It’s Called the Circle of Fifths!!

Bret Mascaro, Director of Education


This is the Circle of Fifths:


So is this, but that’s not important:



My point: it’s not the Circle of Fourths, it’s the Circle of Fifths!! Obviously, this is not the greatest debate since Darwin, but it’s worthy of discussion.

A good friend and band director has argued this point for many years, and we agree to disagree. This band director’s initials are D O and (relating them to the solfeggio which it represents) I expect that he understands our tonal system.  SO, in my relentless teasing over the topic I pointed out that perhaps his preference to the ascending 4th is no better than my descending 5th! 

Like a good game of Tic, Tac, Toe (or the inevitable conclusion of the computer conflict in War Games), no one can really win. But let’s consider a couple of viewpoints.  First, Pythagoras and his mathematical relationships of a vibrating string: cut it in half and the result is an octave, cut it in thirds and the result is a FIFTH!! Repeating this process will eventually return to the original pitch class and as such this cyclic result is best organized on a circle.  Pythagoras, being the brilliant mind that he was, decided that it should be clock-wise (because he had a traditional timepiece, not one of these new fashioned digital watches.)

But I can also understand the practical application of D O – the director, not the solfeggio. As a practice tool in a band rehearsal or music theory class, it is much more effective and meaningful to have students understand the SO-DO relationship as the natural tendency for musical resolution. And I suppose it could be argued that the ascending 4th is an accurate definition of that relationship.  But C’Mon Man! There is NO instrumental or vocal range that will allow for the continual use of the ascending 4th between key centers all of the way around the circle!! At some point performers will need to descend a FIFTH! So, D.O., I guess we are both right. But unlike Pythagoras, my students will need to apply it counter-clockwise.

Next Circle of Fifths topic: should instrumental students be able to play all 12 major keys??  Or is that 15?

Posted on March 3, 2016 .