In Western music there's something called the Circle of Fifths (we'll show you a helpful graphic in the next section), developed in the 17th century as a way of organizing and memorizing 12 chromatic pitches – the 12 repeating notes on a piano – of western music.
The pitches are arranged evenly-spaced around a circle, creating a sequence of what are called perfect fifths. On a piano, a perfect fifth is represented by a difference of 7 keys on a piano. An octave has a difference of 12 keys (the 12 chromatic pitches).
Each of the 12 chromatic pitches or tones in the Circle of Fifths serves as the root note (known as the tonic) of what's called a "natural major" scale–one of the two most common scales or modes used in Western music (the other being the natural minor).
Each scale has 5 whole tones and 2 semitones – 7 notes – from the root to the next octave (the C Major scale is shown on a piano in the diagram above). In each scale, terms like perfect fifth, third, octave, describe the distance from the root note within that scale of 7 notes. In the diagram above, you can see that G is the fifth, B is the 7th, and the 2nd C is the octave above, repeating the C major scale.
Today, we’re going to explore the Circle of Fifths, the scales and keys, and musical modes a little further, then we’re going to explore how to connect these concrete ideas spiritually with the energies of the signs and planets of astrology using a concept called the Zodiac Tone Circle.
The outside of the Circle of Fifths shows 12 chromatic pitches and major key signatures or scales, beginning with C Major at the top, which has no sharps or flats (sharps and flats are the black keys on a piano).
Read on and follow along as I explore this concept with a set of Meinl's Color Frosted Crystal Singing Bowls:
The inside of the Circle of Fifths shows the relative minor key or scale for each major (more on this with modes down below in the next section). For each clockwise step in the Circle of Fifths, you shift the first note of the scale up one perfect fifth and add one sharp to the 7th note in the scale.
C Major - C D E F G A B
move up one perfect fifth (see bolded note above):
G Major - G A B C D E F#
and again, move up one perfect fifth:
D Major - D E F# G A B C#
Moving counterclockwise, keep doing this this until there are 6 sharps (or 6 flats) and you find yourself at the bottom of the circle in the key of F#/G♭ Major.
(Note: this gets a little complicated because, speaking in terms of musical notation on a page of music, F# Major and G♭ Major are different key signatures–but in terms of the 7 actual pitches in the scale, they are the same–in other words, the same keys are in played on a piano whether you're in F# or G♭ Major).
Continuing clockwise, for each step coming back up the left side of the circle, keep shifting up to the 5th note of the prior scale, then remove a flat from the 7th note of that scale each time until returning to all natural notes at the top again with C.
starting at the bottom of the circle with 6 flats:
F#/G♭ Major - G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F
move up one perfect fifth and remove a flat from the 7th note:
D♭ Major - D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C
move up one perfect fifth, remove a flat from the 7th note:
A♭ Major - A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G
Now, whether you're able to wrap your head around all of that or not, it's okay either way! Because here is a table with all 12 Major Keys in the Circle of Fifths and the accompanying Major Scale of notes, showing the full progression for each scale:
|Major Key||Notes in Major Scale|
|C||C D E F G A B|
|G||G A B C D E F#|
|D||D E F# G A B C#|
|A||A B C# D E F# G#|
|E||E F# G# A B C# D#|
|B||B C# D# E F# G# A#|
|F# / G♭||F# G# A# B C# D# E#|
D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C
A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G
E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C D
B♭ C D E♭ F G A
F G A B♭ C D E
If you want to get a bit more advanced, each of the 12 keys can be expressed ways other than the Major scales listed in the table above. These different expressions are called modes. For each key or scale of seven notes, there are seven modes or ways of expressing the different tonalities, including the major scale explored in the last section and the relative minor scale mentioned in the introduction.
For example, take the notes from the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B). Instead of starting on the C note, start your scale on the A note (the sixth). This is called the Aeolian (or sixth) mode or scale, expressed as A, B, C, D, E, F, G. The sixth mode is also known as the relative natural minor, which is the other most popular key and scale in Western music, found on the inside of the Circle of Fifths.
For an example of a less common mode, start your scale on the F note (the fourth). This is called the Lydian (or fourth) mode or scale, expressed as F, G, A, B, C, D, E. Again, it uses the same seven notes as the C Major scale, but expresses them differently.
If you take the same notes from the C Major Scale but start on the G note (the fifth), this is called the Myxolidian (or fifth) mode or scale, expressed as G, A, B, C, D, E.
