• Let’s squash this once and for all… Is it really “circle of fifths” or “circle of fourths?”

    in Theory

    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!


    Hint: Inversions

    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 —

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


    { 25 comments… read them below or add one }










    4 Nicki

    Jermaine, I so enjoy how thorough you are!


    5 Erik Luper

    Jermaine, I understand why your are explaining it this way. For beginners this makes it easier to understand and allows them to move forward faster. The reason that it is usually called the circle of fifths (and consequently the reason why the arrows are going the wrong way) is because of the way our ear hears resolutions. C to F is actually hear as a V to I relationship if you it at your piano and play it this way. This is a lot of the chord substitutions that jazz musicians rely on is ii-V’s which just go around the circle (counterclockwise based on the illustration above). Let’s say you had a full measure to get to land a downbeat on an Fmin7. Using the above chart you could start on Amin7 as the first beat of the previous measure and then proceed as Amin7-D7-Gmin7-C7 and end on the Fmin7 as the downbeat of the appropriate measure. Some guys then use tritone substitution to get a half step walk to the Fmin7 starting with the A bass note. Amin7-Ab7-Gmin7-F#7(Gb7) to Fmin7. The key to remember though is that it is all based upon having a proper understanding of the circle of fifths and the way our ear “hears” them.

    I truly enjoy your site and your passion for passing along your musical knowledge to other aspiring gospel musicians.


    6 Dovie

    Hi im truly greatful to have found your website you have shown and taught me music in a very understanding way out of 30years of searching and cramming to understand piano you have outdone yourself. Your truly a wonderful gift in this world of music love ya!


    7 mike

    you’re simply too much. Until I came incontact with your website I could not understand what circle of fourth is.
    thanks so much.


    8 DeArtrous Moody Sr.

    Hello Jermaine,
    Let me start by saying, your style of teaching music is super. I am a vocalist and have been trying to learn how to play for myself for years. It has been hard trying to find someone to teach me. The other week I was browsing the internet and I came across your website. I typed it in to just to hear what you had to offer. All I can say, “You must have been heaven sent.” Now will you tell me what to do from hear.

    Thanks, De’


    9 Melba

    Hi Jermaine,
    You are the GREATEST!!! You are heaven sent!!! I am so inspired by your musical teachings that I get very emotional and I am almost moved to tears, because I truly connect with your teaching methods and your passion for teaching. God is an awesome God. I thank him for leading me to you online. I was just listening to someone play gospel keypboard on YouTube and your name popped up. I was curious and checked out your video on teaching piano. I’M SO GLAD I DID. I am a vocalist and I have dabbled and dreamed of playing the piano since I was 8 years old. I’ve had a few different teachers, but you are a special musical gift to me and to many others. I’ve order your books, CDs and DVDs. I love them. They are awesome. May God continue to richly bless you!!! THANKS, Melba


    10 E. P. ZOE

    You are the best. You are really doing a very good work, Thank’s so much, u’ve really inspired me.


    11 buabin joseph

    Thanks soo much i was fining it difficult to understan the circle of fifths and fourths but through these lessons i hsve gotten it.i am much gratful and GOD richly bless you and even give you more.


    12 Roeshell Robinson

    Man, you are awesome. I recently purchased your audio course and I really enjoyed it. I want to encourage everyone that’s reading this message to support Jermaine buy purchasing at least one of his products. You won’t be disappointed. He’s given us so much for free that we owe it to him to patronize him. We must continue to bless others as we have been blessed. Keep doing your thing Jermaine. I’m looking for the answers to the circle of fifths excerise that you posted with the timer. The one that ask what note leads to what note. Where are those answers? You said you would put them in the comment section.


    13 Joseph Buabin

    i have really gotting it. I will urge my bretheren to study it very well because it will really help us to knwo the keys well


    14 Kevin Butler

    How’re you doing man? I just came to your site to get a copy of he Circle Of Fifths/Fourths. I haven’t “heard” from you in quite awhile on my e-mail. Hope everything’s ok by you.
    Take care man



    15 John F Hendry

    Hay everyone,

    I found this doing a search on my name after being told some of my posts dealing with politics were being highlighted. I am in the process of busting the Klickitat Sheriffs and a bunch of other cops willing to break the law and go too far that helped steal case evidence to stop a 9 year lawsuit affecting all of the KAPWC HOA members on Maui. If you read about it you will see it includes 2 time Grammy award winner George Kahumoku. This legal situation caused me to lose everything I own but the law is on my side and some of the criminals are cops helping a political lobbyist who stole everything to get the legal papers and evidence. So I have been very busy busting the legal system while keeping a roof over my head.

    There is indeed a New Circle of Fifths and its the same math wise as the DNA’s Gene Ensemble. How it came to be. It adds twice the information and reverses the odd numbers as they should be and leaves half the way it was…BUT exposed by the correction and adds arrows of time you will really like playing with in dealing with phase the old circle could have done to a (very) limited degree but was left out. The NC5 does NOT change music theory, it just fixes the tool used and makes (tonal) space relative to time. I have had no time to play with it but finally got a short blog on it up. When the time comes will set up a web site with animations etc…but for now this is all there is about it but will be adding weekly to it if I have time.

    The NC5 is way easier to use and lets you see what’s happening in real time. The real Circle of Fifths takes you deep into physics and lets you see how things come about. The NC5 has to be registered before posting it and the last illegal act committed took away the money I was planning to use…but the idiot didn’t hide his illegal actions and the case information is online spread out all over the Internet so no judge can issue a gag order and hide the truth and pull the information as can be done with a blog about it.

