Introduction: How to Master the Circle of Fifths and Key Signatures

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The Circle of Fifths in music is like the king Road Atlas for understanding how to "read" (like a book) music and being able to identify our Key names and signatures.

When you first look at it you may even feel like you're reading an incomprehensible map that tells you nothing about how to get where you want to be!

This lesson will not only break down the Circle of Fifths so you can easily read it, but it will also teach you how to use this information to quickly figure out what key your sheet music is in and just how easy it is to identify any key that you come across once you've accomplished two important steps.

At the end, you'll get a chance to practice all of this with me and it often helps to clear up any questions or confusion you may have getting through this written material.

Ready to get started? Let's find out just what the Circle of Fifths is first of all.

Step 1: What Is the Circle of Fifths?

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First, let's remember that a Key Signature or the Key of a piece or a scale tells you what notes will be either natural, flat, or sharp.

It also tells you what the tonal center of the music is. This means that most of the notes in the piece will include the notes in the scale that is in the same key of the piece. If the key is G, then most of the notes that you will play, will be notes in the G major scale.

The Circle of Fifths is a lovely visual tool that teaches you exactly what is in each key of our music that we play!

It lists all of the major keys, minor keys, and how many sharps and flats you have in each key. You want to use this aid to help you learn all of your key signatures and to refer back to any time you see a key signature that you don't usually play in.

Now let's find out how to read the Circle of Fifths so it makes sense and you can use it easily.

Step 2: How to Read the Circle of Fifths

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Start at the very top with C. Notice how C has no sharps or flats associated with it.

Next move clockwise to the right and we come to G. Now we have 1 sharp which is F#. Keep going in the same direction onto D, A, E, etc... Notice how each new key has one more sharp than the one before it?

If you notice the bottom 3 notes, B, F#, & Db share their little space with another note. This is because they are really the same note when you play them on the piano keyboard.

As you keep going around the circle you start going through the Flat keys and the reverse happens here; the number of flats decreases as you go back toward your original starting point which was the Key of C.

All of these keys that are in the outside circle are Major Keys.

Do you see the ones on the inside of the circle? Those are the Minor Keys.

They are listed next to the Major Key that is called their Relative Major. C Major has a relative Minor Key of A. This means that the Key of A Minor has the exact same key signature that C Major does. It is so easy to know your minor key signatures once you grasp this connection!

Anytime you look at a piano piece or exercise, make sure you have this Circle of Fifths nearby. Then, just look at how many sharps or flats you have in your music and compare that with your Circle of Fifths to find out what key you are playing in. Make sure you check both the Major and Minor Keys when determining the key signature of your own piece. If you're not sure what mode it is in, try playing the first few measures and if it has more of a sad sound, then you'll be playing in the minor key instead of the major one.

Whichever notes are marked as being flat or sharp on your Circle of Fifths chart will always be played that way in your piece or exercise unless otherwise noted in your music.

There are a lot of Fifths in this discussion. Do you wonder why we even call this the Circle of Fifths and not the Circle of Thirds or Sevenths? Let's find out!

Step 3: Why Is It Called the Circle of Fifths?

Remember that the key of C has no sharps, the next Key, G, has 1 sharp, and so on?

There's a pattern here and it's a pattern of fifths between each note on the Circle. Each note is a fifth up from the note before it.

Let's count up to G, from C...C, D, E, F, G. That's 5...you see?

The relationship between each of the keys is a 5th. It's that simple. This is true for the minor keys as well; however there a couple of acceptions that you want to make sure and see in the video as I will show them to you and play them for you.

Now let's see how you can use the Circle of Fifths to help your piano playing and understanding of your music grow much easier!

Step 4: How You Can Use the Circle of Fifths to Play the Piano Better

Here is what this amazing chart is going to help you do:

  • Understand Keys: This is so important because music is based upon all of the different keys in this chart. Once you know them you won't even have to refer to the chart anymore because you'll know that when you see 4 sharps in your key signature that you're either in E Major or C# Minor. It will also help you recognize incorrect notes because you will know when they don't fit in with the Tonal Center of the piece.
  • Improvise: Once you have learned what notes to play in each key, you'll be able to jump in and play in any key that other musicians are playing in. Or...you'll be able to make up a lot of different types of music just by knowing all of your notes, instead of just a few. Playing with a jazz or rock group is a lot easier when you know how to improvise easily. Plus, it's fun!
  • Sightread Faster: Knowing in your heart how to read and play each key signature will enable you to fly through music that you've never seen before so much easier than if you're trying to remember which notes are flat or sharp. Sightreading is just this...playing music for the first time without ever having seen it before. This is a great tool for when you want to accompany an instrumentalist or vocalist, or a chorus or choir.

