Circle of Fifths

Stuff you didn't think you needed to know until now

and still wondering if it's worth the effort.


You have an afternoon free and you've always wondered what on earth the Circle of Fifths is all about.

The Tuition:

In true Byron tradition we are going to try answering the question "Is it worth bothering about?" The simple answer is no, not really, but it might help a bit.

As ukulele players we read chord symbols [C], maybe a bit of tablature because it's easier to read than traditional music notation, and that's about it.

Key Signatures

Looking at the diagram, the most obvious use is to find out what key the piece of music is in. As ukulele players we tend not to use traditional music notation, but if you did...... Just look at the key diagram on the outside ring and the adjacent letter on the next ring in. No sharps (#) or flats (b) so it must be in the key of C, and so on.

You need to know this because? You might be looking for songs in a certain key that suits your voice. It might also give you a clue as to what chords are probably being used, but then again, just look through the song sheet.

What else can you do?

Pick any chord on the outside ring. Let's go for [C], key of "C". The chords to the right [G] and left [F] plus the three underneath [Dm], [Am] and [Em] all go together well. Now try [F] the key of "F". The chords to the right [C] and left [Bb] plus the three underneath [Gm], [Dm] and [Am] all go together well. That's why [Bb] always seems to creep into songs in the key of "F". And so on, around the circle.

You'll find loads and loads of songs use these patterns with the chords in various orders. That's about it. If it still doesn't make sense, why not come along to one of our free Ukulele Workshops.

To Understand the Circle of Fifths, you need Scales.

Major scales, minor scales, blues scales, pentatonic scales...

How on earth did Lennon/McCartney ever get to write any songs. They'd probably heard the Doh, Ray, Me.... stuff, come up with a tune and left the rest for George Martin to fill in the blanks. References that only those of a certain age will know.

All scales are just a series of notes, in a particular order. The most common of which is the major scale.

In column 1, the chart lists the major scales from the outside ring of the Circle of Fifths (C of 5ths).

It just so happens that the 5th note in each scale becomes the 1st in the next. Hence the C of 5ths.

You can use the chart to transpose chords from one key to another by reading down the columns.

Going from "C" to "F". [C] becomes [F], [F] becomes [Bb] and [G] becomes [C]. Try playing [C//] [F//] [G//] then [F//] [Bb//] [C//].. sounds the same but different.

Scales on a Ukulele

Hopefully your Ukulele is in tune. Goats Can Eat Anything. Let's start on the "C" string. Play Open String (O/S), frets 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12. You've just played the scale of "C".

Now do the same on the other strings. You will have also played the scales of "G", "E" and "A". Easy eh?

At this point you will probably have a headache

Note that the intervals between the notes aren't even. Sometimes two frets, sometimes only one fret. It's these different intervals that give major scales their character. Did you notice any tunes? Try on the "C" string again playing (O/S), 2, 4, 5, 7, (pause) 9, (pause) 5. Doesn't that sound a bit like the intro to "Eastenders (UK TV Soap)". Try it on the other strings. You can now play the intro in 4 different keys.... brilliant, that's major keys sorted then


As G# and Ab are essentially the same note, why put both in the chart?

Because someone decided that all the notes in a scale should only have the letters A to G once. If you look at the scale of C#. The first note in each box represents the traditional notation A to G. The second note represents the alternative name. If the second (alternative) note name was used, there would be two D's in the C# scale (Db and D#). The notes at the beginning and end of the scale are the same but an octave apart, so they don't count.

Do you need any of this?

Not really. If you play enough you will get to know which chords tend to go with which. There's plenty of YouTube videos to keep you occupied, if that's your thing. Scales are interesting as they can lead to an understanding of playing "riffs" over chord progressions. However, we can do that with only a rudimentary knowledge of scales by memorising patterns on the fretboard... another subject.

If it sounds right, it is right…