Music Theory Basics: The Circle of Fifths

Music theory is packed with quite a few dense explanations of esoteric concepts that plague the performer, and while music theory can be incredibly helpful to performing musicians, it has unfortunately steered so many players in the wrong direction.

Recently we’ve had a handful of people write in asking about The Circle of Fifths and after seeing how they’ve misunderstood its purpose and value, it’s become super clear how poorly this essential concept is explained by typical music theory.

So today we’re going to shed some light on this basic theory concept and debunk the loads of misinformation surrounding it so you can actually use The Circle of 5ths to become a better musician and jazz improviser.

The Circle of Fifths – Let the Confusion Begin…

The Circle of Fifths is simply a diagram that shows all 12 pitches arranged around a circle in a specific way – it’s generally taught that the notes are written out in a clockwise direction, ascending by the interval of a perfect 5th between each note, hence the name, Circle of Fifths

Now, with this simple definition, confusion already starts to brew…

You see, I was very careful to specify that we’re moving clockwise and we’re moving up by a perfect 5th between each note.

However, most definitions forget to acknowledge that a melodic interval has a direction—up or down—and by leaving this important information out, a whole lot of ambiguity is added to what’s going on in the diagram.

For instance, what if we said we’re still moving clockwise around the circle, but instead of moving up a perfect 5th, we now move down a perfect 4th?

What would that look like?

Well, if you take a look at a piano, you’ll quickly realize that from the note C, if you move up a perfect 5th, you arrive at the note G. And if you move down a perfect 4th from C, you also arrive at the note G.

Both ways you arrive at the exact same note.

So if we arrive at the exact same note moving up a perfect 5th as we would by moving down a perfect 4th, then this could be called The Circle of 4ths even if we were still moving clockwise!

Keep in mind that the general consensus among theory explanations seems to be that you’re moving in perfect 5ths as you move clockwise, and perfect 4ths moving counterclockwise around the circle, but as you can see this is NOT the case.

It all depends if you interpret the interval as moving up or down as you go around the circle and this is why there’s so much confusion over whether it’s a circle of fifths or a circle of fourths.

In reality, both clockwise and counterclockwise motion around the Circle of Fifths can be viewed as moving by 4ths or 5ths.

Moving clockwise the notes are arranged in…

  • ascending perfect 5ths
  • OR descending perfect 4ths

And moving counterclockwise around the circle, the notes are arranged in…

  • ascending perfect 4ths
  • OR descending perfect 5ths

Ok, so now that you understand that you can move both clockwise and counterclockwise around the circle and that these intervals in BOTH directions can be interpreted as perfect 4ths or 5ths depending on whether you view the motion as moving up or down the interval, we can quickly deconstruct another confusing subject…

The difference between what many people seem to call The Circle of Fifths and The Cycle of Fourths

The Circle of 5ths Vs. Cycle of 4ths

Sometimes music theory texts like to change the name of The Circle of Fifths depending on whether you’re moving around the circle in clockwise motion, versus moving around it in a counterclockwise motion.

They tend to refer to clockwise motion as The Circle of Fifths and counterclockwise motion as The Cycle of Fourths and they claim that you’re moving in 5ths if you go clockwise and 4ths if you move counterclockwise…

But If you understand everything we’ve talked about so far, then you should quickly realize that calling clockwise motion “5th motion” and counterclockwise motion “4th motion” is not quite accurate.

Circle of Fifths Vs Cycle of Fourths

As we talked about before, both clockwise and counterclockwise movement around the circle can be interpreted as 4ths or 5ths, depending on whether you’re moving up or down the interval.

You do not need two different names for the exact same diagram. Just realize that you can move around the diagram in multiple ways.

Nonetheless, I want you to be aware of the tendencies that the theory gods have bestowed on us mere mortals, and let you know that they often like to call clockwise motion The Circle of Fifths, and counterclockwise motion The Cycle of Fourths—In both of these cases they’re viewing the intervals between notes as ascending.

And to go further down this path, I’ve even come across several resources incorrectly say that classical music is based on The Circle of Fifths (what they call clockwise motion) and jazz is based on The Cycle of Fourths (what they deem counterclockwise motion).

This is completely wrong and so misleading to so many people.

As you’ll see later, all western music, whether it’s classical or jazz, primarily uses the motion that moves counterclockwise, not clockwise.

So, here’s the thing…

You can call it “The Circle” or “The Cycle” and you can call it “4ths” or “5ths”it doesn’t matter!

What’s important to understand is that this diagram describes some of the most important harmonic relationships that happen in music.

