One of the best-kept secrets in music is the Circle of Fifths. Recent research has exposed sinister reasons for the existence and long history of this mysterious, masonic-like device. I can only tell you the little I know. I wish I had learned it earlier.
When I was seven, my mother wanted me to have a better musical education than she ever had. She thought that not being able to read music was shameful, even though she played the piano beautifully by ear. I wanted to learn and play just like my mum, so I agreed to go lessons. I cooperated mostly and sort of learned to read the notes but my ear always insisted on taking over and I would memorize the pieces. According to the piano teacher, this was wrong.
At one lesson, after listening to the teacher play Minuet in G a few times, I was given the sheet music and told to learn it for homework. I returned the next week and played the piece quite well. At least, it sounded good to me and that was the main thing, right? Apparently not. “You’re not reading the music,” the teacher protested. When I said, “I don’t need to. I know it. It’s in my head,” she actually rapped my knuckles with a ruler. This made little sense. I decided that I was a bad student. After five or six lessons and not liking it much, I quit. I was much happier playing cricket or exploring with my friends.
Now, you may say my experience was one that all children go through, and they survive, don’t they? No. I believe that this brush with bad teaching deeply affected my future learning experiences. I wish that teacher had encouraged me by allowing me to use my ears rather than dampening my interest.
Years later, still unable to do anything other than doodle on a keyboard, I bought a book purely for its title: How To Play The Piano Despite Years of Lessons. Wanting to share, I lent my copy to a trombone player in Victoria. Neither has been seen since. This gem of a book has been out of print for some time but recently I was able to buy a replacement on the Internet. The reason it always meant so much to me is that it spoke about the significance of the Circle of Fifths. True, the workings of the Circle are not revealed until Chapter 29 but that’s a lot earlier than my piano teacher – which was never.
The simple mathematical revelations of the Circle and their information about chord progressions are well worth learning. As I re-read the book, I became intensely curious about the history of the Circle and its connection with the way musicians interact with each other. I scoured the Internet, went far beyond the basics to discover facts, hints and downright lies that I feel compelled to pass on to the uninitiated.
For instance, I uncovered the reason why I have had difficulty finding other musicians to play with, and why they sometimes have a problem with me. I thought it was my ego, unsociable behaviour, or my preference for playing by ear rather than sheet music. It is definitely not the accordion, which I put down years ago. However, my recent research provides an explanation.
On the piano, for example, it is C major. Just play on the white notes with an occasional black one if you are feeling a little down.
There, in its place at the top of the circle, is C. Almost everyone, on many instruments, can play in C, thanks to the influence of the piano keyboard and the way most music is taught in instruction books.
Because of the tuning of their instruments, players of violins, guitars and and other strings, favour the left hand side of the circle. Keys E, A, D and G predominate.
On the other hand, or side, horn and woodwind players prefer Bb, Eb, Ab. The natural tones - those played without the use of valves, slides and finger keys - are easier to produce.
Fear not. It is not our fault. The blame can be laid at the feet of certain dark powers that are responsible for our discomfort. A diabolical conspiracy of organisations exists, intent on dominating the world of music.
I can hear you saying, “Oh, yes. Another conspiracy theory.” Well, the terrible truth is that the Circle of Fifths existed well before 1728 when it was introduced by Johann David Heinichen. (Now, there’s a suspicious, beer-related name.) Ancient scrolls have been found showing a symbolic rough circle, well, more of a triangle, with a five-stringed lute on one side and a huge serpentine horn on the other, separated by a flaming spear. There’s proof!
Who exactly are these perpetrators? What secret society controls musicians, fomenting discord between banjo players and clarinetists: string quartets and dixieland bands: accordionists and djembesteros? We cannot blame the recording industry for everything. Nor deejays. We should encourage them to use the Circle of Fifths to mix more harmoniously between songs?
Now is the time to expose these agents of discord. They co-exist inside and outside of music circles. They are the manufacturers of capos, electronic tuners and stretchy guitar strings; they are elevator music producers, piano teachers, sheet music publishers, deejays, and unapproved music downloaders. (You know who you are.)
None of this will surprise you professional musicians. You have been in on it all along, having learned the black arts of music at the Conservatory and achieving mastery in the Domain of Twelve Keys. However, elementary players like myself, my fellow basement musicians and the like, can fight back now we know the truth: it is the nature of the instrument, not the player. Together, we can cross the Great Divide.
Written by Ray Turner for the British Columbia Music Magazine in October 2006.