    Feel free to feel free and pass it around. I’ll try to get some articles on UFT physics up to explain it. BTW…physics has a base foundation that can be stated in layman terms. When someone cannot do that…they don’t know what they are talking about. You will soon see there are 4 parts to the atom. What goes up must come down if it is oscillating, and Mass is in oscillation. The force carrier of Gravity is indeed the Graviton, but it’s not missing. It’s right where it should be next to the electron moving in the opposite direction. But they call it the “hole” and some working with electrons augue which one moves. That’s like looking at a car with 3 wheels where one is missing and looking in the trunk and seeing a round black thing and calling it….a “round black thing” and never thinking what it does. The NC5 shows the 4 phases needed for mass oscillation. Without the Graviton phase of the atom the NC5 would not work. Nothing would. Music is the key to everything: “this is up, this is down, let’s go up and down”.


    Aloha, John F. Hendry


    16 Jerry

    Regarding the “Spiral of 5ths” or “Spiral of 4th” depending on the direction.
    I understand the Pythagorean Comma is the distance from Gflat to Fsharp,
    and similar distances from Eflat to Dsharp, or Bsharp to C, or Aflat to Gsharp etc. etc.
    In other words, the Circle of Fifths in tuning instruments, is actually a “Spiral”.
    But when performing music tuned to the “Well Tempered Scale”, all the comments
    regarding “Circle” instead of “Spiral” are appropriate for understanding the “flow”
    of Chord Progressions using Equal Tempered or Well Tempered tunings.
    The same would not be true for Just Tuning or micro-step Tunings of India, China,
    and some Moslem countries, where there is an entirely different concept Melody tunings and Melody inflections.
    So for all practical purposes of performance chord progressions using the Equal
    Tempered Tunings, it is best to think of the Circle, not the Spiral.

    Yet the Equal Tempered or Well Tempered Tuning is considered a Deception, and
    a Lie when it comes to understanding Pure 5ths and Pure 4ths in other cultures.
    Even our modern day synthesizer keyboards provide for Scales other than only
    the Equal Tempered tunings. So the “wars between music textures” continue:
    Monophony versus Homophony versus Polyphony. Appreciating each Texture
    requires the listener to “shift gears” to an entirely different concept of music!

    Yet there is so much to understand about each Texture, and the Tuning.
    The Gospel Progressions, the Diatonic Progressions, the Chromatic Progressions,
    and the Enharmonic (Pythagorean Comma Voided) Progressions, Tritone Substitutions
    all are of great interest.


    17 Phill

    that was by far the best, most effective, and concise way i have ever read the difference of 4ths&5ths being explained. thank you. resolved a longterm confusion


    18 Oyoh Edmond

    Thanks for your lessons sir but I am confuse when you said count fourth is f


    19 mark

    Hi i find this Fascinating the circle of fifths etc

    The first key i was taught was C major with T-T-S-T-T-T-S being the maths of the scale and C-E-G the Chord.
    then we moved to G Major and in order to keep that structure we had to introduce F# and so on moving clockwise till the enharmonic F#/Gflat as we moved into the flats back to C.
    The Circle of fifths C-G-D-A-E etc being the Fifth note in the scale which is then turned into the Key via sharps or flats.
    Looking anti clockwise it’s a fresh way for me to see as fifths as well as fourths.
    Going up from C-F is def a fourth and going down from C -F is df a fifth.
    So going up from C-F (normally a fourth) but really it’s a fifth because you have reversed it in your mind?
    NO only Kidding :-)


    20 Les

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s genius is that it explains the ‘WHY’. So many music teachers are so close the theory and so obsessed with ‘what’ to do, that they completely forget to put exercises into context and explain the logic behind the terminology used and the point of them.


    21 greg

    It’s “cycle”, not “circle”. It’s a cycle of 4ths or 5ths, depending on direction.

    “Circle” is a modern clunker that has somehow weaseled its way into the nomenclature.

    Cycle: a series of occurrences that repeats itself.

    Circle: ” . . . a round plane figure whose boundary (the circumference) consists of points equidistant from a fixed point (the center).”

    Score another one for dumbing down.


    22 Jermaine Griggs

    It’s okay for language to evolve. In my dictionary, there is a third definition:
    move all the way around (someone or something), especially more than once.
    “we circled around the island”
    synonyms: wheel, move round, move round in circles, revolve, rotate, whirl, spiral, gyrate

    That works perfectly fine for understanding this. Just like “Why Won’t He Wear White When Hot” / WWHWWWH (our most famous method for learning major scales) works well for students and they appreciate the “dumbing down” of things that don’t need to be unnecessarily confusing.


    23 writemyessaytoday

    I think musicians are going to achieve even more with the new music genres search and transportation of people to alternative listening, for example. Some gossips are about the ambitious ideas about making the chip possibly built in the headphones or even in the ears. But still – the technology is so big – who knows, maybe there’s one more chance for people to join robotics this way. Quoted from science news.


    24 Mobitela

    Thanks for explaining the fourths / fifths element of the circle of 5ths. Why do people often refer to it as “circle” and not “cycle”? Which of these two terms is correct? Is there any difference between these two terms?


    25 Wiki Miki

    We have a big family of write my essay today who have a vast understanding of the English language and rules related to it. All of them are holding higher degrees with distinctions in their respective fields. Our highly professional writers are experts in writing styles such as MLA, Harward, APA, etc. They know how to structure an essay or write my essay for me research paper by following the rules of the English Language.


    Leave a Comment

    Previous post:

    Next post: