Sunday, 15 April 2012 11:27

The Circle Of Fifths Featured

Written by  Pete Simpson
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The Circle Of Fifths The Circle Of Fifths Pete Simpson

The majority of modern western music is based upon a musical system of scales called diatonic scales. There are 24 scales in this set, 12 major and 12 minor. You can pretty much guarantee that if you have a dance music track it will match a diatonic scale. Read on and I'll attempt to explain why, and how this can apply to DJing.

Dance Music and Scale

If you select a track from your collection, it will probably fit one of the following descriptions:

  • It will composed in one scale throughout.
  • There may be too few tones to determine the scale, but it will have a defined tonic (for example a clear bass note of a certain frequency).
  • The track is atonal, mostly percussive sounds and not tuned to a particular scale.
  • The track contains a number of those scales, changing at certain points in the track to create a certain mood.

Different music genres will have different proportions of each type, for example minimal techno will be more atonal than commercial house. Some tunes will veer completely, either intentionally or out of blissful ignorance of these musical rules. Generally, all the western music genres are related by these 24 scales.

What's in a scale?

There are 12 tones in an octave, if you look at a piano keyboard:


You can see that after the 12 tones (white and black keys), the pattern repeats.

Each of the 24 scales can be played on that keyboard, by playing defined patterns of the notes starting at a certain key (tonic), but not every note is played. So each scale can be described by the notes that follow directly (Semitone), and those that skip a note (Tone). This table shows the names of each interval, and the pattern of a major and minor scale.

Tonic Supertonic Mediant Subdominant Dominant Submediant Leading
Major Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Tone Semitone
Minor Tone Semitone Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone

Relationships between scales

Different Scales With the Same Notes

So, we know that this pattern repeats, and if we forget the actual notes for a second and just look at the patterns...

Major T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S
Minor T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T

If I played one of those patterns a bit higher up the keyboard of the piano...

Major T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S
Minor -----------> T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T

Then they are the same pattern just starting at different points. So it follows that for each major scale there's a minor scale with the same notes in it. If we know what they are. In the example above if we pick say C major for the top line, it means that A minor has the same set of notes in it, just starting from a different tonic. The same is therefore true about all the major and minor scales, as the whole pattern repeats every octave until only your dog can hear it..

I'll list the scales for reference:

Major Scales Minor Scales
C Am
D Bm
D Bm
E Cm
E Cm
F Dm
F / G Dm / Em
G Em
A Fm
A Fm
B Gm
B Gm

Different Scales With Only One Different Note

You can slide the scale patterns about and discover other relationships. For example:

Major T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S
Major ---------->T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S

So major or minor keys that are a fifth note apart have only one note that is different.

Major T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S
Major ------->T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S

Major or minor keys that are a forth note apart have only one note that is different.

The forth example works the other way too, what I mean is I can shift the top pattern instead. So these two earlier examples appear to be a very similar relationship.

Major ------->T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S
Major T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S-T-T-S-T-T-T-S

Making It Into A Diagram

As this is a cyclic pattern (because octaves repeat) it can be placed on a circle:

The Circle Of Fifths

This circle now elegantly describes all the relationships in tone between the different scales.

  • We know that there are major and minor scales with the same notes. These are represented being adjacent on the outer and inner circle, like the spokes of the circle.
  • We know that a scale shifted by seven semitones (a fifth) shares all but one note with the original. The clockwise partner of any scale has the other's dominant note as it's tonic.
  • We know that a scale shifted by five semitones (a forth) shares all but one note with it's original. We also know that shifting seven semitones forward is like shifting five semitones back. The anticlockwise partner of any scale has the other's subdominant note as it's tonic.

This diagram also shows the number of sharps or flats (black notes on the keyboard) that each scale has, and shows the musical notation that describes the key around the very outside.

That's the theory by which it is possible to mix pieces of music which share all or most of the tonal qualities of the other, to avoid discordant effects, and to make such mixing sound pleasing to ears already trained to recognise these scales, and the relationships in the circle of fifths.

It doesn't guarantee a good mix, there are many other factors to developing a mixing style, for example careful control of EQ, knowing the music well, understanding the general patterns and structure in dance music. I'll be discussing some of these other techniques at a later date.

I'll describe some handy forms of notation, other than the traditional A minor, G flat major etc, and how it can make the process of selecting songs based on tonal qualitites more efficient.

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