Music theory for beginners can be a daunting prospect. When you think of learning to play an instrument you think of roaring solos & lush chords, the fun stuff. What you don’t want to think about is music theory, the word theory can be scary. It suggests books, studying and doesn’t really sound like fun right?.
The truth is music theory isn’t as scary as it may seem to a beginner. And, if you want to learn to play like your favorite musicians you are going to need theory. Think of it like learning a new language, the wider your vocabulary becomes, the more in-depth you can express yourself. The stronger your grasp of theory, the wider your musical vocabulary, so to speak.
There are a lot of tools in music theory that will make your life easier. One of the most important you can learn as a beginner is the circle of fifths. This is true no matter what style of music you want to play.
Fun fact: The circle of fifths has been around in some form for hundreds of years. Russian composer Nikolay Diletsky expanded on the already existing Pythagorean circle in his 1670 book Grammatika, a guide to composition. The book became an early source of rules in music theory and a seminal development of the circle of fifths. Since then the idea has been developed further into the circle we use today.
Before we get to the circle of fifths let’s quickly cover some basics. The distance between two notes in a scale is known as an interval. Intervals are made up of tones and semitones (whole steps & half steps). A semitone is a distance between a note and the very next note. A tone is a distance from one note to another with only one note in between. So, from C to C# is a semitone and C to D is a full tone.
The formula for building any major scale is T – T – S – T – T – T – S ( T = Tone, S = Semitone). Using this formula with give you the major scale of any key you start on.
A fifth or perfect fifth the interval between the first and fifth degree of a scale. So if we take the C major scale, the interval between the tonic/root note C and G would be a perfect fifth. Fourths and Fifths are known as perfect intervals because they are neither major or minor.
Circle of fifths
There are multiple ways to use the circle of fifths. One of the most common is to find key signatures. Every scale has a key signature that tells you how many sharps or flats it has (accidentals). For example, C major has none while E major has four. This can be confusing as a beginner but using the circle will make it much clearer. See the circle of fifths chart below for reference.
As you can see from the circle of fifths chart above, all twelve notes of an octave are represented in the circle. The outer circle represents major scales and the inner circle represents minor scales. On the outside of the circle,
you can see the number of sharps or flats in any given scale.
So, how it works is that by starting on C major and moving one step to the right you land on G major which is the fifth degree of the C major scale. Each step to the right you take moves you up another fifth, G major to D major and so on.
You will notice that C major has no sharps or flats, on a piano this would be all white keys. Stepping up to G major gives you one sharp which is F#, notice that on the circle F is just two steps back from G. This is important when you go one step further from G major to D major, now D major has two sharps. Those sharps are F# and C#, again notice that C is just two steps back from D. Now you can see a pattern, each step carries over all sharps from the previous scale and adds one more. The extra sharp added in each case is always the note just two steps back on the circle.
Note: Another way to think about the extra sharp added is that it is always the seventh degree of the scale. For example, from C major to G major the added sharp is F# which is the seventh degree of the G major scale. A simple way to find the seventh in a major scale is to start on the root note and move a semitone down.
Starting from C major and moving one step to the left on the circle takes you to Fb, adding one flat key which is Bb. Working in a similar way, each step to the left carries over flats from the previous scale and adds one extra. This time the extra flat added is the note directly following your root when moving to the left. The extra flat added in each step to the left is now the fourth degree of the scale. For example, in F major the fourth degree is Bb. Move one step further to Eb and the Bb remains along with the added flat which is Ab, the fourth degree of the Eb major scale.
Remember our look at intervals, you find a fourth or perfect fourth exactly the same way in any scale.
Every major scale has a relative minor, a minor scale with which it shares the same key signature. For example, C major has no sharps or flats, neither does A minor. Luckily with the circle of fifths, it couldn’t be more simple to find relative minors. You will see that A minor is directly underneath C major on the circle of fifths. To find the relative minor of any major key, it’s simply the one directly under it on the inner (Minor) circle.
You might be thinking why does that matter if the notes are the same in C major and A minor it will sound the same anyway. Not exactly, the tonal center is different which creates a whole new harmonic range. Tonal center is the root of a scale, you can think of it as home. When playing a song in C major you can build chords from any degree of the scale but you will usually resolve back to C major or go home. Without going into how we build chords and progressions, the simple way to think of it is by changing the tonal center you change the feel/mood of a song. As a beginner, the easiest way to think of it is that major is happy and minor is sad.
Of course, there is far more subtle detail than just saying happy or sad. And, as you develop your skills you will learn when to use major, minor and transition between the two. For now, just learning what they are and where they are is a fantastic start.
Extending further on the relationship between major and minor we will look at Parallel scales. Parallel scales are scales that start with the same tonic/root. C major and C minor both share the same tonic/root note which is C. As I mentioned before, transitioning from a major scale to its relative minor is commonly done. Another common way to darken the mood of a song is to switch from a major key to its parallel minor. C major in this example would become C minor and both have very different key signatures.
Again without going too much into building chords the first chord in the scale would change from C major which has the notes C – E – G to a C minor chord which has the notes C – Eb – G. You can see there is only one note different there, E to Eb, it’s this note that changes the sound from major to minor. In C major the third degree is E making the interval between the two a major third. In C minor the third degree is Eb, making the interval between the two a minor third.
On the circle of fifths above you can see we have written major scales and their parallel minor in the same color to make them easier to find. If you go from C major to C minor you can instantly see that you have gone from no flats to three flats. The more you get used to the circle of fifths the easier you will remember exactly what those flats are. In this case, C minor has Eb, Ab, and Bb. The same as it’s relative major Eb major.
Finding the dominant
In any scale, the first, fourth & fifth degrees are known as the tonic/root, the sub-dominant & dominant, respectively. This becomes very important when you start to think more about chords and harmony. The dominant chord in any scale is the chord built on the fifth degree of the scale. In the key of C major, the dominant chord is a G major chord. Using the circle of fifths you can quickly find the dominant chord in any scale because it’s always just one step to the right. One step to the right of C is G, G major is the dominant chord in the key of C major. in the Key of A minor the dominant chord is an E minor chord, E is just one step to the right of A in the minor circle.
You can also find the Sub-dominant or fourth chord in any scale by moving one step to the left.
The circle of fifths is great for beginners but it doesn’t stop there. Even advanced players still put it to good use in ways we haven’t covered in this post. So, spend time getting to know it because it will stay with you throughout your musical life.
Music theory is a vast and ever-expanding world, the most advanced musicians are always learning, if they aren’t, they should be. Music theory for beginners should not put you off in any way at all. You can see from our overview of the circle of fifths it’s actually far easier to understand than you might have thought. As long as you approach it in the correct way, don’t try to cut corners and find ways to make theory practical, it can be a lot of fun. It’s normal for people to think the circle of fifths has nothing to do with being the next Jimi Hendrix but they would be wrong. It’s no coincidence that the more you understand concepts like this the easier it is to play your favorite songs.
Make sure and check out our Just the Facts music theory workbooks for all ages that will help you develop and advance your musical knowledge through interactive music theory worksheets!