Circle of Fifths

for the Chording workshop, Evart Fun Fest 1999

by Paul Goelz (copyright 1999)

As far as I am concerned, a knowledge of music theory is not a requirement to make folk music. It was in fact many years before I learned even the slightest bit of music theory, and I still don't read music. But there was one important exception. I learned it from the autoharp, but you can learn it from this little piece of paper and then be done with music theory forever if you want to.

So here's the deal..... many many things in music are based on the circle of fifths (no, not a drinking party around the campfire), and especially chord progressions, and especially in the kinds of folk music that we play. You're playing in "G" and you wonder what the other two chords are in "G"..... look at the circle of fifths (or recite it.... you ARE memorizing it, aren't you?). You are playing in "D" and you wonder what the "4" chord is.... look at the circle of fifths. You wonder what logic put the little markers on your dulcimer bridges where they are.... look at the circle of fifths. Getting the picture?

So here it is (drum roll):

B E A D G C F Bb Eb

And that's all there is to it. Really!

OK, OK , you're wondering why it is called the circle of fifths? Because I only show the keys / chords that we use in our music. We don't usually play in Bb or Eb or Ab, right? But if you carried the sequence out a couple more in either direction, you would find that it closed in on itself and became a circle instead of a line (segment).

So how do you use it? Well, go anywhere along the sequence and pick a chord. Take "G" for example. Look one chord in either direction, and those are the other two chords in that key. So in "G", you will use "D" and "C". In "D" you use "A" and "G", and so on. It's really that simple.

Start on the left of the sequence above and go to the right, and that is the progression of bridge markers on your dulcimer from bottom to top (assuming you have a BIG one with markers for B and E).

Heard people talking about "1" chords and "4" chords and the like? The center of any trio of chords is the "1", one step to the right is the "4" and one step to the left is the "5".

OK, now you wonder about minors. Same 'ting. Just say "minor" after each chord and it works for minors too. Except for one little variation. Usually, the "5" chord in a minor key is played as a major or 7th.

So go and learn the circle of fifths, and take a lot of the mystery out of this chord thing! If you memorize nothing else, memorize this sequence forward and backwards, so that you can recite it in your sleep. I mean it!

The original handout for this workshop included a chord chart showing the common chords and all the notes on the hammered dulcimer that made up each of those chords. I have done the best I could to transfer that chart to a graphic format that can be transferred over the web. Sorry it is a bit blurred.... it isn't your eyes! Click here to view that chart.