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  • Sarah Donkin

The Circle of Fifths and the Circle of Life

Long before I took any music theory classes, the first music theory concept I learned about was the circle of fifths. I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, and since both of my grandpas and my dad played guitar, I was surrounded by people who I could bring questions to as I was learning. Grandpa D, a Star Trek-loving, Ham Radio enthusiast who moved with a slow, steady shuffle, was self-taught and had played in several country bands over the years, which all had some local success, as a hobby.


One day, when we were visiting his house, he came up to me with a sheet of paper in hand. On that sheet of paper, he had a printed image of the circle of fifths. If you haven’t seen the circle of fifths before, here’s what it looks like:




The circle of fifths is a tool for musicians to memorize key signatures and understand the relationships between different keys. But my grandpa explained it to me in the simplest way possible: it was a tool for finding out which chords went together. For example, if you’re in the key of C, the chords on either side of it, G and F, and the one below it, am, all went with that key. Essentially, it’s all about the connections.


Something clicked for me that day in my guitar playing and songwriting. From that point on, it was easier for me to figure out chord progressions to songs that I wanted to learn, and more intuitive to decide what chord progressions to use in my songwriting. I didn’t understand why, at first, but it helped.


In high school, I learned a little bit more about music theory from my choir director, a bald man who looked too young to be bald and who enjoyed nature, backpacking, and occasionally talking about bears. He explained the relationships between the different keys and chords on the circle of fifths.


It was then that I started to understand why G, C, and am went with C -- they were the fifth, the fourth, and the relative minor or minor sixth, of C, which was the major first for that key. I started to figure out that you could use other chords on the wheel that were not just the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth of the key you were in - you just had to think about the effect you wanted. A minor second was very different from a major fourth, for example.


These connections were what built the foundations of my music knowledge and skills. However, there are some other, nonmusical connections at work here, too.


My understanding of the circle of fifths was built up slowly by several different people. My grandpa taught me about it from a self-taught guitar player’s perspective. My choir teacher taught me about it from a choral perspective. And, finally, the music theory classes I’ve taken with professors at Mount Union have taught me about it from a music theorist’s perspective.

And the truth is, while some of these perspectives might be more complete than others, they are all useful and have been equally important for me as I learn more about music. I have been blessed to learn from a variety of people and perspectives. These perspectives have been useful in classical singing, choral singing, and my solo music projects.

Like most young undergrad students, I have been told many times that it’s not just about what you know, it’s about who you know. It’s about the connections. This might be true in the professional world. However, it’s also true in the personal world, and the music world. A C note by itself is just a note, but with an E and a G note, it becomes a chord. A C chord by itself is just a chord, but with an F and a G following it, it becomes a chord progression, which, when combined with other instruments and notes, becomes a song.


Each person who has taught me or played music with me has provided more notes for me to add to my songs and chords. And these added notes and chords have, in turn, created meaning. I have also found that while I enjoy spending time alone, and even need it, I find the most meaning and beauty. through interaction with other people. If I am the melody in the song of my life, than the beauty in it comes from the other harmonies and chords surrounding me and the way that the melody interacts with them.


So I want to end today with this: don’t just look at the notes. Look for the connections between the notes. Look for the things they have in common, and the different things that they offer. Look at what they build together. That’s where the music is built.

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