But before we get to the real importance of The Cycle—which is what I like to call The Circle of Fifths because it’s short, to the point, and suggests movement—let’s talk about why most people think The Circle of Fifths is important…

Just Scratching the Surface

When most people learn about The Circle of Fifths, they think that the value of the visual is to help them understand how many sharps or flats are in a specific key…

And while this isn’t wrong, that’s largely underestimating the purpose of The Cycle.

Of course, you can look at this visual and say, if I move to the right, each new key adds one more sharp, and as I move to the left, each new key adds a flat.

Flats and Sharps

Now that’s fine and dandy and all, but we’re not just any type of musician – we’re jazz musicians.

We don’t have the luxury of having time to think about how many sharps or flats are in a given key or any other melodic or harmonic relationship for that matter!

With jazz improvisation, we operate in real-time. All these basic relationships like how many accidentals a key has, as well as many other chord, chord-tone and root movement relationships need to be 100% ingrained in our mind BEFORE we even pick up our horn!

In fact, it’s so necessary that we even have an entire Visualization Course dedicated to attaining this essential mental skill.

Using the Circle of Fifths for help with key signatures and intervalic relationships between keys is a telltale sign that you need to work on your mental music game

But the moral of the story is, if you have to look at a visual-aid like The Circle of Fifths every time you need to figure out how many sharps or flats are in a given key, then it’s time to get beyond that….wayyy beyond that, because playing jazz becomes a whole lot easier when you don’t have to think about these basic relationships.

So yes, The Circle of Fifths can be used to help you figure out accidentals in keys, but that’s just scratching the surface of its value and not the primary purpose of it for jazz musicians and composers.

The real value comes from understanding the chord relationships present in the motion around the circle…

The Real Importance: Cycle Movement

For many people, they never quite realize that The Circle of Fifths contains the most important chord movement in all of music.

And they don’t realize this because the diagram does not optimally showcase these relationships…

To see the true value in the diagram, you have to move around the circle in a counterclockwise direction, which at least to me, seems less intuitive than moving clockwise…

If you move clockwise, you end up seeing what classical theory sometimes calls a plagal cadence relationship, which has little importance compared to the chord motion illustrated in the counterclockwise direction.

But unfortunately, I didn’t create this classic diagram that’s been passed down for so many years. So The Circle of Fifths as you know it, only shows these important relationships moving around the circle in a counterclockwise direction.

Let’s take a look at some of the possible relationships…

The first thing we’ll illustrate here is the V7 to I resolution, which is arguably the most important resolution in all of music. If we alternate V7 and I major chords, you can see that each of these diagrams contains six of the possible twelve V7 to I progressions.

V7 to I

Or perhaps we want to illustrate all the possible ii V I progressions (Each diagram shows a ii V I in four different keys)…

ii V7 I Groups

Or how about we look at the ever-present V7 of V7 progression?

Are you starting to see why this diagram is so important??

Notice we’re not changing the note-name positions around the circle, we’re just changing the qualities of the chords.

And this is vital to understand – that ALL of these progressions showcase the same type of root movement (C to F to Bb…), which I like to think of as Cycle Movement.

When people talk about The Circle of Fifths progression, Cycle chords, or anything else along these line, this Cycle Movement is what they mean.

Cycle movement is literally HOW chords progress in music

Sure there are exceptions, but the most fundamental way one chord moves to the next is by using Cycle Movement, which is seen as counterclockwise motion around The Circle/Cycle of Fifths/Fourths—By now you should be comfortable referring to it as The Circle OR The Cycle, and using 4ths OR 5ths.

So if Cycle Movement is really the most important takeaway from The Circle of Fifths, do we even need the circle diagram, or might there be a different diagram that would more optimally help us see Cycle Movement?

Seeing Cycle Movement: A Different Way

What do you do if something seems like it could be better for your purposes, even if it has been passed down for generations?

Well, if you’re me, you adapt it to better suit your needs. And that’s what I’ve done with The Circle of Fifths for myself.

Now remember, this is just how I think about it – you too have the freedom to restructure old diagrams and concepts in any way that you can come up with.

You’re more than welcome to disagree with the way I think about things, throw anything I say out, or call me crazy to modify the things that music theory presents as the way

Ok, chill Mando. The Mandalorians may have their way, but us jazz musicians do too…

I encourage you to challenge any music theory concepts that don’t quite seem to aid you as a player and as a jazz musician, and restructure them to help you think and play better.

After all, isn’t that the goal of a performer?

So rather than thinking of a circle, I completely do away with that because as soon as you have a circle, you have this clockwise/counterclockwise mess.

Chords in my mind always move forward – they progress from left to right. So, I like to think of a simple linear diagram that moves left to right, the way chords are actually shown on a lead sheet.

