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Sorry Pythagoras

Updated: Mar 20, 2023


Pythagoras lived in 6th century B.C. He was a Greek scholar and philosopher and created the first Circle of Fifths. This is the musical circle we all know or have at least heard about.

I would like to suggest a change to the Circle of Fifths but before I get into that it`s important to know a bit of history.


How did the Circle of Fifths come about? Pythagoras discovered that by changing the length of a string he could change it’s pitch. By continually changing the length by 2/3 and plotting the note it produced on a circle, the first Circle of Fifths was born. If you want more detail, here’s a great video explaining the fundamentals of plucking a string (thanks to musicircle.net).


Here’s where things get a bit gray. First of all, it might not have been Pythagoras that wrote down the Circle of Fifths. He did the string plucking but we’re not so sure if he created the circle. It may have been Nikolay Diletsky who created the circle in the 1600’s.


In addition, when you continually divide a string into 2/3’s you get the Circle of Fifths … almost. You don’t quite get back to the pitch for C. This is known as the Pythagorean comma. There’s all sorts of information about that too but that’s not what I’m blogging about today.


Because there are already gray areas circling the circle (I couldn’t resist), that means the Circle of Fifths is not cast in stone, so… I want to suggest that the Circle of Fifths, as we know it and use it in music lessons, is … BACKWARDS! I want to suggest a change so that it makes more sense when we use it.


Why? Because music moves ii – V – I. In the key of C that’s Dm – G – C.


Look at the Circle on the right. D – G – C moves counter clockwise! Clock hands go clockwise, taps are closed clockwise, screws are tightened clockwise, compass bearings go clockwise. I like to teach in clockwise motion because that’s how our lives work.


The Circle on the left can still be called a Circle of Fifths. D is the five chord in G which is the five chord in C which is the five chord in F, etc. The chords are moving by fifths, V of V of V of V (12 times).


If you read to the end of this blog, I’ll send you a free Circle spinner to download that shows ii-V-I in all keys. It’s a great tool for your studio. I use it all the time in the Play Piano Chords Today course.


Another benefit from changing the direction of the letters is, all the flat keys are on the right side as you are travelling down the circle (flat = down) and all the sharp keys are on the left side where you are traveling up (sharp = up) the circle.


My kitchen clock is a Circle of Fifths and it happily moves clockwise!


I have often wondered why such a useful musical tool isn’t used more. Could it be because it’s moves in the wrong direction?


Sorry, Pythagoras, your circle needs a tweak for music lessons. I’m happy to call it the Jazz Circle!



Make your own ii-V-I Circle Spinner



Would you like your own Circle Spinner?

Click here to get your free Circle of Fifths spinner to download. You can choose either circle, Clockwise or Counter Clockwise. I know not everyone will agree with me (yet 😊), and I want every music studio to have access to using one.


I use mine in every lesson I teach. Enjoy!


P.S. Constructive comments on this blog are most welcome!


Modal Circle - Imgur

Dreamcatcher Circle - Yun Gee Bradley


 

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