So for each of the 12 keys of 7 notes, there are additionally 7 different modes, scales, or expressions within. See each of the different modes and examples in they Key of C in the table below:
|Mode (Greek Name)||Example in Key of C|
|1st (Ionian) - Natural Major||C D E F G A B|
|2nd (Dorian)||D E F G A B C|
|3rd (Phrygian)||E F G A B C D|
|4th (Lydian)||F G A B C D E|
|5th (Mixolydian)||G A B C D E F|
|6th (Aeolian) - Natural Relative Minor||A B C D E F G|
|7th (Locrian)||B C D E F G A|
On the spiritual and philosophical side of things, going back as far back as the Greek thinker Ptolemy, people have drawn connections and correspondences between the "cosmic perfection" of geometric shapes, harmonic sounds, numbers, colors, plants, planetary energies, and other natural and spiritual phenomena.
As it relates to the zodiac and sound, one correspondence–and a useful talismanic tool–that has been created and distilled over centuries is something called a Zodiac Tone Circle. This concept creates a workable connection between the 12 signs of the zodiac and the 12 chromatic tones and keys of modern Western music and the Circle of Fifths.
There are a multitude of approaches and interpretations that have been used to make different zodiac tone circles (you can find more in the source links at the bottom of this blog) going back to our OG (original Greek) Ptolemy, but today we're looking at the zodiac tone circle from 20th-century spiritualist Rudolf Steiner.
His approach is the most straightforward and simple for modern Western tropical astrology and music. And we are but simple Gong farmers, so we prefer the straightforward and the simple.
The wheel of the zodiac (left) starts with Aries as the first sign, marking the beginning of Spring. The signs progress counter-clockwise through the year.
With the Circle of Fifths (right), we start with C major as the first major key or scale and we move clockwise around the circle.
To make these two concepts meet and connect, we have to reverse the progression (visually) for one of the circles. So the 2nd sign of the Zodiac– Taurus–should correspond with the next perfect fifth above C Major, which is G Major.
Steiner combined the two circles this way, using the zodiac's counter-clockwise progression, adapting the Circle of Fifths to the Wheel of the Zodiac as the default:
In this way, each of the 12 signs of the zodiac has its own scale, a unique expression of its own energy through key or scale of 7 notes.
For each Sign and Key and their respective sets of 7 notes, we also know that there are unique 7 modes of expressing those notes, including the natural major scale and its relative natural minor scale. This is similar to how two different birth charts might show a range of planetary configurations and placements of the 7 inner planets through the circle of 12 signs.
Similarly, one musical composition may include different modes of expression (major, minor, etc.) of the same set of 7 notes in a scale and key (C), while another composition might use the same mode of expression (natural major) across different key signatures (C and G).
When it comes to understanding and using the basic concept of zodiac tone circles, we're mostly interested in the 12 keys themselves–the 12 unique sets of 7 notes (5 whole tones, 2 semitones)–than we are with the different modes. If you're already deep in both music theory and astrology and all of this makes sense to you, explore the different modes and how they might relate to different planetary configurations in a birth chart, but don't get too caught up in them if it's still confusing to you.
We're primarily interested in exploring the way that each key (or each grouping of 7 notes and the possible modes and expressions within) correspond to each of the 12 signs and their individual energies. We think this is an interesting and experimental way for healers and composers to approach projects with spiritual, thematic, or energetic intention.
Just as the planets are always moving in different arrangements through the signs, the modes of expression can shift for each set of 7 notes–from major to minor to myxolydian–or the player could shift to an entirely different set of 7 notes in a different key altogether.
Here's a video we put together exploring this concept with a set of frosted crystal singing bowls we're calling the "Aquarius Set" which uses the 7 notes from the key of B♭ Major (G minor).
Musicians like Mort Garson and John Coltrane have used these concepts as inspiration for their music to great success. Why not think about your compositions and sound baths using this framework too?
Here's closer look at the Aquarius Set we built:
Below is a table with the 12 signs, their natural major keys, and the 7 notes for each, shown in order based on the major scale / Ionian mode. As mentioned, you can use any of the modes from the table up above to express each set of these notes in different ways that will each have a different flavor or energy.
|Sign||Natural Major Key||Notes (Relative Minor Bolded)|
|Aries||C||C D E F G A B|
|Taurus||G||G A B C D E F#|
|Gemini||D||D E F# G A B C#|
|Cancer||A||A B C# D E F# G#|
|Leo||E||E F# G# A B C# D#|
|Virgo||B (C♭)||B C# D# E F# G# A#|
|Libra||F# (G♭)||F# G# A# B C# D# E#|
|Scorpio||D♭ (C#)||D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C|
A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G
|Capricorn||E♭||E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C D|
B♭ C D E♭ F G A
|Pisces||F||F G A B♭ C D E|
Research and Image Sources: