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Circle of 5ths

I’ve had questions from students lately about the circle of 5ths, so I’m recycling this post, the 10th in a songwriting series that I wrote a while ago.

Here it is.


How to write chord progressions a pro would love, part 10: Circle of 5ths.

Since you’ve looked at the first nine instalments in this songwriting series (right?), you can now can write a chord progression and place it in a song form. The problem is, you can only do it in the key of C. How do we take all this knowledge and apply it to any other key we want?

Before we answer that question, we need to talk about a little piece of magic called the circle of 5ths.
But before you read this, do yourself a favour and check out this great post about the circle of 5ths from Or read it after, if you want. Just read it.

Circle of 5ths

If you’re feeling queasy, you’re not alone. Musical jargon makes people think theory, and when people think theory, they think “no fun anymore.” But what you need to know is that with each new piece of knowledge you acquire, things get easier. And you become better than most of the other guitar players out there.
And it’s not hard.  Here it is.
  circle of 5, guitar
Just look at the top of the circle. The bottom will look scary. There’s a lot of information down there, and there’s something frightening about a lot of information all at once. Let’s make it easy.
You’ll see a short 5-line staff at the top with a treble clef ( & ). Above it is the letter C. Notice there are no sharps (#) or flats (b). This lack of information should make you happy. This is the simplest key there is. We’ll use it a lot.


I mentioned the treble clef in part 4 of this songwriting series. This is a symbol placed at the beginning of a musical staff so that those who care can tell what the note names are. You should probably care. It’s ok if you don’t.
There are a lot of different clefs. Here’s four of them.
For what we’re doing, you only need to know the treble clef. The rest is there for those of you who like more information.

Back to the circle

Go clockwise around the circle one step, and you come to a new key, the key of G. Look at the 5-line staff and you’ll see one sharp – F#. To spell the key of G we go in a circle (like we did for the key of C in part 1 of this series) from G to G, but now we add an F# to the alphabet.
G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   (G)

Chords in G major

Here’s what the chords in the key of G major look like.
  chords in the key of Gmaj 2
Compare this sequence of chords to the sequence in C major. See any similarities?
The first chord in both keys is a major chord; the second chord is minor. Continue to compare, and you’ll see that all of the chords in both keys relate to each other in this way.  And this is the same in every key!
Just like before we label the chords with roman numerals.
I                    ii             iii             IV             V            vi                viii
G Major  A Minor   B Minor   C Major   D Major   E Minor   F# Diminished
The pattern you see there – maj, min, min, maj, maj, min, dim – stays the same for every key.

Finding a key

To find a key, all you need to do is choose a letter. That letter will be the name of the key. Then look on the circle of 5ths diagram. Find that letter, and look at the number of sharps or flats. Then spell the alphabet starting with the letter that you chose, and insert the sharps or flats. Example: key of A = A B C D E F G. Insert the sharps that you see beside “A” on the circle of 5ths and you get: A B C# D E F# G#.
Some of you might be wondering how I know  the names of those sharps.
Check out Part 11 for that.
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