Looking to sharpen your music theory knowledge as a ukulele player? Good on you! Learning theory can be a bit of an undertaking, but it can also be an exciting thing when you start to connect the dots and have some “aha” moments.
The circle of fifths is foundational to unlocking the secrets of music. Once you get this, a lot of other things start to fall into place.
Hopefully, you already have some working knowledge of chords, scales, and key signatures, but even if not, this guide will help you gain a better understanding of how music works.
Ready? Let’s get into it.
What Is The Circle Of Fifths? – Short Answer
The circle of fifths diagram demonstrates the connection and relationship between notes, scales, arpeggios, key signatures, and even relative minor key signatures. It’s meant to show a specific pattern – namely that the relationship between C and G is a fifth, and while the key of C has no sharps or flats, the key of G has one sharp.
Continue through the circle in a clockwise direction and you will find that with each ascending key, another sharp is added. That is, of course, until you reach the key of Db/C#. Keys that have two names are called enharmonic keys.
After Db/C#, you are only left with flat (b) keys, and with each move in a clockwise direction, you reduce the number of flats by one.
Go in a counterclockwise direction, and you will discover the circle of fourths. F is a fourth above C and the key F contains one flat. Move one space to the left from F to Bb, and you will find that Bb has two flats. And it continues in like manner from there.
There are other relationships and dots to be connected, but we’ll explore those in more detail throughout this guide.
Fundamentally, the circle of fifths doesn’t just apply to the ukulele. Since it’s like a semi-complete summation of music theory, it’s just as applicable to piano, guitar, bass, and other instruments.
How Can The Circle Of Fifths Make Me A Better Ukulele Player?
A firm grasp of music theory can help you in a variety of ways as a ukulele player and the following list of benefits should not be considered comprehensive. But rest assured pros like Jake Shimabukuro are abundantly familiar with the theory discussed here.
Here are just some of the ways the circle of fifths can make you a better player:
- Learn to identify all key signatures. There are 12 key signatures in music, just as there are 12 notes in music. The circle of fifths shows you the difference between each, and how many sharps or flats each key has (if any).
- Understand the connection between different key signatures. Modulation is a technique commonly used in music to create a dramatic shift or interest in a song. It’s much easier to identify related keys using the circle of fifths. For instance, the key of D has more in common with the key of C than the key of A, because the key of A is further apart.
- Discover the relationship between different scales. Key signatures are really made up of scales, and scales are the frameworks from which chords are built. So, when you understand the circle of fifths, you also start to see how different scales interact with each other. In addition to the major and minor scales, this goes for the modes of the major scale as well.
- Understand the connection between different chords. Start to the left of any note on the circle of fifths and count to seven. What this tells you is what notes are in a scale. So, if you started at F, you would count to B. That gives you F, C, G, D, A, E, and B. Although out of order, those are the exact notes in the C major scale. There is a pattern to identifying which chords are major and minor as well, and it goes like this: major – major – major – minor – minor – minor – diminished. So, you end up with F, C, G, Dm, Am, Em, and Bdim.
- Create chord progressions. Building on what I just explained, the circle of fifths can show you how certain chords relate to each other. With a better understanding of how chords connect, you can create more chord progressions and even look for opportunities to modulate.
The Major Scale Is Foundational To It All
What I started to see on my own journey is that the major scale tells you most of what you need to know about the fundamentals of music theory. And the circle of fifths really is just the major scale organized and presented in a different way.
Let’s start with the C major scale and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Chances are you’ve already learned this scale on your ukulele, and it may have even been the first scale you ever learned!
The C major scale is as follows:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B
The major scale, regardless of key, always follows a pattern:
Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half
Where “whole” means a whole step and “half” means a half step distance between the notes.
There’s also a pattern to the chords. The notes tell us what chords are in the key signature (in this case C), and how they relate to each other:
Major – Minor – Minor – Major – Major – Minor – Diminished
Again, this applies to all key signatures. Let me demonstrate.
The notes in an F major scale are F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E. That means the chords in the key of F are F, Gm, Am, C, Dm, and Edim.
Chords, by the way, are built on thirds. F major, for instance, contains the notes F, A, and C. I can see that just by looking at the scale.
Gm would be made of up of the notes G, Bb, and D. Look closely at the scale to make sure you understand how this works.
Okay, So How Do The Major Scale & The Circle Of Fifths Connect?
Remember what I said earlier? The circle of fifths is basically the major scale organized and presented in a different way to show the relationship between different key signatures (using the fifth degree).
For this to make sense, it can be helpful to attach numbers to each note of the scale (again, using the C major scale as our reference point).
So, for instance, C would be the first degree of the scale. F would be the fourth degree. G would be the fifth degree. And so on.
This is really what we’re talking about when we refer to thirds, fourths, fifths, and so forth.
So, you can see that G is the fifth degree in the C major scale. What does that tell us? Well, according to the circle of fifths, it tells us that the key of G has one sharp in it. Which is different from the C major scale, which has no sharps and no flats.
What note do we see next on the diagram? D, right? But just to be sure, let’s look at the G major scale.
The G major scale is:
G – A – B – C – D – E – F#
Notice how there’s one sharp (#) in the key of G, just as I explained earlier?
But more importantly, what is the fifth degree of G. Starting at G, which is the first degree, it would have to be D, right?
And the key of D features two sharps (#).
So, this is what the circle of fifths is showing us. It’s showing us the relationship between every key signature. And the closer together they are, the more they have in common. The further apart they are, the less they have in common.
To illustrate, let’s look at the key of C and F together.
So, what we have here are the chords in each key.
What chords do have the two keys in common? Look closely.
The keys of C and F have C, Dm, F, and Am (four chords) in common. That means transitioning between these two keys would be easier than let’s say, the keys of F and B, which are at the opposite ends of the circle of fifths diagram.
What Are Relative Minors?
Every major key has a relative minor, just as every minor key has a relative major. That’s a lot of information to take in all at once, but here’s what this means.
For every major key, there’s a minor key. And you can instantly tell what it is by looking at the sixth degree of the scale.
In the case of the C major scale, it would be A, right? So that means the relative minor to C is A minor.
Now, the A minor scale is the same as the C major scale, except starting and ending on A (where the C major scale starts and ends on C).
Most circle of fifths charts instantly show you what each key’s relative minor key is, but you may not have figured this out just by looking at it.
I’ll present it in a slightly different way. This might help:
So, the top row is the major key. The bottom row is the relative minor key of each.
Another way of describing a relative minor key is a minor equivalent key.
And so, G is really the same is Em, E is really the same as C#m, Ab and Fm are the same, and so on. Minor keys are just reordered counterparts of their major equivalents.
Circle Of Fifths For Ukulele, Final Thoughts
Did you enjoy this crash course on music theory?
The circle of fifths tends to unlock a broader view of theory, which can help you in learning songs, writing your own, transposing, and a great deal more.
Theory is just the starting point, and it doesn’t tell the whole story. Rules are meant to be broken, and many artists have. But with the right foundation in place, you can break rules consciously. That makes all the difference.