Here we go with a little music theory (not too much though). Take a look at the circle of fifths below, yeah it looks complicated and in truth, it can be a little bit – but we’re going to take a really basic look at it today and it won’t be scary.
The circle of fifths in very simple terms shows the relationship between notes/chords. It can help you to work out the key of a song which is really useful if you need to transpose a song, but the reason I’m showing you it today is to help you with chord progressions.
A simple I-IV-V progression
All the notes in the outer circle moving around in a clockwise motion are evenly spaced by a fifth. That’s why it’s called the circle of fifths.
Take a look at the C note at the top of the outer circle. Going clockwise around the circle we have G which is the C’s 5th. Anti-clockwise from the C we have F, it’s 4th. This gives us the chords (C-F-G) for a I-IV-V chord progression in the key of C. The I-IV-V progression is an incredibly common chord progression, you will hear it all the time without even realising it.
If we instead wanted to play a I-IV-V chord progression in the key of A, we simply apply the same method starting with an A chord. So the progression becomes A-D-E. Simple isn’t it?
The beauty of the circle of fifths is that it basically serves as a guide as to which chords work well together. Chords that sit closely together in the circle will work well together (be pleasing to the ear) – further apart and they won’t fit together quite so well. Obviously there will always be exceptions to that and the circle of fifths isn’t intended to be stuck to rigidly, but it is a good starting point.
Think of it as a way to visualise chord progressions and a guide to help you out when you can’t quite find the right chords to work together.
What can I do with it?
Well, as we’re only taking a very simple look at the circle of fifths for now (I’ll go more in depth in future), I’d suggest getting the circle in front of you and playing a few progressions while referring back to it. Notice how the chords work together – try jumping around the circle a bit and notice the difference.
Take a look at the Find Ukulele Chords tool I built which uses the theory behind the circle of fifths and gives you the chord boxes at the same time. Hopefully it will help you learn a few more chords and chord progressions.
Transposing a song with the circle of fifths…
Let’s say we have song that features the following chord progression – Dm F C G. If we locate those chords on the circle of fifths we can easily transpose that progression by simply moving that shape around the circle. Originally we’re starting on the inner circle with Dm.
If we were to start the progression with Em instead of Dm (as an example) we would take the positions from the original progression which moves from the inner outer section to the outer section and then steps to the right. We simply replicate this but starting with the Em before moving to G, then D, then A.
That’s it, you’ve just transposed a song!
Printable Circle Of Fifths Diagram
9 thoughts on “The Circle Of Fifths”
Can you talk a little bit about when or why you would transpose a song, and give an example?
Hi AJ, yeah there are a few reasons why you might want to transpose a song. One of the first and probably most common reasons is that you might sing better in a certain key. You could really be struggling to song a song in the key of E for example but very comfortable singing in the key of C. That’s a really common scenario.
Another reason is that you might just want a slightly different feel to the song that the original. Despite the relationship between chords being the same changing the key does give a song a different feel (feel is an unusual word to use I know).
In terms of an example, if you take a look at my lesson for Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam I switch the key so beginners can avoid the E chord which is quite tricky if you’re just getting started with ukulele.
I hope that helps!
In your example, why do you move from Dm to D, instead of, say, from Dm to A? I’m also struggling with a Merlin, tuned D-A-D. How do I transpose chords for the uke to D-A-D?
Years ago when I was teaching myself to play guitar, I transposed songs for this reason all the time. But there was no internet and no one to tell me about the circle of fifths. So I struggled away on my own. so thanks for this!
Or you can change the key to make it easier to play. Got a chord in the progression that you just cannot finger? Change the key to one that you can play.
Or, and this seems to come up a lot, if you are only playing in the open chord positions, sometimes a song written for a specific key does not sound good in a particular key. So experiment with alternate keys to find one that works to your ear (and voice)
This is a great theory lesson. I have been avoiding this topic until now. Thank you
Thank you so much for that information. Of all the music lessons I have had, no teacher ever told me about using the circle of fifths that way. It reminded me of the color wheel and using analogous colors.
I’ve found heaps awesome stuff to learn from the way you’ve put this site together. Mainly being able to work well with the Cord Boxes and images as a dyslexic. It would be awesome to be able to associate cord boxes with this circle thing too. Otherwise, as being new there is a lot of notes there I won’t know where to put fingers.
The good news on that is this tool I built does exactly what you want…