Why does music have a circle of fifths but no circle of thirds or circle of sixths?
If you start at on any note and go up by fifths, you’ll cycle through the entire chromatic scale. For example: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, F, C. If you go up by fourths, you’ll get the same sequences of notes but in the reverse order. So there’s a cycle of fifths and a cycle of fourths, but there are no other ways to cycle through the chromatic scale other than the chromatic scale itself.
If you start at C and go up by minor thirds, for example, you’ll only hit four distinct notes before returning to where you started: C, D#, F#, A, C. You don’t cycle through all 12 notes, only four of them. Instead of filling out a chromatic scale, you fill out a diminished chord. You could fill out two other diminished chords by starting on C# or on D. Going up by major sixths produces the same sequence of notes as going down by minor thirds.
What’s special about fourths and fifths that their cycles cover the chromatic scale while cycles of other intervals partition the chromatic scale into smaller groups of notes? A fourth is 5 chromatic steps and a fifth is 7 chromatic steps. The numbers 5 and 7 are relatively prime to 12, that is, they share no factors with 12 (other than 1, which doesn’t count).
The numbers less than 12 and relatively prime to 12 are 1, 5, 7, and 11. These intervals correspond to the ascending chromatic scale, the circle of fourths, the circle of fifths, and the descending chromatic scale.
The numbers less than 12 and not relatively prime to 12 are 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10. Going up by 2 chromatic steps produces a whole-tone scale. Going up by 10 steps produces the same sequence of notes but in the opposite order. Going up by 3 or 9 steps produces a diminished chord. Going up by 4 or 8 steps produces an augmented chord. Going up by 6 steps produces a tritone pair. (I’m used to jazz terminology which uses the term “tritone.” Classical musicians would more likely say “augmented fourth” or “diminished fifth.”)
Now imagine a non-traditional scale that divided the octave into some number of parts other than 12. Suppose this new scale has n notes. Cycling in steps of size m will cover all n notes if and only if m and n are relatively prime. For example, if we divide the scale into 15 parts, we could cover all 15 pitches if we went up 4 steps at a time. We could play notes 1, 5, 9, 13, 2, 6, 10, 14, 3, 7, 11, 15.
If m and n are not relatively prime, let d be their greatest common divisor, the largest number that divides both m and n. Then going up d parts at a time will cycle through m/d notes and there will be d distinct cycles. For example, if there were 15 notes in our scale and we went up in intervals of 10 notes, we would cover 3 distinct notes, and we could make 5 different such three-note chords. For example, one such chord would be notes 1, 11, and 6, and another would be notes 2, 12, and 7.
If a scale had a prime number of notes, then every interval (other than an octave) would cycle through all notes.
Why is the 12-note scale so common? There have been other systems, but these are mostly subsets (at least approximately) of the 12-note scale. The answer seems to have something to do with the fact that intervals in the 12-tone scale have simple frequency ratios. For example, a fifth is a ratio 3:2 and a forth is a ratio 3:4. (More on that here.) These intervals are pleasant to our ears. There was a prehistoric flute in the news a few weeks ago and it appears to have been based on the same musical intervals common in modern music.
Related post: Circle of fifths and roots of two