If you’re like me, it makes a whole lot more sense to drill this simple linear order then to struggle with the counterclockwise circle that we’ve been handed down by almighty music theory…

But like I said…think of the bigger picture here and learn to take anything that does’t quite fit your own model of thought and adapt it so it does.

Cycle Movement in Jazz Tunes

You would be hard-pressed to find a standard that doesn’t use Cycle Movement in some way or another, in fact much of the chord movement that you know and love is simply chords resolving counterclockwise around The Cycle.

Some tunes use small pieces of it like iii VIs or ii Vs, others extend this basic Cycle Movement further, and some songs even try to fit all the chords from a single diatonic key into Cycle Movement, implementing what some refer to as a Diatonic Cycle.

But knowing that pretty much every tune uses Cycle Movement isn’t nearly as important as being able to spot and easily hear exactly how a composer implements it.

For example, the Charlie Parker tune Confirmation uses Cycle Movement to travel from the Tonic all the way to the IV chord.

Have a listen to Bird…

Can you hear it? After a bar of the Tonic, the Cycle Movement starts on the VII half diminished chord and continues all the way to the IV7 chord.

Here’s what it looks like moving around The Cycle…

Again, notice that all the pitches of The Cycle stay the same, we simply add various chord qualities to this basic root motion.

Next, have a listen to the great Sonny Stitt blow over classic I Got Rhythm Changes and focus on the Bridge of the tune. Can you hear The Cycle Movement there?

In Rhythm Changes, the Bridge uses dominant chords moving in Cycle Movement: III7 to VI7 to II7 to V7 which leads you back to The Tonic.

And here’s what that looks like around The Circle of 5ths

Remember, any movement that resolves down in perfect 5ths like this (or up in perfect 4ths—they’re the same) is Cycle Movement. It doesn’t matter if it’s major, minor, dominant chords or whatever…any chord quality progressing this way is Cycle Movement.

Now, some tunes like Autumn leaves fit every chord from the entire diatonic key into a Cycle Movement chord sequence.

Have a listen to Miles Davis play this great standard…

You could think of all the chords in G minor, but for our purposes today it’s easier to illustrate the chord functions as they relate to Bb major (The Relative Major of G minor).

Notice that all the chords from this key, although the III7 (E7) instead of iii (E-) is technically from relative minor harmony, is used in this Cycle Movement progression.

Keep in mind that in one particular spot, the chord motion does not move in a perfect 5th, but instead a tritone—when moving from Eb major to A half diminished.

Obviously if it were true Cycle Movement, it would be Eb major to Ab, not A natural, however in chord progressions like these, the composer will simply arrange the diatonic chords as close as possible to Cycle Movement, which seems to work with our ears just fine.

And here’s how that would look moving around The Circle

As you can see, Cycle Movement is everywhere! And the important thing is that you can recognize it, conceptualize it, and hear it.

By truly conceptualizing its sound, feel, and importance, you’ll be able to understand the bulk of chord movement in jazz standards, and start to grasp how composers build upon and modify these basic ideas.

After today’s lesson, you should now have a much clearer picture of what The Circle of Fifths actually is and what it represents.

Here’s what you gotta remember:

  • You can call it whatever you want – Let people that want to argue about it argue with each other. You can call it The Cycle or The Circle, and you can view it in both directions as 4th or 5th movement depending on whether you’re moving up or down.
  • Know what music theory calls it – It’s good to know that often theory resources will refer to clockwise motion as The Circle of Fifths and call counterclockwise motion The Cycle of Fourths. This largely doesn’t matter other then to know what they’re talking about.
  • Understand the important harmonic motion – Moving around The Cycle in the counterclockwise direction is the direction that matters because that reflects how chords actually move. Commit it to memory and drill it constantly.
  • Experiment with linear Cycle Movement – As you drill Cycle Movement, it may help you to visualize it linearly rather than around a circle. What matters is that you get it so ingrained into your mind, that you no longer have to use any effort to know the order of chords.
  • Learn to see and hear Cycle Movement in tunes – Nearly every jazz standard makes use of this movement in someway. Make it goal to be able to quickly identify the unique way a composer implements Cycle Movement within their composition.

With some luck, all the confusion around The Circle of Fifths, especially as it relates to jazz, is now gone and replaced with a solid understanding of this basic yet essential music theory concept.

Stop thinking of The Circle of Fifths as just a visual-aid to assist you in knowing key signatures and make it a goal to get beyond this simple information.

There’s more to The Cycle than you probably thought, but it’s not that difficult. Take your time absorbing this new angle on The Circle of Fifths and gradually you’ll begin to see its importance throughout the jazz repertoire.

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