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The Circle of Fifths
Despite its popularity, The Circle of Life is NOT the most important circle in music. The
Circle of Fifths shows the relationship between key signatures and their tonics. This
description from explains it nicely:
“Look at the circle below, and we'll walk through the basics. Think of a clock,
with C occupying the 12:00 position. First, everything starts from C, since C is
the key in which there are NO sharps or flats. As we move clockwise from C,
each note is a fifth above the last. So G is the fifth of the C scale, D is the fifth of
the G scale, and so on. Starting with G, each new key going clockwise has one
more sharp note in its major scale. You can test if you wish, by building a major
scale on each note. If we move counterclockwise from C, each note is a fifth
below the prior note. And, just as with sharps, each scale to the left of C adds a
flat note.”
We will talk more about intervals later, but as you have probably already surmised, the
fifth is a very important one! Start memorizing the circle of fifths; it will benefit you as we
work with key signatures and when we work with intervals (the distance between two
Notice also as you look at the Circle of Fifths the order of the flats and sharps. The
order of the flats and sharps is the same, except in reverse.
Order of sharps: F# C# G# D# A# E# B#
Order of flats: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb
If you follow the circle of fifths starting at F and going clockwise, you will notice that
order of the keys is also the order of the sharps.
Another way to remember the order of flats (and, in reverse, sharps) is the way eighth
grade flutists have devised:
Boys Eat Apples Daily Gagging Coughing Farting
Also notice that the first four flats spell BEAD, then GCF could be Greatest Common
Factor (students of Mrs. Olson, I hope this sound familiar!). Find a way that works for
you! Rude and silly as it may be, the above really worked for those flutists!
Key Signatures – Major Keys
Let’s look more closely at our major key signatures. An easy, quick way to determine
the key when there are flats in the key signature is the second to the last flat---this flat
will tell you your tonic. Look at Eb Major, for instance. There are three flats: B, E, and
A. The second to last flat is E, so Eb is the tonic (or key).
In major keys with sharps in the key signature, we can find the tonic by going up a half
step from the last sharp. The last sharp will always be “ti”, so the note above it will be
do. Look at B Major. It has five sharps: F, C, G, D, A. A# is our last sharp, and a half
step up from A# is B. Therefore B is our tonic.
Key Signatures – Minor Keys
In minor keys with flats in them, look at the last flat. Look at Bb Minor. It has five flats,
so the last flat is Gb. Start on Gb, skip a note, and you have your tonic: Bb (you started
on Gb, skipped Ab, landed on Bb).
You can also consider that minor keys have three more flats than their parallel majors,
so whereas F Major had one flat, F Minor will have four.
Minor keys with sharps are somewhat easier. Just go down one whole step from the
last sharp. In F# minor, for instance, our last sharp is G#. A whole step down from G#
is F#.