The Circle of 5ths


In barbershop circles, people occasionally mention the “Circle of 5th”.  It’s mainly used by arrangers rather than the average singer.  Yet it’s an interesting concept and gives a bit of insight into how harmony works.  It can also be helpful in woodshedding (harmonizing a melody by ear).

In harmonizing a melody we progress from chord to chord.  Of course composers and arrangers can do anything they want.  But some movements give a smoother sound that is more satisfying to the ear.  Probably the most used movement is called the “Circle of 5ths”.  It is a logical movement from one chord to another based on the “Dominant” (V) chord naturally moving to the “Tonic”(I)  - (V7 to I)

First let’s number chords by the degree of the scale the chord is built on.  Here are triads built on each of the scale degrees in the key. of C.

Notice that we use capital Roman numerals for Major chords, lower case Roman numerals for Minor chords and a 0 superscript for Diminished chords.  If there were an Augmented triad we would add a + superscript.  Visualize the various chords above on a keyboard.

Also notice that the Major chords are I, IV & V (often V7).  We call them the “Primary chords” because they are used so frequently.  There are many song that only use these 3 “Primary” chords.

Now here is the “Circle of 5ths”.  You can see,

the C chord moves down to the F chord which

moves to the Bb chord which moves to the Eb

chord etc.  12 moves gets you back to the the

same note - thus a “Circle”  of 5ths.Usually the

farthest it goes is 4 movements.  For instance,

in the key of C, it might start at E (III) go to

A (VI), then to D (II) finally to the dominant

chord G (V) which resolves to the tonic C (I).

This pattern of chord movement can be seen in

several  familiar songs such as “Five Foot Two”,

Start at the chorus of Meas.1(I), M.2(III), M.3 & M.4(VI), M.5(II), M.6(V), M.7 & M.8(I).  “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the old barbershop classic, “If I Had My Way” and many other songs follow this same progression.  Others simply start at  VI to II to V to I.  You’ll also find that there are an extreme amount of illustrations that move simply from II to V to I. 

This “Circle of 5th” movement is one of the smoothest chord progressions and favored by barbershopper as it allows each of the chords (except the tonic) to be a “Barbershop 7th’s - our favorite chord.

You’ve probably already noted that the “Circle of 5th” is also related to the organization of Key Signatures.  As you add a flat or subtract a sharp, from the key signatures you move around the Circle of 5ths.  Key signatures can help you to remember the Circle of 5ths and/or the Circle of 5ths can help you to remember Key Signatures. 

Finally the “Circle of 5th” is commonly use in modulating from one key to another.  Though it’s not as common in Barbershop as modulation up or down a half-step or even the whole step up or down, still the “Circle of 5th” modulation is quite common.

Happy Singing!

Music Ed Ted

                                    I would love to hear from you. 

                          I appreciate any comments or suggestions.