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What is the Circle of Fourths?

While we’d all love to be able to pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and learn how to play right away, there are quite a few foundational basics to understand before you’ll be able to even think about playing your favourite song. There are various music theory tools out there that can help you fundamentally understand how to read and play music, regardless of your instrument of choice. One of the oldest (and most helpful tools for beginners) is called the circle of fourths.

The Circle of Fourths
The Circle of Fourths

Circle of fourths explanation

When you’re just learning how to read and/or play music, there are a ton of technical and oftentimes confusing terms and theories that you’ll have to learn. And while the circle of fourths may look incredibly intimidating when you first see it, once you understand its purpose and you’re able to study it more, it will become a super helpful tool.

While the history of the circle of fourths (and fifths, but we’ll dive into that later) is a bit rocky, the first recorded use of it was in the late 1600’s by Nikolay Diletsky, who was a Ukrainian composer and music theorist. He created the circle of fourths/fifths while he was writing a discourse for Russians on how to compose Western-style music. It was in this discourse that Diletsky shared the circle of fourths/fifths to be used for students as a tool to write and play music.

So, what is the circle of fourths? In the most simplest terms, the circle of fourths is a visual tool that helps break down the basics of music. When you take a look at the circle of fourths (see the diagram above), you’ll notice that it almost looks like a clock with a bunch of letters and symbols on it. There are 12 notes in Western music (C, D, E, F, G, A, and 5 flats/sharps in between.) While you could technically play all notes as they are, this is called a chromatic scale and isn’t frequently used in most music. Instead when songs are composed, they are frequently written in a dedicated key. You’ve likely heard of C major or A minor, these are both examples of keys. Each key has a set of notes and pitches that come together to create beautiful and harmonious sounds. So, how can you tell what key a piece of music is to be played in? A key signature is used at the beginning of a section of music. It’s essentially a set of flat, sharp, or neutral symbols that lets the musician know which key that section of music is to be played in.

But what does this have to do with the circle of fourths? Well, the circle of fourths consists of three different sections: the outermost section shows the actual key signatures (aka the grouping of flat, sharp, or neutral symbols), the second section shows capital letters which are the corresponding major keys, and the innermost section are the lowercase letters which represent the corresponding minor keys. When you work counterclockwise around this chart, you’re able to better understand what each key signature means and what major or minor keys are associated with that specific key signature. It’s also important (and oftentimes confusing) to note that some major and minor keys share the same key signature but this doesn’t mean that a song played in C major will sound the same as that exact song played in A minor. Because this can be an incredibly difficult concept to grasp, the circle of fourths can help break down these differences to help you easily read and play music using the correct tonality.

Circle of Fourths vs. Circle of Fifths

You may hear people interchangeably use the circle of fourths and fifths as we did previously. This is because it’s the same tool, it’s just used slightly differently depending on the direction you read it! When you’re using the circle of fifths, you move clockwise where for the circle of fourths, you’re moving counterclockwise. When you read it clockwise, the number of sharps continuously increases until it moves into flats which then start to decrease as you continue moving around the circle. This is what is referred to as the circle of fifths. As you go counterclockwise, it moves in the opposite direction starting with flats and moving into sharps. This is known as the circle of fourths.

The reason this music theory tool is called the circle of fourths or fifths is because of the interval relationship between each key. For example, if we look at C major (which is at the very top of the circle) you will notice that G is to the right of it. This is because G is a fifth up from C. But if you look to the left of C, you’ll see F because there is a fourth between C and F. Using the circle of fourths or fifths are both very beneficial and will help you to understand the same basic information. You will notice most people nowadays refer to it as the circle of fifths as many believe it’s easier and more natural to read in a clockwise direction. At the end of the day, music uses fourths and fifths more than any other intervals so once you get this down, you’ll be that much closer to playing your all-time favourite song!

Music Lessons in Toronto

Even the most basic, fundamental learning blocks of music reading and playing can be difficult when you don’t have access to the proper information and instructors. While learning and practicing at home is crucial, it’s also much easier to get your feet wet in the world of music with the proper regime and guidance. And that’s exactly where Greater Toronto Music School comes in! From music theory to songwriting and much more, we offer it all. Reach out to us today to learn how you can take your next steps with music lessons in Toronto!

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