Introducing the Circle of Fifths to Your Students

Introduce your students to the circle of fifths in a vibrant and engaging way, and teach scales, key signatures, majors and relative minors, and more. This colorful page is especially great for visual learning styles, and is perfect for students who are being introduced to scales and key signatures. It’s also easy to use as a quick reference sheet on your iPad. The black and white version can be printed and used as a coloring sheet to keep your students on track as they learn their scales and chords. 

Circle of fifths on a desk with colorful pens

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What is the circle of fifths?

The circle of fifths is an amazing tool to use when introducing students to key signatures, scales, and chords. As soon as my students have mastered one or two octave scales and a few chords, I give them a copy of the circle of fifths and explain to them how it works.

Of course their responses are varied, and can range from an excited response like “Wow, that’s so cool!” to a ho-hum-can-we-move-on-please “OK” 😁

But when I show them how it can HELP them memorize their scales and key signatures, the hesitant students are much more receptive to the idea of using the “rainbow circle with all the letters on it”.

How does it work?

The circle of fifths is a visual way to show the relationships between all 12 tones of the scale, including major & minor keys and their key signatures. It has been used since the 17th century!

If you’re new to the idea of the circle of fifths, here’s a brief description that is very similar to how I introduce the circle to someone who is unfamiliar with it.

Sharp Keys

  1. The key signatures start at the top of the circle with no sharps or flats and move clockwise around the circle adding one sharp at a time (then removing a flat as you continue around the circle).
  2. If you start at the top with the key signature that has no sharps or flats, then look directly below that key signature, that’s the name of the major key: C Major.
  3. On the piano, if you start on C and go up 5 notes (counting C), that’s a 5th, and the top note is G. That’s also the next key on the circle: G.
  4. Add a sharp to the C major key signature, and you get the key signature for G major: 1 sharp, F-sharp.
  5. Next start on G and go up a 5th to D. That’s the next key around the circle. Add another sharp to the key signature, and you now have 2 sharps for the key of D Major.
  6. Keep moving clockwise by 5th and adding a sharp to the key signature each time.

Enharmonics

  1. Once you get to the bottom 3 keys, you’ve reached the enharmonics. The circle transitions from sharps to flats as you keep moving clockwise by 5ths: B = C-flat, F-sharp = G-flat, C-sharp = D-flat.

Flat Keys

  1. Keep moving clockwise by 5ths and as you go through the flats, take away a flat for each key as you move around the circle.
  2. Keep moving by 5ths until you’re back at 0 flats and you’ll be back to C major.

Minor Keys

  1. The inner wedges are the relative minor keys, which have the same key signature as the major keys of the same color.
  2. C major’s key signature has no sharps and no flats, so that means A minor’s key signature also has no sharps or flats.
  3. These two keys are related because they share a key signature, like you’re related to your (choose a family member) because you share a last name, so we call A minor the “relative minor” of C major.

Arrows

  1. The purple arrow reminds you that you can move clockwise by 5ths, adding a sharp as you go around, then removing a flat.
  2. The orange arrow shows that you can also move counterclockwise, and you’ll move up by 4ths instead of 5ths. So C to F is a 4th. F to B-flat is a 4th, B-flat to E-flat is a 4th.
  3. But moving clockwise by 5ths is the traditional way to use the circle.

Can I use it with chords?

Absolutely! Primary chords are so easy with the circle of fifths. My students think it is super cool that if you choose a letter, C for example, the two letters on either side are the other two primary chords in the key of C: F and G.

Then my students realize that the primary chords in a key are all touching in the circle of fifths, and it makes a great way to work on chord progressions, lead sheets, and playing their favorite pop or praise & worship songs that might be too difficult to read directly from the score.

Knowing this simple trick helps them a ton when they’re trying to remember which chords are in a specific chord progression.

How does it help with key signatures?

The key signatures start with no sharps or flats, C major, and move clockwise adding one sharp at a time.

This is a great way to help students memorize key signatures as they learn the scales and chords in order.

Story Time

A LONG time ago in a galaxy far, far away… in my freshman college music theory class, our professor challenged us to be able to say all of the key signatures around the circle of fifths, in order, in only a few seconds:

C major: no sharps. G major: F-sharp. D major: F-sharp, C-sharp. A major: F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp…

He demonstrated exactly how fast we should be able to say them by striking a match and holding it sideways, and saying all of the key signatures before the flame reached his fingers!

Now that was fast! And extremely motivating to a bunch of college freshmen 🔥

Oh how we tried to say them quickly before the flame got too close!

Disclaimer: No fingers were burned in the learning of the key signatures.

Using the circle of fifths in piano lessons

First I’ll say that I’m NOT using them with matches! But a timer on my phone is the next best thing.

I’m using the circle of fifths with my piano students this semester as we focus a lot of effort into learning as many scales, chord progressions, and arpeggios as we can during our remaining weeks together.

I introduce the scale, arpeggio, and chord progression in the same key to all of my students during the same week, and then everyone gets a new key the next week. Of course everything is age-appropriate and level-appropriate, and tailored to the unique needs of each of my students.

Here are two sample pages of the scales book some of my students are using.

Superstar Scales Piano Technique Book

Each week when I introduce a new scale to my students, I use the circle of fifths to help them discover the key signature (the ones who are ready to learn about key signatures), see how far they’ve traveled around the circle, and see what’s coming up next.

Wrapping Up

So there it is! A quick and easy way to introduce the circle of fifths to your students, or to anyone who wants to know more.

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Welcome!

Hi! I’m Melody Payne, a pianist and piano teacher, educational resource author, a fun-loving wife to the most wonderful and talented hubby I could ask for, and a lifelong learner who loves to share. I want to make your life as a music teacher easier by writing and sharing helpful and relevant music teaching articles, and by creating educational resources with your very own students in mind. If you are a parent who wants to enroll your child in piano lessons, I’d love for us to get started building those skills that can give your child a lifetime of musical enjoyment!

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