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Is the circle of fifths relevant to elementary music education today?

by Christine Caton-Greasley

Submitted for the degree of an MA in Music

September 2022

Word count 11,000

This dissertation has been submitted for a master's degree with the Open University.

The entire work has been prepared by the author and is my own work.


[1] This paper answers the question “Is the circle of fifths relevant to elementary music education today?” using a qualitative historical analysis methodology to analyse the ancient and historical origins of the interval of the fifth. This includes the cultures of Ancient Egypt, China and India which were initially researched and the evidence of the emergence of the concept of the fifth summarised. The next section covers the observations and adjustments of the fifth by the Greek mathematicians and medieval theorists. The emergence of the musical circle in the 17th century and its development to its presentation in the current format, concludes the historic qualitative analysis.


[2] The following chapters analyse uses of the circle and its potential application in teaching materials for a student of elementary piano standard. It utilises comparative efficacy studies of current elementary piano teaching methods and a theoretical proposal for a new teaching methodology that presents the circle of fifths in a way that benefits an elementary student. Research has been collected, analysed, and printed, from online portals such as Jstor, library materials and original source documents sought from international sites. All citations have been indicated and collated for each chapter and a complete bibliography concludes the paper.

[3] The results demonstrate that it would be beneficial for an elementary piano student to attain the knowledge of the circle of fifths which benefits from being taught from an early stage in their musical journey. An example is shown in Chapter Five for a method of teaching a small section of a popular educational piece, this is followed by a recommendation that a scheme of work can be used to plan how to include the musical circle in lessons. The analysis of the historical sources and modern uses has enabled the concluding categoric statement.

[4] The paper has posited further fields of qualitative study that may be considered, this includes a field test of the suggested format of a scheme of work that may form the basis for a future doctoral proposal. To support the findings, further historical analysis of literature from other ancient cultures is required to consider other applications that may have been forgotten with the passage of time. The new equal temperament tuning system was briefly mentioned; further research is required into the blending of the ancient harmonic methods and the twelve-tone equal temperament system.



Circle of Fifths, fifths, Egypt, China, harps, yellow-bell, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Boethius, Diletskii, Heinchen, Mattheson, Kellner, Schumann, Soldier’s March, Scheme of Work, triangles, chords, blacksmith, theory

Instructions for the digital version of this document.

[5] To return to the top of any page please click the paragraph number shown at the beginning of the first line. All images are thumbnails, click any image to expand to full size then close the lightbox window when complete. To utilise the audio links, click on the speaker symbol. The start of each label shows a symbol (^) that, when clicked, will return to the reference to the figure in the text.

[6] Each chapter has a unique bibliography at the foot of the page. At the beginning of each link there is a symbol (^) that, when clicked, will return to the place in the text.  Any hyperlinks in the bibliographical sections are to sources outside the website and will open in a new window. The complete bibliography includes a link to go to the bibliography listing for the chapter. A return link to the complete bibliography and a link to the chapter's bibliography can be found at the top of each chapter.

Chris Caton-Greasley LLCM(TD) MA (Mus)(Open)

Ethnographic Musicologist, Teacher, Researcher

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