Composing Music in the Circle of Fifths

Over the last year I have been learning a lot and fine tuning my skills in composition and writing music. It was easy for me at first to just write out some music, but it wouldn’t really come together melodically until I got a better understanding of Melody and Harmony. This article is going to be about understanding Melody and the Circle of Fifths.

Basics of the circle:

The circle of fifths is an intuitive method for determining the relationships among all of the tones and key signatures used in music. It offers composers a way to visualize how the tonic and fifth degrees of a scale are linked and is useful for creating chords, harmonizing melodies and deciding how to move music to different pitch centers. The circle of fifths is also useful for musicians since it provides a way to efficiently anticipate and understand harmonic progressions and scale relationships found throughout music.

Circle of fifths

(Available as a sticker for your laptop or studio)

So basically the Circle of fifths is an easy way to make chords and notes that sound good together with in any scale.  You pick a root, or key. Lets say C major. The major notes are one either side. F and G.  The minor notes and chords are then D A and E.  The diminished is B.


All of these notes will sound good together. You can also use them for chord progression. Go from a C chord to a D minor to an E minor to an D minor then back to C. Other such great ideas can be found in the circle.

Working with the Fifths is also GREAT for mixing live. If you have a song in C Major then mix with in the circle to get a really nice mix. It will add worlds to your DJing.Just as beat matching is important so is Harmonic Mixing.

Here is a great website that will give you an Interactive Circle of Fifths to play with.

Other Techniques with the Circle of Fifths:

The Two Most Important Chords

In any key there are two chords that are the most important chords in that key. They are the Root of the key and then the 5th position, or “V”,  chord. In the circle of fifths that is the root chord, and then the one on the right of it one position. So in Key of C that is C and G, You can make a whole song with just those two chords.

How Chords Resolve

Music is about tension and release. This is often created harmonically by having chords that create tension resolve to chords that provide a point of release or relaxation. The simplest, and most powerful of these resolutions is the movement from V to I in any key. In C that resolution is G to C.  So with that idea go from C to D creates a little tension. Then move to G then back to C to resolve it. Sounds great!

Around the Circle

Find C and G on your circle of fifths. They live next door to each other. To go from C to G you have to move clockwise around the circle. So here is your first use for the circle: if you what to find the V chord for any key, like Bb for example, find that note on the circle and move clockwise to the next neighbor and you have found the V chord, which in this case is F. This creates moving music that has a sense of melodic story.

There are much more ways of using the circle to know what chord will give tension, and release. These are just some ideas to play with and I hope to write more about it.
Use the circle to have great mixing of sounds and tracks.Move either to the Left or Right of what the song’s key is,or you can move down one to the minor.  So In the case of C You can go to F and G major or A D And E minor for a good mix.
The image attached to this also has the colors based on Ableton’s clip colors. I use this to color my clips so I have perfect harmonic mixing.  I have created a sticker of this for my laptop as well and will be selling these on the website soon. It’s a great trick that has brought my sound to a smoother understanding and in the mix.
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By |2018-10-16T12:52:09+00:00April 7th, 2011|Music Theory|29 Comments


  1. Harpsacording August 26, 2011 at 10:11 pm - Reply

    Yet again… Nice!

  2. Alanio August 28, 2011 at 2:16 am - Reply

    Some basic ideas… Like how you are writing and presenting it.

    • charlesharris October 25, 2014 at 8:04 am - Reply

      Great I’m a bass player this has help a lot from arkansasc

  3. trackwerker September 1, 2011 at 6:46 am - Reply

    Many thanks for this, you’ve helped make the penny drop. Would be great if you could expand on this article to explain some slightly more advanced examples. For example, I’d like to understand better if the circle of fifths applies to both individual note playing and/or chords, and also how I might build a more advanced chord progression whilst moving around the circle.
    Thanks again

    • subaqueousmusic September 7, 2011 at 5:03 pm - Reply

      [quote name=”trackwerker”]Many thanks for this, you’ve helped make the penny drop. Would be great if you could expand on this article to explain some slightly more advanced examples. [/quote]

      Great questions Scott. I will have to write another article to answer some of these things. Here are some quick thoughts…

      • subaqueousmusic September 7, 2011 at 5:03 pm - Reply

        There is a difference between a scale and the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths is about the tonal quality of a chord and how they relate together. So basically if you are in C then it sounds great to go to G chord. It also tells you tension like to go to the B minor chord is tense and wants to resolve to A minor which then wants to resolve to C.

        So to answer, you can use notes out side the circle of fifths for melody, but in general you might want to stick with them. Going outside the cicle will just cause tension.

    • harpninja October 8, 2014 at 4:42 am - Reply

      re: Circle of Fifths and chord progressions I explain a little about that in this video

  4. subaqueousmusic September 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    As far as how to play chords in the circle think of it this way. the root, note you start with, is the note that everything wants to go back to. the V and IV want to go back to root the most. The minors create more tension but want to go back to the IV and V’th. That way you just make a progression that eventually goes to root.

    Here is a good article on Wikipedia as well.

    Did that help? More to come…

  5. macromuncher September 9, 2011 at 6:59 am - Reply

    Thanks for the answers, I will have another play this weekend. Just one question – could you go from a C chord to a G chord to a D chord and then back to a G and then C – or would this sound wrong?

    Thanks again

    • Subaqueousmusic February 14, 2012 at 6:46 pm - Reply

      Yeah you totally can do that. It would sound like G is the center if you are just doing that, but it would work great. I would suggest just trying out chords and find something cool. There are rules but you can always break them.

      One example of that is going from C major to A Major. It sound a little strange but it gives a lot of energy. It sort of breaks the rules in a good way.

  6. Niwun February 18, 2013 at 4:32 am - Reply

    Great article, thanks. I like your innovative use of Ableton / Clip colouring to match the cirlce of fifths. Check out my blog if you have time:

    Cheers, Niwun

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  20. TF Lydon February 18, 2015 at 5:15 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for this explanation. I’ve been teaching myself music theory and struggling with how the circle of fifths is used practically as opposed to just an exercise in theory memorization. The light has finally gone on!

  21. cocique May 14, 2015 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    where can i buy a sticker?? the link is broken

    • Subaqueous May 14, 2015 at 9:22 pm - Reply

      I realized I was loosing money on that… I stopped selling it. If you take a class with me in person I will have them on me. You can also just take the picture and print it out yourself.

  22. Benedict December 13, 2017 at 8:11 pm - Reply

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