of music, and when you're ready to begin your training, Johnson String Instrument has you covered. We carry a huge selection of books on the topic. Call or click today and view our impressive library.

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