Cycle of Fifths? What? Why?
It is completely understandable that the Cycle of Fifths often creates confusion and disconnect for bass players. Unlike classical musicians, many bassists do not come from sheet music, but from shapes and patterns. Note heads on five lines don’t seem to bridge the gap to understanding the value of the cycle, where ears, shapes under fingers, and the fretboard does. Now, hear me right, reading is of course very important. I just don’t think you can teach the value of the cycle by putting sheet music in front of someone who is not used to reading music in the first place. Reading is a difficult and intricate skill on its own for the bass player. And knowing music theory helps reading immensely. So, I don’t think sheet music is the right approach at that exciting moment when someone wonders about the cycle of fifths.
So, if I don’t think you can explain the value of the Cycle of Fifths by pointing to the key signatures, and the typical graph, how, then?
I say, point to the fret board instead! Listen to the cycle, play it. It opens the fretboard, the ears, the mind.
The cycle is way underrated as
- a practice tool
- a tool for song memorization
- a tool for understanding chord relationships
- a tool for creating grooves
- a tool for analyzing songs
It is mostly famous for the fact that it tells you how many sharps and flats a key has. It beautifully organizes all 15 keys into an appealing graphic (that makes a nice wall clock, by the way), but if you don’t make the connection to the songs you are playing, then it doesn’t click on the fretboard. If you don’t feel how all five of these flats and the two natural notes in the Db major scale for example relate to the root Db, all over the fretboard, in all positions, then knowing what those five flats are won’t do you much good, will it?
The way your bass strings are tuned is a slice right out of the cycle! There is a reason for that and the reason is music itself: the V-I connection is the strongest chord progression there is, it will always sound like a resolution to our ears.
You probably learned the cycle in a book as a way to organize keys and key signatures and you were not able to make the connection how that could help you play a song. I don’t blame you one bit to be puzzled and ask Why? I have heard others vent their frustration on that many times. Again, watch this. This puts the cycle on the fretboard as well as connects it to the music you will play. You may, however, need to know intervals to get the full scoop 😉
In the course we are tackling the cycle of fifths in Week 12. By that point we have thoroughly practiced all intervals.
Just go for it it. There is no magic sauce or secret ingredient other than going through it. Or, well maybe there is, it is called practice, synergy, integration.
You can get the scoop for free here (the first teaching videos I ever made on my own):
This is a set of five short videos on the “Cycle of Fifths for the Bass Player”: