Circle of Fifths (Guitar Lesson)

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Matt Brown

Circle of Fifths

Do you have questions on the circle of fifths? Matt has answers. In this lesson, Matt goes into great detail to help you better explain the circle of fifths.

Taught by Matt Brown in Jazz Guitar with Matt seriesLength: 28:00Difficulty: 3.0 of 5
Chapter 1: (19:10) Circle of Fifths Welcome back for another jazz lesson. Matt starts things off with Joe Pass’s arrangement of the tune “Misty.”

Lately, many Jamplay members have asked similar questions regarding the circle of fifths. Due to the importance of the circle and the overwhelming amount of questions submitted, Matt has deviated from his lesson plan to clear up any confusion relating to this topic. If you still have questions about this topic after watching this lesson, keep the emails and questions coming! The circle of fifths is one of the most important and basic music theory concepts. Knowledge of the circle is absolutely essential in order to understand most of the music theory concepts presented in this lesson series.

Member Sam Paul writes: “Hey folks! I was wondering if one of you guys could give more detail about the circle of fifths and how it is associated with major and minor scales.”

The circle of fifths can be quite overwhelming when you first look at it. For this reason, Matt has broken down the circle of fifths into its individual components.

Note: Open the “Supplemental Content” tab for a diagram of the circle of fifths, the order of sharps, the order of flats, and a list of musical intervals.

A. Features of the Circle
1. The Title
The circle of fifths is frequently referred to as the circle of fourths or cycle of fourths. These various titles all refer to the same diagram. The reasoning behind the two different titles is explained later in the lesson.
2. Order of Flats
At the beginning of any guitar sheet music, you will notice three features. The first symbol written on the staff is the treble clef sign. The treble clef is frequently referred to as the “G clef.” This is because the circular bottom portion of the symbol indicates where the note G occurs on the staff. Guitar music is always written in treble clef. The only exception occurs when a walking bass line is arranged for 7-string guitar. There are other clef symbols. For example, bass instruments are written in bass clef. Alto clef is another common clef. The key signature follows the appropriate clef symbol. This indicates the key that the piece is in. A key signature is comprised of either sharps or flats. The key of C is the only exception. It contains no sharps or flats.

When a key signature containing one or more flats is written out, the flats always appear in the same order. This is known as the “order of flats.” A flat is written on the staff to indicate that a certain note is to be flatted throughout the course of the piece. The flats follow this order: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb. It is very important that you memorize the order of flats. Develop some sort of pneumonic device to help you.

Now, take a look at the actual circle. The circle of fifths is laid out in a manner similar to that of a clock. The key of C major is always written at the top in the 12 o’clock position. This is because the key signature for C major contains no sharps or flats. If you move one section to the left of the circle (11 o’clock position), one flat is added to the key signature. This particular key signature denotes the key of F.

The note F is a perfect fourth above C. If you move around the circle in a counterclockwise motion, each subsequent key is a perfect fourth above the last. This is why this diagram is often referred to as the “circle of fourths.” If you start at C and move around the circle in a clockwise motion, each subsequent key is a perfect fifth above the previous key. When moving around the diagram in this direction, you are moving in a circle of fifths.

From the order of flats, we know that the first flat is Bb. So, in the key of F, the note B is flatted. As a result, here is how an F major scale is spelled: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F.

If we move one space counterclockwise from F, we reach the key of Bb Major. Notice how one additional flat is added to the key signature. The second flat in the order of flats is Eb. Thus, the key of Bb Major contains two flats-Bb and Eb. Here is the spelling of a Bb Major scale: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb. As we continue to move around the circle in this direction, one flat is added to the key signature each time.
3. Order of Sharps
Return to the key of C at the top of the circle. This time we will move around the circle in a clockwise direction. Each time we move one space, one sharp is added to the key signature. For example, the first key after C is the key of G. The key of G contains one sharp. The sharps are always written in the following order: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#. “Fat cats get drunk at every bar” is an excellent pneumonic device that will help you remember the order of sharps.

Since G contains only one sharp, this sharp is F#. As a result, the key of G is spelled as follows: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. If we move counterclockwise one space (up another perfect fifth interval) we reach the key of D. The key of D contains two sharps-F# and C#.
B. Learning New Repertoire
Every time you learn a new song or piece, first determine what key it is in. Use the circle of fifths as a reference guide to determine the key center. There are a few tricks to learn that will enable you to recognize the key without looking at the circle of fifths.

1. Trick for Flat Keys
Loot at the second to last flat written in the key signature. This flat names the key. For example, look at a key signature containing three flats (Bb, Eb, and Ab). The second to last flat written is Eb. Thus, the name of this key is Eb major.
2. Trick for Sharp Keys
Look at the very last sharp written. The note a half step above the last sharp names the key. For example, look at a key signature that contains five sharps (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#). A half step above A# is B. Thus, this key is named B major.

Look at a key signature containing three sharps (F#, C#, G#). A half step above G# is the note A. As a result, this key is labeled A major.
Chapter 2: (9:35) Minor Keys For every major key, there is a corresponding “relative” minor key that shares the same key signature. The word “relative” indicates two keys that have different names, but share the same key signature. The relative minor scale of the major scale is referred to as the “Natural Minor” scale. This scale is built off of the sixth scale degree of the relative major scale. It is a very common compositional technique to switch from a major key to its relative minor in the course of a piece.

To start, let’s examine the C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. As you can see, the sixth note in the scale is A. If we start and end the C major scale on this note, the A natural minor scale is formed. This scale is spelled as follows: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A.

Look at the key of Bb. The Bb major scale is spelled as follows: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb. The sixth note in this scale is G. Thus, G is the relative minor to Bb. This scale is spelled as follows: G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G.

Enharmonic Keys
Some keys on the circle can be written two different ways. Keys that sound the same but are written differently are referred to as “enharmonic keys.” For example, the key of B can also be written as the key of Cb major. Cb contains 7 flats. It is much easier to sight read a piece that contains 5 sharps in the key signature rather than 7 flats. For this reason, this key is typically written as B major with 5 sharps.

The pitches B and Cb sound exactly the same. They are simply written differently in a musical score. Other examples of enharmonic keys are Db/C# and Gb/F#. Since the key of Gb contains the same number of accidentals as F#, these two keys are equally common. In a jazz context however, this key is typically written as Gb.

Video Subtitles / Captions


Supplemental Learning Material



Member Comments about this Lesson

Discussions with our instructors are just one of the many benefits of becoming a member of JamPlay.

the_ANTIDRUGthe_ANTIDRUG replied

The circle of fifths is never explained well as it relates to the guitar neck. The Chord arrangement of the circle five on the guitar neck is the interesting feature. Sorry, I'm just a bedroom trained guitarist. This is more jazz theory stuff which makes guitar playing painful.

connie_annconnie_ann replied

So here's my question. You said that if something is in the Key of E, you can use the notes in the e major scale, or the notes in the C#minor scale to write a solo. If the notes are the same in both scales, what difference does it make?

mattbrownmattbrown replied

Right, the notes in C# Natural Minor and E Major scales are the same. The difference is how the notes function and how the chords built from these scales function. For example, the C# minor scale gravitates towards a tonic minor chord whereas the E major scale gravitates towards a tonic major chord. If you keep going with the remaining diatonic chords in each scale, the iio chord in the natural minor scale is diminished. The ii chord taken from the major scale is minor...These chords function differently, or in other words, have a tendency to move towards different directions or different chords. From a melodic, or single note perspective, the notes function or tend to resolve differently within major vs. natural minor. It's kind of a tough concept to wrap your head around, but it's very important!!!

tv4413tv4413 replied

Tricks for circle of fifths on your fretboard. Must know notes on 5th and 6th strings. What key has 3 sharps? Count from 'C', alternating between 5th and 6th strings then moving up (higher pitch) in whole steps (2 frets). C (5th string 3th fret) = 0 G (6th string 3th fret) = 1 D (5th string 5th fret) = 2 A (6th string 5th fret) = 3 The answer is 'A'. How many flats in the key of Bb? Count from 'C', alternating between 5th and 6th strings then moving down (lower pitch) in whole steps (2 frets). C (6th string 8th fret) = 0 F (5th string 8th fret) = 1 Bb (6th string 6th fret) = 2 The answer is 2. Want to know the relative minor key? Put your little finger on the note for the key and the rest of your fingers 1 fret per finger your index finger will point to the minor. There are also patterns for the order of sharps and flats in the key signature. For sharps use 2 string power chords on the 6th string starting on the first fret and moving in whole steps. F C G D A E For flats bar the 5th and 6th strings at the 7th fret and move down (lower pitch) in whole steps. B E A D G C Im sure some has figured this out before but I've never seen it written down. If you're strugling to memorize a lot of music theory this may help.

jupemakjupemak replied

Perfect supplement to my weekly class. Thank you. A circle of fifths chord progression would've maybe been nice. Many of those out there. Still got the blues by Gary Moore or hmm... Autumn Leaves for example. J P.S. and off topic: I do like the fact that the small mistakes and 'oopses' the teachers sometimes make on the videos are not edited out. Everybody makes mistakes and seeing them makes the videos real.

mattbrownmattbrown replied

Glad you liked the lesson! A lot more might be edited out of these lessons than you might think ;)

dandaman27dandaman27 replied

if i ever deactivate my account, this is why -____- lol

dash rendardash rendar replied

What was the tune you played in the intro? I really enjoyed that. Maybe you could make that a phase 3 lesson!? :)

mattbrownmattbrown replied

Hey Dash! That's a Joe Pass arrangement of the famous standard "Misty." I might teach this in an upcoming lesson that I'm filming in June. However, I might cover some easier solo arrangements first. Regardless, you'll have some new, fun solo stuff to work on.

dash rendardash rendar replied

Awesome. I'll be looking forward to that stuff then... :)

jpfanboyjpfanboy replied

Hey Matt ! What i don't get is what types of chords there is at each step of the major scale.. I know that 1 4 5 is major chord and that 2 3 6 is minor but when your talking about 7ths im not sure were to put the maj 7ths or the minor 7 or the dominant 7... could you please explain it too me, it would help me alot because im kinda stuck in this and can't move forward with my jazz... thank you ;) and i know my english sucks ^^

mattbrownmattbrown replied

If we're talking about the major tonality, the diatonic seventh chords are as follows: I - major seventh ii - minor seventh iii - minor seventh IV - major seventh V - dominant seventh vi - minor seventh vii - half diminished seventh I believe you can find the diatonic seventh chords for all the modes of the major scale as well as the seventh chords for the harmonic minor and melodic minor tonalities in the Scale Library. Click on the "Teaching Tools" button on the homepage, and you should find it. Hope this helps! Matt

snowkidxsnowkidx replied

Super helpful lesson Matt, thanks.

sampaulsampaul replied

Hey Matt, I just wanted to say thanks for such a great explanation of the circle of 5ths.

Brad.HeneckeBrad.Henecke replied

Great Lesson Matt ! I know that must have been a dificult lesson Because of all the info . Its difficult to explain the circle of fiths .Thank you .

Jazz Guitar with Matt

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

In this lesson set, Matt will teach you everything you need to know to fluently play jazz guitar.

Intro to JazzLesson 1

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Check out this lesson to learn some basic jazz theory & chord voicings.

Length: 31:36 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Voicings & MelodiesLesson 2

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Learn some more advanced chord voicings as well as the Charleston rhythm.

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Set II VoicingsLesson 3

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Applying Chords / Solo IdeasLesson 4

Applying Chords / Solo Ideas

Apply the chords you've learned & experiment with some solo ideas.

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Scales and Chords TogetherLesson 5

Scales and Chords Together

Learn which scales work with which jazz chord voicings.

Length: 43:00 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Circle of FifthsLesson 6

Circle of Fifths

Matt sheds some light on the circle of fifths.

Length: 28:00 Difficulty: 3.0 Members Only
Proper PracticingLesson 7

Proper Practicing

Learn how to get the most out of your time when practicing.

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Proper Practicing Part 2Lesson 8

Proper Practicing Part 2

Here's the second installment of Matt's proper practicing lesson.

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Physicalities of PlayingLesson 9

Physicalities of Playing

Learn how to avoid carpal tunnel and other hand injuries by using proper technique.

Length: 46:19 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
All of MeLesson 10

All of Me

Matt Brown teaches the jazz standard "All of Me."

Length: 31:12 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Lead and ScalesLesson 11

Lead and Scales

Matt Brown explains how to improvise over the changes to "All of Me."

Length: 7:54 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Estudio No. 1.Lesson 12

Estudio No. 1.

Matt Brown begins talking about solo arrangements in this lesson. He teaches Carcassi's "Estudio No. 1" as an introduction to this concept.

Length: 18:10 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Reviewing the ii V I ProgressionLesson 13

Reviewing the ii V I Progression

Matt Brown returns to his Jazz series with a review lesson. He applies the standard ii V I progression to the circle of fifths.

Length: 18:10 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Turnback ProgressionLesson 14

Turnback Progression

In lesson 14, Matt discusses the turnback progression in the jazz style.

Length: 22:20 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Set Three VoicingsLesson 15

Set Three Voicings

Matt brown discusses and demonstrates the set three voicings used in jazz guitar.

Length: 25:42 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Jazz Solo ArrangementLesson 16

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In this lesson, Matt demonstrates how to practice jazz solo arrangements by taking a look at "Here's That Rainy Day."

Length: 35:10 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Expanding on the 12 Bar BluesLesson 17

Expanding on the 12 Bar Blues

In lesson 17, Matt reviews and expands on the jazz version of the 12 bar blues form.

Length: 23:20 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Adding VoicesLesson 18

Adding Voices

In this lesson, Matt adds to your voicing repertoire while playing the Charleston rhythm.

Length: 14:22 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Key of B Flat MajorLesson 19

Key of B Flat Major

Matt Brown talks about lead options when playing a blues in B flat major.

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Key of FLesson 20

Key of F

Matt Brown provides instruction and examples of playing jazz heads in the key of F. Once again, all examples follow the 12 bar blues form.

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Jazz Heads in B FlatLesson 21

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Matt Brown takes another look at blues heads in the key of B flat. In this lesson, he covers a head by Thelonious Monk.

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Tools for Solo ArrangementsLesson 22

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Introduction to Bossa NovaLesson 23

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Blue Bossa #1Lesson 24

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In lesson 24 of his Jazz series, Matt takes a look at the melody to Blue Bossa.

Length: 9:12 Difficulty: 0.0 Members Only
Blue Bossa #2Lesson 25

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Matt Brown

About Matt Brown View Full Biography Matt Brown began playing the guitar at the age of 11. "It was a rule in my family to learn and play an instrument for at least two years. I had been introduced to a lot of great music at the time by friends and their older siblings. I was really into bands like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins, so the decision to pick up the guitar came pretty easily."

Matt's musical training has always followed a very structured path. He began studying the guitar with Dayton, Ohio guitar great Danny Voris. I began learning scales, chords, and basic songs like any other guitarist. After breaking his left wrist after playing for only a year, Matt began to study music theory in great detail. I wanted to keep going with my lessons, but I obviously couldn't play at all. Danny basically gave me the equivalent of a freshman year music theory course in the span of two months. These months proved to have a huge impact on Brown's approach to the instrument.

Brown continued his music education at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He completed a degree in Classical Guitar Performance in 2002. While at Capital, he also studied jazz guitar and recording techniques in great detail. "I've never had any desire to perform jazz music. Its lack of relevance to modern culture has always turned me off. However, nothing will improve your chops more than studying this music."

Matt Brown currently resides in Dayton, Ohio. He teaches lessons locally as well as at Capital University's Community Music School. Matt's recent projects include writing and recording with his new, as of yet nameless band as well as the formation of a cover band called The Dirty Cunnies.

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