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  • Chris Anderson

GCSE Music Revision - Melody Part 3 - The Circle Of Fifths

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Each week at least one of the blogs will be a GCSE music revision topic. Although each board has its own requirements I’m focussing on the broad strokes that feature in most of them.

The previous blog was about key signatures and minor scales. In this blog we’ll look another method of finding key signatures and the relative minors.

The Circle Of Fifths

This is perhaps one of the most important things to learn in music.

It tells you all about the relationship between all the keys, their key signatures and relatives!

It can take a bit of time to get to grips with it - but stick with it!

All together there are 12 major keys and 12 minor keys.

They are all shown on the circle of fifths, which is a madly complicated diagram - but super useful!

It shows the order in which the key signatures/keys appear.

This is decided by the sharps or flats that are in a key signature/

How It Works

As you go clockwise round the Circle Of Fifths, you increase the number of sharps, or decrease the number of flats. (If you went anticlockwise you’d increase the number of flats and decrease the number of sharps.)

Each CLOCKWISE step around the circle is a fifth.

At the top of the Circle Of Fifths we have C major. This key has no sharps or flats.

The next key around is the fifth note of the current key (C major). This is G. So the next key is G major. G major has one sharp - F#.

We are now on G, so to find the next key we count to the fifth note of the G major scale. This takes you to D major which has two sharps (F# and C#).

This is where the Circle of Fifths becomes (to my mind) incredible. Not only is the gap between each key a fifth, but the gap between each sharp added is also a fifth. F - C is a fifth, so what would be the next sharp to appear?

The answer is G#. So your next key will have three sharps in it (F#, C#, G#). Counting five up from D major (where we stopped) we have A major.

You carry on counting up five from the key you’re on (or last sharp you added) you’re on until you get to the bottom of the circle (7 - which is C# major (yuck!)). You’re adding a sharp at each section and the order of the sharps doesn’t change - remember the phrase and cartoon in the previous blog?

If you carry on around the circle, you start dealing with flats and if you started at 5 (B major) you’d have C-flat major (7 flats (yuck!)). Each segment you go clockwise round from that you lose a flat. So starting at five with C-flat major, the next one will be G-flat major (six flats), followed by D-flat major (five flats) and so on, until you get back to the top and C. Simply put “flat” after the letter (apart from F).

If you’d rather start at the top and add your flats one at a time go ANTICLOCKWISE and count four from each letter. Just remember F major has one flat and it’s a B-flat. The next one will have two flats…and so on, until you get to position “5” on the circle which is C-Flat major.

The brilliant thing here is that it works for the minor keys as well. Remember to find a relative minor you count to the sixth note of the major scale. So, starting at the top (C major) the relative minor is A-minor. Count up to the fifth note of the A-minor scale, takes you to E which is the relative minor for G major. So the minor keys follow the fifths rule as well. Another way to look at it is the relative minor will have the same letter name as the major key two segments away going clockwise (I’ve colour coded the circle so you can see what I’m on about).

Download the gapped handout and see how much you can complete (without referring to stuff on here).

Circle of Fifths Gapped Handout
Download PDF • 52KB

One Final Way To Identify Keys

Another way to identify major keys is to use the key signature…that seems like an obvious thing to put I know but bear with me on this.

If you’re in a major key with sharps, look at the last sharp to appear and go up one semitone (half-step) from there. That will give you your major key. For example, you’ve got four sharps so your last sharp to appear is D#. A semitone up from D# is E, so the major key will be E.

If you’re in a major key with flats, cover the last flat to appear and look at what becomes the last one. That is your key. For example, you have four flats, B, E, A, D. Cover the last flat (D) your new last flat is A, so your key is A-flat major.

In the next blog I’ll go through identifying the key of a piece, and other modes.

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