Now we're ready to learn a super short-cut to learning your keys fast and you'll get this knowledge from your head into your fingers in no time!

Step 5: The Short-Cut to Learning Your Keys & the Circle of Fifths

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You don't have to take the long route to learn your Circle of Fifths and know all of your keys.

Get there faster using these 2 important steps:

  1. Memorize the order of sharps and flats - Notice that they are the reversal of each other! I'll give you some easy sayings to remember the order of the sharps and flats in the video...
    • Sharps: F, C, G, D, A, E, B
    • Flats: B, E, A, D, G, C, F

Each time you move up a level on the Circle Chart, the next key will always include the sharp or flat that was in the last key. Notice how G has F# in it and when you move right to D, it has the F# in it along with a new sharp which is C#. It is the same with the Flat keys.

Once you have memorized the order of your sharps and flats you'll be able to know which notes are included by how many there are in the key signature. If you see 3 sharps in the key signature, you'll know right away that they will be F, C, & G.

Figuring out the Key Name will be much easier once you've memorized the order of sharps and flats.

  • An important thing to know and remember is that many times, the name of the Key will not be the same notes that are sharp or flat! The Key of D, for example, doesn't have a D# in it, it has an F# and a C#, and the D is natural In some cases the key will contain a sharp or flat that includes the name of the key, such as Ab...which has an Ab in it. So just be careful not to assume that the name of the key will also be one of your sharps or flats in that same key.

Now let's see how you apply this knowledge to learn your sharp keys.

  • Take a look at how many sharps you have in the key signature of your piece.
  • If there's just one sharp, well we know that will be F#, right?
  • Find that F# on your piano keyboard. Place your finger over that note.
  • Now move up one 1/2 step...what note are you on? G, right? Guess what Key you are in? G!

One more...

  • You have 2 sharps in your key signature. You already know that they are F# & C#...so to find the name of the key, always go to the far right sharp listed...in this case, it is C#. Now we move up one 1/2 step to find our Key...what note it is? D...and that is the name of the key.

The flats work a little bit differently.

  • This method only works with keys that have more than 1 flat in them. So first of all, just learn now that the key that has only 1 flat in it, is F Major. Since you have already memorized the order of flats, :)...you know that the first flat is Bb, so the key signature of F Major is Bb.
  • Let's look at the key that has 2 flats in it. We know that they will be Bb and Eb according to the order of flats. Now, look at the next to the last flat...(remember that with our sharps we go to the very last sharp or the one that is all the way to the right). That note that is the next to the last flat, IS the name of the key!

One more...

  • Let's look at the key that has 4 flats in it. The 4 flats will be Bb, Eb, Ab, & Db, right? OK, now look at the next to the last flat which is Ab in this case, and that is the name of the Key we're in - Ab.

See how going through the first step makes the second step so incredibly easy? That's why it's important to take these in order. Memorize those sharps and flats so you know them thoroughly. It's like learning how to spell before you can understand words by putting the letters together.

Make sure you can answer these 4 important questions from this lesson.

  1. What is the order of sharps?
  2. What is the order of flats?
  3. How do you tell what Key you're in when you have sharps in the key signature?
  4. How do you tell what Key you're in when you have flats in the key signature?

Now let's reinforce all of this knowledge at your keyboard...come practice with me!

Step 6: Come Practice With Me!

This lesson is so important in helping you really understand sharps, flats, key signatures and how notes are connected to each other even in different modes, such as Major and Minor ones.

Take some time to work on this a bit in your head and then go to your keyboard with this video so you can walk through all of these steps with me on the piano. The visual reinforcement will really help you work through this information in the coming weeks as you practice this on your own each day.

Before you know it you'll be identifying what keys your pieces are in without any charts. You're playing will really take off and your repertoire will grow quickly as a result!

Just as you have to learn a few "rules" in math to be able to work certain equations, these "rules" will help you work through any key signature problems you've had in the past, a lot easier. And you don't have to be at your keyboard to practice saying the order of your sharps/flats either.

Now what were those flats again? :)

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