Circle of Fifths... A Case for Rote Memorization

In general, I don't approve of rote memorization... learning by repetition. I think it's a cultural value-judgment that has served me well in general but I think it has been holding me back in music.

So, I have decided to pursue rote memorization to bolster my understanding of fundamentals of musical notation and theory. It's a lot like learning basic arithmetic for the first time. I am counting on my fingers and writing things down that would be simple enough to do in my head with practice. And in time, I trust that I will be able to ditch the paper (though I suspect my fingers will always come in handy).

The Benefits So Far

So far, I am already getting faster. If you had asked me to name the notes in the Eb major scale a month ago it would have taken me more than 30 seconds to answer and I might have needed fingers or paper. Now I can pretty quickly arrive at Eb F G Ab Bb C D.

I also a second approach to that which I can use to double-check my work. Having memorized the order of flats, I know that the scale of F has one flat, and Bb has 2, and Eb has three. The order of flats is Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb.

Thus, the Eb major scale, having 3 flats, includes the notes: Bb Eb and Ab.

What to Rote Memorize

The C Major Scale

If I were starting out, I would grab my favorite instrument, a metronome, and sing along as I play the C major scale, which has no sharps or flats: C D E F G A B.

The Pattern for Major Scales

Then I would recommend that you read about the pattern for the major scale as expressed in half and whole steps. Half steps are very easy to see on piano: any keys that are directly adjacent (with no notes in between) are said to be a half-step apart. On the bass guitar, any notes that are adjacent frets are said to be a half-step apart. Whole steps have a single note in-between.

Once you understand that, you try to take in the fact that the major scale is a relationship of 7 notes as follows:

R - W - W - H - W - W - W - H - (root-octave)

or, as applied to C major

C -w- D -w- E -h- F -w- G -w- A -w- B -h- C


  • Given any two neighboring notes, most have a whole-step between
  • ...except for E-F and B-C... they are only a half-step apart.

The F and G major scales

Given the notes separated by only half-step, scales other than C have to be altered using sharps and flats to achieve the same tonal pattern.

F and G each have one altered note in their scales to maintain the same relationships between the scale tones.

F has Bb, G has F#... and the scales look like this with the whole/half steps written between:

F: F -w- G -w- A -h- Bb -w- C -w- D -w- E  -h- F
G: G -w- A -w- B -h- C  -w- D -w- E -w- F# -h- G

Major Scales express altered notes either by adding sharps or adding flats. Never both. So the next thing to memorize is the order of sharps based on the circle of fifths.

The Order of Sharps and The Circle of Fifths

This is a badly drawn section of the circle of fifths diagram relevant to the scales that have sharp notes:

Here's what I committed to memory by raw verbal repetition: F C G D A E B. I won't go into detail on how the order of fifths came to be but the name gives you a hint (C is the fifth note of the F scale, G is the fifth note of the C scale).

What matters is that it is a time saver... And here's how I use it.

  • Remember that C has no altered notes. Start with C.
  • Looking at the circle, observe that G is the next note on the circle (the next major scale). The G major scale has one sharp.
  • Continuing in the same direction around the circle... The D major scale has 2. A major... 3. E major... 4. C# has 7 (all notes sharp).
  • The order of sharps is always the same and travels in the same direction as the root notes, starting with F.

If we apply this to the table we can determine the altered notes for each of these scales:

G:  F#
D:  F# C#
E:  F# C# G# D#
B:  F# C# G# D# A#
F#: F# C# G# D# A# E#
C#: F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

To take this exercise further, I have started to memorize the scales as altered. For example, G and D:

G: G A B  C E D F#
D: D E F# G A B C#

If you do this daily, you will begin to be able to intuit the scales.

The Order of Flats and the Circle of Fifths

Here is a similar section of the circle of fifths diagram relevant to scales that have flat altered notes:

And here's how we use it.

  • Again start with C, which has no altered notes.
  • We travel in the opposite direction this time heading toward F, which has one flat.
  • As we continue, Bb has 2, Eb has 3... Cb has 7.
  • The order of flats travels in the same direction as the root notes travel and starts with Bb.
  • Bass players: note that the order of flats is very similar to the notes of the open notes on your bass in ascending order (for a 6-string bass: BEADGC)

For sharps I memorized FCGDAEB.
For flats I reverse it: BEADGCF.

And so we end up with a similar table of altered notes:

F:  Bb
Bb: Bb Eb
Eb: Bb Eb Ab
Ab: Bb Eb Ab Db
Db: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
Gb: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb
Cb: Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb

And similar to the sharps, I recommend memorizing the full scales in actuality:

F:  F  G  A  Bb C  D  E
Bb: Bb C  D  Eb F  G  A
Eb: Eb F  G  Ab Bb C  D
Ab: Ab Bb C  Db Eb F  G

Do this patiently and you will begin to develop a sixth sense for the sharps and flats in a key.

The Circle of Fifths


This is what I draw at the top of my practice sheet each morning before I begin. It establishes the order that I need to work through to memorize the scales.

As I practice each morning, I write up one of these on a blank sheet of paper:

Why Rote?

My goal with rote memorization of these facts is to have them available to me instantly when I need them. Effectively, I want to put thinking about them out of the way so that I can focus on the rhythm, tempo, and feel of the music I am trying to practice.

Every attempt I have made to avoid memorizing this information has led to something slow and boring. Given the choice between that and "fast and boring", I will choose fast.

More Resources

If you want to get deeper with these concepts there are two resources I can refer you to:

  1. Harmony and Theory (affiliate link to Amazon) - This is the book I am working through and it will teach you the theory behind what I have mentioned above in detail. It is the number one book recommended by Anthony Wellington.
  2. Bassology by Anthony Wellington - A lot of what I am getting serious about today was originally presented to me by Anthony Wellington, a brilliant teacher who specializes in Bass Guitar, but whose knowledge goes well beyond. He teaches you how to practice and think about music and if you think you need some direct coaching over Skype... reach out and see if he has any openings. I cannot recommend him highly enough. And, regardless you can just follow his Facebook Page.