The Circle of Fifths is an ingenious device for making sense of music.
Cath McCourt’s overview describes the structure of the Circle of Fifths, and outlines how ukulele players might use the diagram.
Relationship between major and minor keys
Learning to read the Circle of Fifths helps you to understand the relationship between the major keys and their relative minor keys. A major key and its relative minor use the same key signature, which means their scales include the same sharps (#) and flats (b).
In the set of diagrams below, you can see how the chords that sound good together for some of the other major keys are organised on the Circle of Fifths.
Finding a song’s key
Another use of the Circle of Fifths is to identify the key of a song. Look at the sheet music. If you don’t have the sheet music, a quick Google image search should give you the first page.
Count the number of sharps or flats in the key signature.
Then go to the Circle of Fifths.
Start at the C segment. Remember, C Major and A Minor have no sharps or flats. Move clockwise for sharps and anticlockwise for flats. Count around the segments of the circle the same number of segments as there are sharps or flats in the key signature.
Remember to count C as zero.
Sometimes a song you like is in a key that’s difficult for you to sing. Transposing the song to other keys is easy with the Circle of Fifths.
If you’re transposing a song to a range of keys, it might be useful to refer to the Circle of Fifths and create a transposition table like this.
How do I find the notes to build a chord?
Those who enjoy fingerpicking, can use the Circle of Fifths to find the notes in chord. Then all they need to do is locate the notes on the ukulele fretboard.
Look at this table that lists the notes of each primary chord in the major keys.
But if you didn’t have this table, all you need is the Circle of Fifths.
If you look again at the Circle of Fifths, you’ll discover that the first note in C Major chord is the segment with the name of the chord (C). The other two notes in this chord are the second (G) and fifth segments (E) from the name of the chord.
When you need to know the notes in other major chords, you can use the Circle of Fifths to find the first, second and fifth segments.
Let’s put this to the test by comparing the notes we find for chords on the Circle of Fifths with the finger positions shown on ukulele chord diagrams for C, F and G major.
Ukulele fretboard diagram
To compare the information from the Circle of Fifths with ukulele chord diagrams, it will be handy to know the note positions on the ukulele fretboard.
A 12-fret ukulele fretboard diagram can be used to locate notes on soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles.
Notes on the fretboard
The dots on the left-hand side of the diagram are for G, C, E and A . These are the names of the strings, and the ‘open’ notes of the fretboard.
The dots between the fret bars on each string represent where to put a finger for each note.
The colour coding of the fretboard shows that each note can be found in a number of different places on the fretboard.
Dots for sharps and flats are shaded grey.
Finding notes to build C Major, F Major and G Major
Initially, we’ll use the Circle of Fifths to work out the notes in the chords. Remember, it’s the first, fifth and second from the name of the chord, counting the name of the chord as the first.
Then we’ll look at the ukulele chord diagrams to find out where we have to put our fingers on the ukulele fretboard in order to play the chord.
Finally, we’ll look at the ukulele fretboard diagram to see what notes we’re playing when we place our fingers in those positions.