• Why the circle of fourths is so important when learning major scales

    in Scales

    Playing your major scales should be a part of your daily practice regimen.

    However, practicing them in a “circle of fourths” or “circle of fifths” pattern is even better.

    Let’s focus more on circle of fourths.

    circle of fifths

    If you type “circle of fourths” or “circle of fifths” in google, you can actually find a host of other examples.

    Notice that the keys go from: C >>> F >>> Bb >>> Eb and so forth.

    If this were a clock, C would be at 12 o’ clock. F would be at 11 o’ clock. Bb would be at 10, and so forth.

    This is the optimal way to play your scales. Start with C major. Play it all the way through (C D E F G A B C).

    Then play your F major scale all the way through (F G A Bb C D E F). Then your Bb major scale (Bb C D Eb F G A Bb).

    Why the circle?

    Because music also happens to move in this same pattern (way beyond the scope of this article but I’ll touch on it a little bit). As you play chords and progressions later, you’ll find that any C chord going to any F chord going to any Bb chord will be a very popular progression and you’ll play it ALL THE TIME.

    But here’s another reason to use the circle.

    Because it lets you know how related the major keys are to each other.

    If one just looked at a piano, they’d assume that C and Db, for example, were related because of how close they appear to each other on the piano. BUT THIS ISN’T TRUE.

    The reality is that C and F are more related. This is why they are neighbors on the circle and not C and Db (or C#).

    Let’s look at this.

    The C major scale is: C D E F G A B C

    The F major scale is: F G A Bb C D E F

    Really take the time to analyze these notes. Notice anything?

    Bingo! The only difference between the C major scale and the F major scale is ONE note. Notice that F major has all white notes just like C. The only difference is one black key and that’s Bb.

    So here’s the golden rule.

    To get from one key on the circle to the next (going the counter-clockwise direction of C to F to Bb to Eb and so on), just take the 7th note of any scale, lower it a half step, and that gives you the ONLY difference between the current scale and the next one on the circle.

    C major: C D E F G A B C

    Count 7 notes… B is the 7th note.

    Lower it one half step (remember half steps are from key to key with NO keys in between… whole steps always skip a key with ONE key in between). So in this case, we’d lower it from B to Bb.

    This Bb represents the only difference between C and F major… and it’s true.

    The only other thing we’d have to do is play these same exact notes (C D E F G A Bb C) but starting and ending on F instead of C (because this is the F major scale, not the C major scale anymore).

    Make sense?

    If you wanted to find out how to find the notes of the next major key on the circle after F major, you’d do the same thing.

    Take the 7th note of F major, lower it one-half step to find the only change. Then start and end on the next key of your major scale.

    VERY SIMPLE! Re-read this article until it clicks.

    I hope this helps.

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    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!

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