Here it is…
The famous circle!
Some people call it the “circle of fifths.”
Others call it the “circle of fourths.”
Who’s right… who’s wrong?
Everyone’s right! You can use “fourths,” “fifths,” “circle,” “cycle” — it’s all the same thing!
Tell me, what’s a fourth up from C?
(The easiest way to answer this is to go four notes up in the C major scale.)
The answer is “F.”
Now, tell me, what’s a fifth down from C?
(The easiest way to answer this is to start at the first tone of the C major scale, “C,” and go down 5 scale notes).
The answer is “F.”
So F is both a fourth and a fifth away from C… it just depends on what direction you’re looking at.
If you take “F+C” (which is a fifth in that order, F is lowest note) and invert it to “C+F,” now you’ve got yourself a fourth. The same thing happens if you take a fourth “G+C” and invert it. “C+G” is a fifth when played in this order. So fourths and fifths are inverses of each other. It’s a fine line!
So if you think of the circle as “fifths,” then going clockwise (from C to G to D and so forth) is like going up 5 notes in the major scale to get to the next note on the circle. Likewise, going counter-clockwise (from C to F to Bb and so on) is like going down 5 notes in the major scale.
If you think of the circle as “fourths,” it’s the opposite. Going clockwise (from C to G to D) is like going down 4 notes in the major scale to get to the next note on the circle. And going counter-clockwise (from C to F to Bb) is like going up 4 notes in the major scale.
Or you can do like most people and look at the circle in a “hybrid” type of way… that is, combining the concepts.
That is to say, “going clockwise is fifths and going counter clockwise is fourths.”
Either way, it all works!
Here’s the important part to remember…
Understanding the circle in the counter clockwise direction will be way more beneficial when it comes to understanding how music flows. Music uses fourths and fifths more commonly than any other interval… yup I said it! fifths and fourths dominate, hands down!
I say fourths and fifths because, again, “C to F” could be looked at as a fourth… or a fifth (depending on the what? —- yup, the direction you’re going in!)
For your reference, the same thing happens for:
- 3rds and 6ths (going down from C to A is a third but going up from C to A is a sixth).
- 2nds and 7ths (going down from C to B is a second but going up from C to B is a seventh).
These are all inverses of each other.
I hope this post clears the whole “circle” thing up for ya… and then some! :-)
Until next time —
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