Scale Spelling Wheel and the Circle of Fifths

Scale Spelling Wheel — Exterior: All Note Names, Interior: Degrees of the Major Scale

Table of Contents

Two Crowds

When broaching the subject of the Circle of Fifths and other learning tools for music, it usually elicits two reactions: “Yeah, what about it? That’s basic,” or “I don’t get it at all, it’s super intimidating.” One crowd learned it a long time ago, the other managed to avoid it for as long as possible. As a music teacher, I live somewhere in between those two extremes every day: between those who are fluent in the language of Western music theory, and those with a sincere love for music but without the ability to participate in the exchange of musical ideas.

I certainly have my pet peeves with aspects of Standard Notation, a system we’ve inherited from hundreds of years ago from a dude named Guido. I find myself turning various ideas over and over every day: Are naming conventions for chords and scales too prescriptive? Do enharmonic equivalents help more than harm? Why do we still cling to the bottom number of time signatures when it doesn’t always mean what it says? But I still come back to it in the end; I recognize the immense value the Euro-centric tradition of musical deconstruction holds, and that bridging the gap between these kinds of thought and those who have successfully avoided them is worth the trouble. Ultimately, the ability to access, transmit, remix, and challenge musical ideas across different musical cultures inevitably leads to a net gain. And it may be a while before we see a much needed cultural shift in Western music education, but I digress.

My most recent attempt at bridging the gap has been to make the Circle of Fifths and the spelling of scales and chords a little more interactive. It’s a circular sequence of the twelve note names, and spinning it around and noticing how it lines up with what relationships are on the inside of the circle helps with visualizing the underpinnings of deeper concepts. I call it the Scale Spelling Wheel.

The full concept came as a result of working with students who were having trouble with a more linear approach to spelling out scales and accounting for sharps and flats (a common problem, especially for guitarists who came into music through chord shapes, positions, and tabs). It can break the Circle of Fifths down, as well as make names of intervals, scales/modes, and chords feel more intuitive.

The Circle of Fifths

Whereas the Circle of Fifths feels like an esoteric, inscrutable music axiom to many today, it was originally about making life easier for those writing and reading music. Ironically, it was a tool for empowerment. It helped students of composition — which is just a fancy word for songwriting — clear the mental hurdles surrounding sight-reading and interpretation, enabling quicker analysis and innovation, bringing it closer the speed of intuition. With the Circle of Fifths, writing the kind of music that went wherever it pleased and understanding all of the modulation — with accidentals flitting this way and that, shifting from tonal center to tonal center, dancing through evolving aural landscapes — was made more attainable.

The Circle of Fifths was a really clever diagram, initially seen as a composers’ tool. I love it. My former assistant even bought me one of these for a birthday gift, and when I saw it, I laughed like I heard a good pun. And then I immediately started criticizing the pedagogy behind its design to myself silently.

If I had to explain the Circle of Fifths to a complete beginner, without a visual, I would describe it as a diagram resembling a clock, but with twelve note names instead of the twelve hours. At the top, it starts with C in the 12 o’clock position, reads G, D, A, E, B, F#, and C# clockwise from one to seven o’clock, and reads F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb from eleven to five o’clock, counter-clockwise. The note names running in opposite directions join up again at the bottom with both F# and Gb sharing the six o’clock position, whereas the C# and Db co-habitate at seven o’clock, and the Cb and B occupy the five o’clock spot together.

Beginners, did that help? Whew, that was hard.

If you recognize the Circle of Fifths, you know that this is not the Circle of Fifths. Instead, it’s a way to flesh out what exists in between the Circle’s points. There are certainly a number of musical situations in which having the Circle of Fifths handy might be more helpful than this. This Scale Spelling Wheel is about something more fundamental. If you’ve seen the Circle of Fifths but never understood it, you might understand it better after playing with this Wheel.

“Functional” Musicians

Through eleven years of teaching music theory, I’ve encountered many I might describe as functional musicians; these are people who play music in their day to day life; they play guitar covers, improvise with pentatonic scales, play in a friend’s band, record basic solo material… but they don’t understand the nuts and bolts of basic songwriting. They’ve usually skipped over spelling out scales and chords entirely, and they were able to get by. The situations in which note name spelling came up were avoided. Situations like…

  • figuring out which notes to avoid in a given section,
  • working out which notes belong in a chord,
  • finding the right notes for a solo/melody, or
  • transposing a given melody or chord progression.

(This is to say nothing of the confusion surrounding why notes like E-sharp and C-flat exist and why they help us in the bigger picture of understanding music, but that falls a little bit outside the scope of this post*.)

I preach to my students that if they can mentally combine just two things, they’ll make a quantum leap in their musicianship, and join the conversation. If they can spell out scales, using only

  1. the twelve note names, and
  2. the relationships of the Major Scale,

they can not only spell out the notes of any key, any chord, and therefore, identify the notes they want to play or notes they wish to avoid in any given situation. They can even re-create the Circle of Fifths mentally using just their working memory.

Why Should We Care, Anyway?

Amidst the more common ways we approach writing and making music today, we entirely overlook or intentionally avoid stuff like the Circle of Fifths and the whole idea of committing theory concepts to memory in general. We don’t expect Kurt Vile to give us sheet music (it would probably just say, “Play something that sounds really shimmery or hazy and mumble. Everyone will love it.”). We don’t dare to dream of Dave Knudson coming to our doorstep to detail his thought process, step-by-step, for how he comes up with his whammy-pedaling, two-hand-tapping, melody-harmony-rhythm-all-in-one riffs. We don’t imagine Thom Yorke handing us the recipes to his so-dark-they’re-basically-joyous sounds… We’re not even sure the musical innovators we love write any of their methods down.

Minus the Bear — “Pachuca Sunrise.” I did an acoustic tutorial of this, by the way.

Instead, we buy piano/vocal/guitar books written by a third party, watch YouTube tutorials (which are often just glorified tabs), and check Ultimate Guitar for the user submissions with the highest star ratings… after all, when it comes to merely mimicking our favorite songs, there’s nothing better.

But the hard truth is, that if gaining access to the insights of our favorite songwriters matters at all, then there is no denying that outsourcing our musicianship to others is a crutch. And people on crutches don’t run.

There is no substitute for identifying and understanding the musical ideas in the music we love for ourselves, a.k.a. “musicianship.”

When making music, the crutch is probably most clear when theory-avoiding, functionally-oriented musicians run out of ideas. Sincere expression comes out sounding like a cliché. In the same situation, the more ear-aware/theory-fluent musicians have a different problem: there are too many good musical choices I can make here, which one is best?

I’ll take the latter over the former any day.

My hope as a music teacher is really just about convincing you that musical fluency in music grows out of tiny decisions. Things like:

  • making a habit of identifying your favorite musical moments,
  • paying attention to the ideas embedded in them,
  • making connections to other songs/albums/artists/genres intuitively,
  • asking questions about broader songwriting principles, and
  • renewing appreciation for the ground already covered by our favorite songwriters (not to mention all of the timeless work already in the “canon”).

The gems of music theory and the beauty of musical expression overall shouldn’t feel like terraforming Mars; they should be within arm’s reach.

Nothing delights me quite like seeing a functional musician dipping their toe in, and developing themselves to be their own bridge.

Understanding what happens when we move between keys is a great start.


These two interactive YouTube videos are meant to help us navigate the sharp and flat side of the Circle of Fifths, respectively, and are just the first of several potential applications for it.

To interact with YouTube’s keyboard functionality, view these two videos on desktop.

Interactive Circle of Fifths — Sharp Keys

Use your keyboard numbers from 1–7 to “spin” through the notes of the wheel, one ascending fifth at a time. In the top left, observe the key changing with each video skip. The corresponding number of sharps in that key is visible in the top right, and the specific sharp notes are identified in the center of the image. I traced a thin line between the sharp notes in the center and each new sharp note every time a new sharp is introduced. It was a bit of a struggle trying to work out what might be too little and what might feel like too much visual information. I welcome feedback. And yes, the font around the circle is the same font used on all Dharma Initiative labels from ABC’s hit show LOST.

Interactive Circle of Fifths — Flat Keys

Use your keyboard numbers from 1–7 to “spin” through the notes of the wheel, one descending fifth at a time. In the top left, the corresponding flat key changes with each jump. The number of flats in each key is now visible in the top right, and the specific flat notes are identified in the center. Note the thin line between the flat notes in the center and each new flat note every time a new flat is introduced. The new flat appears on the “4” of each key, rather than on the “7” in the sharp keys.

Spelling Out Scales

The Scale Spelling Wheel as I’ve made it arranges the note names, clockwise, from C to C (low to high), with all twelve tones in between, in a circle. It makes life easier by translating what was occurring in working memory into a visual.

As a wheel, it alludes to the cyclical nature of pitch; but in this application it’s about visualizing the pitch relationships represented by the different points around the Circle of Fifths. As useful as the Circle of Fifths can be, it doesn’t do anything for those of us without the fundamental skill of spelling out scales (recalling the note names in order from lowest to highest including the sharps and flats in their appropriate places) already in place. Without the context of notes existing in between the points of the Circle of Fifths, the cleverness of the original design (and charts that follow it like the ones listing relative minor scales) loses its meaning, and it becomes one more thing to which nobody relates, except for the ones who don’t need it anymore.

This Scale Spelling Wheel occurred to me when students exhibited particular difficulty starting from memory. I realized that with a “brad,” (also known in French as an “attache parisienne”) and some transparent sheets, this could help fill in for those moments our minds go blank, and we need a little boost.

Remember these?

With the Scale Spelling Wheel, one can actually interact with the concept physically, half step by half step. An otherwise functional musician can now get into the mind of a songwriter/composer, seeing which notes belong and don’t belong in any given key.

You can have one in your hands, too.

Spinning Through the Circle of Fifths

Here’s how it works:

(You can receive full resolution images for free when you opt in to receive my newsletter.)

  1. Print this image out on white paper. It represents the twelve tones, enharmonic names in the double-rowed boxes, and the degrees (1–7) of the Major Scale running along the interior of the circle.

2. Print any of the following three images on transparency sheets or tracing paper (all note names, flat key note names, and sharp key note names, respectively):

All Note Names (except for E-sharp, B-sharp, C-flat, and F-flat which are relevant in F-sharp Major, B-sharp Major, G-flat Major, and C-flat Major, respectively)
Inner Row with Note Names relevant to Flat Keys
Outer Row with Note Names relevant to Sharp Keys

3. Superimpose the transparent layer over the white paper layer. You’ll get something that looks like this image below. You can then punch a hole through the middle and fasten the brad and spin your way to music theory enlightenment.

All Note Names with Degrees of the Major Scale

Circle of Fifths via Scale Spelling Wheel — Sharp/Flat

Instead of the Circle of Fifths, what you have is something more fundamental: a wheel with the twelve note names on the outside, and a wheel representing the permanent relationships of the Major Scale on the inside. Fix one, spin the other.

To spell out a scale, simply line up whichever key you want by spinning until the tonic (home note) corresponds to the “1”/twelve o’clock. For example, you can see I’ve lined it up with “C” at the top. This means that we’re in the key of C Major, with the subsequent scale degrees lined up to their respective note names: the second degree with D, the “3” of the key with E, the “4” with F, and so on.

This will work on any of the twelve tones. Read the outer row of note names to spell out the sharp keys, and read the inner row of note names to spell out the flat keys. Note how many sharps or flats there are, and note which sharps or flats show up in that key. Before long, you’ll be mimicking in your hands what composers/songwriters have been doing in their heads.

To visualize each point around the Circle of Fifths, you can spin it counter-clockwise so that whichever note corresponds to the “5” moves to the “1” spot. Each time you do this, you move along from point to point on one side of the Circle of Fifths, in this case, the sharp side. To move in the other direction, spin it clockwise so that whichever note corresponds to the “4” (which is a fifth down, instead of up like on the sharp side of the Circle) moves to the “1” spot. When you do this, you move along the flat side of the Circle of Fifths.

If you’ve got the interactive video pulled up, you’ll get additional info that isn’t in the layers just above, the kind of observations that you could make if you memorized it like it were a multiplication table.

Other Scale/Chord Applications

The inner circle from 1–7 indicates the Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half relationships of the Major Scale. And yes, the interior wheel with the Scale Degrees 1–7 could be swapped out so that the degrees follow any scale/mode you may wish to spell out in the twelve tone system, from the Church Modes (including the the Minor Scale and its variations), to pentatonic scales, or a chord definition, or any number of other concepts that require naming a note.

This is what I meant when I said this Scale Spelling Wheel is bigger than just the Circle of Fifths.

Happy Scale Spelling!

Warren

*The F# Major Scale is spelled with a E-sharp instead of its enharmonic equivalent, F-natural. The C# Major Scale is spelled with a B-sharp instead of its enharmonic equivalent, C-natural. If you want to know why, study up on what music theory nerds call “enharmonic equivalent” notes.

P. S. — I can print a high quality wheel with transparent layers ready for assembly, ready for spinning. If you are interested, please fill out this short form so I can gauge interest and take pre-orders. Thanks!