The Circle of 5ths is a music theory concept that works as a useful tool for musicians of any background or genre. The Circle of Fifths can be used as a theory tool to understand key signatures, chord progressions and is used as a practice tool for learning patterns and chords in different keys.
Having a solid understanding of the Circle of Fifths helps build a better spacial awareness of music theory in general. In this tutorial I am going to explain how the Circle of Fifths works and how to use it. Let’s get started!
My sight reading pet peeve
I have been teaching voice and piano for a long time and have found an issue that has become a HUGE pet peeve for me. The main reason I see people getting stuck in reading notation is that they are only thinking of note names and they aren’t even aware of the intervals. This is the worst possible way to learn. I’m going to show you an approach that, although it will take a little work to learn, will dramatically improve your capacity to read music on your instrument. Pianists: this means you!
When people are first trained to read music, they are taught the letter names of the notes and where they sit on the staff so you may have learned the moniker ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ for the lines of the treble clef or ‘Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always’ for the lines of the bass clef. I always had a lot of questions about this when I was taking piano lessons like “where are the girls?”
Beyond just note names
Learning the note names is a crucial step in being able to decode music notation but unfortunately, a lot of people’s training stops there. I have always been a good sight reader – so much so that I kind of took it for granted. In all my years of teaching piano, I have noticed a pattern among so many of my students who were struggling with sight reading; they were only reading the note names so they were looking at the notes, thinking of the name of the note, and then they were playing it. They weren’t making any connections to the relationships between the notes; namely the intervals.
When I started teaching my son piano I started him in the old piano books from when I was little. Yes, the piano book from like 1981 when I started (it’s the Music Tree which I’ll link below). The music tree curriculum focuses really heavily on intervals and even teaches intervallic relationships of the lines and spaces in the clef before they even teach the note names.You’re looking at intervals before you’re naming any of the notes. So there’s no ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’. It made me wonder as I was working on this, if I owed my solid sight reading skills to this interval-rich training from when I was four years old.
Sight reading is about intervals
When a pianist is reading complex piano music, we’re not thinking of letter names. That would be so slow. Instead, our eyes are following the contour of the notes, noticing whether the notes are moving up or down and by what margin they’re moving; by steps, by leaps are they staying the same? It would be nearly impossible to learn challenging music if you were just thinking of note names. The relationship between the notes are so much more important than just their names so let’s get right into my approach at looking at music intervallically.
Remember that an interval is the distance between two notes:
Intervals start at unisons which is the same as a repeated note or a first. They move through seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths until they hit the octave which is the repeated note. An octave above C is C – you could also say that’s an eighth, but in music we say an octave. You can also move beyond 9th 10th 11th 12th etc.
Naming interval qualities is for another lesson and honestly, if you’re keeping in mind the key signature and accidentals, you don’t really need to be thinking about the quality of the interval. You just need to be thinking about the size of it. Believe it or not, for singers it’s different but for piano music and for instrumental music, you don’t need to necessarily think about the quality.
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Here is my simple three step sight reading plan
Name the first note and play it on piano
Look at and name the interval preferably naming it aloud between the first note and the second note and play it. If the first note is middle C and the second note is a fourth above it you’re going to play a C say up a fourth and you’re going to play a fourth.If the next note goes from the F and goes down a third, you’ll play the F and then say down a third and then play the D.
Keep doing this a whole lot of times. This is going to take some effort and regular practice to master. I know there’s a ton of people out here on youtube selling online courses saying “this is going to be so easy! You’ll wake up in the morning and you’ll be able to play all the music you ever wanted to play and you won’t even have to practice or do anything”
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