Relationships Between Keys - The Circle of Fifths

circle of fifths
the circle of fifths (click and/or zoom to view larger)

This is the circle of fifths. It shows all 12 major keys and 12 minor keys possible in the western system. The name "circle of fifths" comes from the fact that the tonic pitch of a key (which is the same as the name of the key) changes by a perfect 5th each time you add or remove an accidental: it goes up a 5th each time you add a sharp or remove a flat, and it goes down a fifth each time you add a flat or remove a sharp. That is, if we start at C, which has no sharps or flats, and go up a perfect 5th, we get G, and the key of G has one sharp. It should be noted that flats and sharps are always added in a specific order.

Just as there are 12 discreet pitches in the western system (and thus, in the chromatic scale), there are 12 major and 12 minor keys possible in the western system. On this particular circle of fifths, the major keys are listed on the outer circle, and the minor keys are on the inner circle. It is important to note that when discussing keys, if major or minor is not stated explicitly, the major key is assumed. That is, when something is described simply as being in the key of C, that is understood to mean that it is in the key of C major.

Enharmonic Keys

piano keyboard

The keys at the bottom of the circle of fifths have two names because they are enharmonic equivalents. The principle of enharmonic equivalence is the same for keys and scales as it is for individual pitches. Enharmonic keys occur when the same set of pitches can be indicated with either sharps or flats. For example, the key of D-flat has 5 flats and the key of C-sharp has 7 sharps. Just as the pitch D-flat is the same as C-sharp, so are the sets of pitches in their respective keys. If we look at each note in the D-flat and C-sharp major scales, we can see that each scale degree is enharmonically equivalent.

Scale Degree: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8(1)
D-flat Major Scale: D-flat E-flat F G-flat A-flat B-flat C D-flat
C-sharp Major Scale: C-sharp D-sharp E-sharp F-sharp G-sharp A-sharp B-sharp C-sharp

Parallel and Relative Keys

We learned about the concept of relative and parallel relationships in the section on scales, and these relationships apply equally to keys. In the circle of fifths above, the keys are aligned in slices according to their key signatures. Since two keys are considered relative if they share the same collection of pitches, the major and minor keys that are aligned in each slice are relative keys (examples: G major and E minor, E-flat major and C minor).

Key Signature: no sharps or flats 1 sharp 2 sharps 3 sharps 4 sharps 5 sharps or 7 flats 6 sharps or 6 flats 5 flats or 7 sharps 4 flats 3 flats 2 flats 1 flat
Major Keys: C G D A E B or C-flat F-sharp or G-flat D-flat or C-sharp A-flat E-flat B-flat F
Minor Keys: A E B F-sharp C-sharp G-sharp or A-flat D-sharp or E-flat B-flat or A-sharp F C G D

Keys in the circle of fifths that have the same tonic pitch are parallel keys. In the table below, you will see the key signatures required to have a major or minor key for each tonic pitch.

Tonic Pitch (Key Name): C G D A E B or
C-flat
F-sharp or G-flat D-flat or C-sharp G-sharp or A-flat D-sharp or E-flat B-flat or A-sharp F
Key Signature for Major Key: no sharps or flats 1 sharp 2 sharps 3 sharps 4 sharps 5 sharps or 7 flats 6 sharps or 6 flats 5 flats or 7 sharps 4 flats 3 flats 2 flats 1 flat
Key Signature for Minor Key: 3 flats 2 flats 1 flat no sharps or flats 1 sharp 2 sharps 3 sharps 4 sharps 5 sharps or 7 flats 6 sharps or 6 flats 5 flats or 7 sharps 4 flats

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." - Aldous Huxley

"Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." - Lao Tzu

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

"Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue." - Plato

"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

"Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune." - Thomas Fuller

Copyright © Sienna M. Wood, 2015-2016

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