Using the Cycle of Fifths

In this week’s blog post, David Hall, explores how pianists can use the Cycle of Fifths for various purposes, including learning scales, chords, chord progressions and improvisation.


YouTube is full of videos about the Cycle of Fifths. Jazz theory books preach chapter and verse about the Cycle of Fifths. But is it relevant to classical music and can it help us to become better pianists?

I have to say that harmony was once a bit of a mystery to me. Even while I was an organ scholar at Cambridge University, I was a bit befuddled by the text books I read and the classes I attended. It was the jazz theory books that I devoured in my spare time that made more sense to me and it was the Cycle of Fifths diagram that elucidated things the most.

The Cycle of Fifths is just a diagram. It presents data in a nice, readable manner. It’s a bit like a graph. As an illustration, take a look at this table of data:

Now look at the same data presented as a graph. I find the graph more pleasing!

Now look at this table:

I is followed by IV or V, sometimes VI, less often II or III.

II is followed by V, sometimes IV or VI, less often I or III.

III is followed by VI, sometimes IV, less often I, II or V.

IV is followed by V, sometimes I or II, less often III or VI.

V is followed by I, sometimes IV or VI, less often II or III.

VI is followed by II or V, sometimes III or IV, less often I.

VII is followed by III, sometimes I.

This table is taken from Chapter 3 of Walter Piston’s classic text Harmony. It’s great information but it’s hard to take in and remember. A lot of the same information can be gleaned much more simply from the Cycle of Fifths:

cycle of fifths diagram
The Cycle of Fifths

Here are five ways that the Cycle of Fifths can help you.

1. Learning scales

If you practise your scales in order, either clockwise around the Cycle of Fifths or anticlockwise, you will see how successive scales relate to each other.

Moving one step clockwise takes you to the dominant. The dominant is the key that is brighter, more exciting, more tense (One more sharp!).

Moving one step anticlockwise takes you to the subdominant. The subdominant is the key that is softer, more relaxing, more subdued (One more flat!).

2. Learning chords

Traffic light diagram

I call this my “traffic light diagram”. I’ve added images that represent the pattern of white notes and black notes for each major chord.

You probably know that C major, F major and G major are closely related chords – they each have only white notes. This diagram shows how chord shapes “evolve” around the diagram much as scales do.

With the aid of this diagram, I’m sure you can learn all your major chord shapes in a matter of minutes.

3. Practising motifs

Jazz musicians spend a lot of time practising motifs anticlockwise around the Cycle of Fifths. This is an extremely useful exercise for classical pianists as well, particularly to develop skills of transposition and improvisation and memorisation.

Here’s an example of what you might do. This is a chord with a bare fifth in the left hand and a pattern of 1 2 3 in the right hand. Play this motif first in the key of C, then moving anticlockwise round the cycle of fifths to F, then B flat, then E flat etc.

4. Developing aural skills

I imagine you can already sing a major scale, a minor scale, a major arpeggio and a minor arpeggio. It’s really useful to be able to hear and sing root movement around the Cycle of Fifths.

Whenever you play exercises around the Cycle of Fifths, try to hear what you are about to play, ahead of playing it.

5. Chord progressions

Looking back at Walter Piston’s rules for harmonic progressions. They can be summed up in two guiding principles.

  1. Travelling around the Cycle of Fifths in an anticlockwise direction always sounds good.
  2. The six chords in and around the tonic can be used fairly freely.

The six chords that I have circled are the chords that are used most often in the key of C major. Try improvising a piece of music using just the top three major chords. Then try improvising a piece of music that also uses the bottom three minor chords.

Notice that the chord of E has an asterisk (*) printed next to it. That is because the E chord is usually modified to become E major when it leads to a chord of A minor.

Not all music is in C major! If you draw a broad ring around any key note on the Cycle of Fifths, you will find the six chords that are most often used in that key. This is a great help for improvisation and also for analysis of composers’ repertoire.

Further resources

David’s theory course, There’s More to Playing the Piano is an interactive guide to music theory for pianists, covering everything from the very basics through to a point just beyond Grade 5. The material is ideal for anyone who wants to pass a theory exam as a self-study or is looking for a refresher and to fill some gaps in their knowledge.

Each chapter of the course has a practical keyboard activity that will develop your understanding through play and a summary video. In addition to developing your understanding of music theory, the course will help you develop their keyboard skills of improvisation, harmonisation and transposition.

The first ten chapters are now available on the Online Academy (click here to view) or click here for the print version. David’s previous article on the benefits of studying music theory for pianists is also available here.

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