There are many useful tools that can make the life of a musician easier. Few if any can compare to the level of usefulness that the circle of fifths achieves. In my personal opinion, the circle of fifths is the most important tool that any musician can possess.
The circle of fifths practically a cheat sheet, that’s why. The circle of fifths shows us the properties of every single major and minor key, and also shows us all of the major key’s relative minors, as well as all minor key’s relative majors.
Why is this so important? It gives us the ability to play keys that match one another.
Just because you are playing in C Major, doesn’t mean you have to play in C Major. That may not seem like it makes much sense, but it actually does. C Major isn’t the only key that contains the properties of C Major. In fact, the key that shares its exact properties is a minor key; A minor, to be exact.
If you find that you are playing in C Major, yet you want to change the quality of your song, the circle of fifths can help you to achieve this. The circle of fifths can be used to find the relative minor of C Major, which we already established is A minor, thus helping you to change the quality of your song from upbeat and powerful to sad and heartfelt. All of this while note having to worry about a whole new set of notes.
This is extremely useful for bass players, in the fact that we don’t always want to follow the drum or guitars; sometimes bass sounds best when following its own unique melody within the context of the song. Knowing your relative keys can help you to achieve a completely unique pattern within the same key signature as the main melody.
For example, let’s use our ever popular C Major and A minor.
C Major consists of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. A minor consists of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Notice how the notes are the same, yet played in different order. The simple fact that the notes are played differently makes the biggest difference in the sound of a piece.
For instance, if we were playing a simple melody outlining the tonic triad of C Major, our notes would be C, E, and G. If we play a simple melody outlining the tonic triad of the key A minor, our notes would be A, C, and E. Both triads contain two of the same notes, and yet have two completely different sounds.
This means if you were to play C, E, and G with an underlying pattern of A, C, and E, not only would you be playing within the same key signature, but you would be creating a complete different range of sound than using C Major alone.
Now that you know how to use the circle of fifths to expand your bass playing, the final step is for you to try it out for yourself. Play a Major key and use its relative minor to create a separate melody that adds textural quality. Keep your mind open and experiment.
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