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C (musical note)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Middle C Play (help·info)
Middle C About this soundPlay 

C (Italian, French: Do) is the first note of the C major scale, the third note of the A minor scale (the relative minor of C major), and the fourth note (F, A, B, C) of the Guidonian hand, commonly pitched around 261.63 Hz. The actual frequency has depended on historical pitch standards, and for transposing instruments a distinction is made between written and sounding or concert pitch.

In English the term Do is used interchangeably with C only by adherents of fixed-Do solfège; in the movable Do system Do refers to the tonic of the prevailing key.

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Have you ever wondered why musicians talk about middle C? C feels like the center of our musical universe. But why is it the third letter of the alphabet, not the first? Well, the reason is convoluted, and covers millennia. This is Music Corner: your source for nerdy thoughts on music. I’m David Kulma. Say you’re learning how to play a musical instrument. Your teacher plops down in front of you a book with lots of dots and lines in it. What are these for? Your teacher gives you the basics. “When we play the piano we make pitches. These pitches are represented on the page as notes. These notes are placed on a staff of five horizontal lines. Our lower pitches are near the bottom and higher pitches are on the top. We have seven note names: A through G. We recycle these names over and over again as needed, and we add accidentals before the notes to identify the other five possible pitches.” Your teacher then introduces you to the major scale: a particular set of note relationships that sounds bright and maybe even happy. And the first one you play is C major, because it avoids all the accidentals. At this point you wonder: Why didn’t we call the first note A and have that scale be the one without accidentals? And your teacher probably doesn’t have an answer. “Just play the scale.” Well, I have one, and the basic reason is this: our current system that talks about major scales was invented after our notation system. Really? Yes, the oldest books that talk about major and its brother, minor, come from the 17th century, while the beginnings of western music notation are from the end of the first millennium C.E. That means, people have been talking about major and minor scales for about 400 years, but we have music notation predating that time for at least 600 years. To put that in perspective: opera was invented about 1600. The first opera masterpiece is Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo from 1607. Guido of Arezzo recommended using a staff notation similar to our current one (it had four lines instead of five) around 1030. We are closer to the invention of opera than opera is to the invention of staff notation. So let’s go back to before opera existed. How did people in Europe talk about music back then? Well, musicians needed to be able to sing and understand their Roman Catholic worship music, which we call Gregorian chant. The system they created to explain this music used modes. There were 8 of them, but were really 4 modes with two versions each: authentic and plagal. Each mode had a final: the note the music ended on. And these four finals and their modes each had a different flavor based upon the placement of whole steps and half steps. So our musicians would sing a chant, it would end on a particular note, with a specific modal flavor, and they would categorize it in one of the eight modes. The other way they had to organize pitch was the gamut. That is, the possible notes from the lowest to the highest. And here is where our logical thought as music students comes in. “Let’s call the lowest note A.” And they did, and it was good. Makes sense, right? Yeah… until they decided to add an even lower note, and then it’s become theoretically infinite since then, but right now, in this quasi-imagined past, A is the lowest note. Now, we need to line up our modes with the gamut. Our lowest note has to be the bottom note of the first plagal mode, which has the final in the middle. This first plagal mode has the lowest note A and the final is a perfect fourth higher (a whole step, a half step, a whole step) for the right flavor. So, A to B becomes a whole step. B to C becomes a half step. C to D becomes a whole step, and D becomes our first final and we call this mode Dorian. The next mode Phrygian is based on E, Lydian on F, and Mixolydian on G. But I thought we were talking about C! Well, C as a final didn’t exist yet. It took until 1547 for Heinrich Glarean to define this mode, Ionian. By that time, there was so much music not in our original eight modes that he added two finals on C and A. Soon after this advance, in the next century, musicians started talking about major and minor scales, instead of our matching C and A modes. You’d think there would be a clear bridge from modes to major and minor, but sadly there isn’t. It basically appears out of nowhere. No matter how it happened, a new way of writing music appeared around the 1600s and the concept of major also arose around this time. But they had this old successful notation system, so they just grafted this new music onto the old system. This newer system still operates today (among many others). So note names were created for a much older system of music than the one that requires you to learn major scales. This historical grafting of new onto old happened regularly. To go even further back, this whole modal theory was created to sync up musical practice in the church with the writings about music handed down from Ancient Greece. This is why we have Greek words like Dorian and Phrygian to describe what are sometimes called the “church modes.” The Greeks had modes and they also had two gamuts to describe pitch possibilities. Musicians in the first millennium attempted to square this circle of new and old. Surprisingly enough, they got the Ancient modes wrong: Greek scales went down instead of up. Later, this upside-down modal theory that only had one accidental couldn’t explain Renaissance music with its multiple accidentals and complex polyphony. This is one reason Glarean added four more modes. So in order, Ancient Greek music theory was confused by Medieval musicians in order to square it with Gregorian chant. Chant musicians gave us note names and notation based on their gamut and modes. At some point a thousand years ago, the lowest note was A. A few hundred years later, music in major and minor arrived and was grafted on top of the older notation. And now because accidentals make reading music complicated at first, it is easiest to teach you a major scale without accidentals. That scale starts on C. Thanks for watching this first episode of Music Corner. If you liked it, please give it a thumbs up, share it with your friends, and subscribe. I’ll be happy to answer any questions I can in the comments. I plan on talking about all kinds of music in future videos. Until then, "one gee in fogs, two gees in eggs."



Historically, concert pitch has varied. For an instrument in equal temperament tuned to the A440 pitch standard widely adopted in 1939, middle C has a frequency around 261.63 Hz (for other notes see piano key frequencies). Scientific pitch notation was originally proposed in 1713 by French physicist Joseph Sauveur and based on the numerically convenient frequency of 256 Hz for middle C, all C's being powers of two. After the A440 pitch standard was adopted by musicians, the Acoustical Society of America published new frequency tables for scientific use. A movement to restore the older A435 standard has used the banners "Verdi tuning", "philosophical pitch" or the easily confused scientific pitch.

Octave nomenclature

Middle C

Middle C (the fourth C key from left on a standard 88-key piano keyboard) is designated C4 in scientific pitch notation, the most commonly recognized in auditory science[citation needed], while both C4 and the Helmholtz designation c′ are used in musical studies. Other note-octave systems, including those used by some makers of digital music keyboards, may refer to Middle C differently. In MIDI, Middle C is note number 60.

While the expression Middle C is generally clear across instruments and clefs, some musicians naturally use the term to refer to the C note in the middle of their specific instrument's range. C4 may be called Low C by someone playing a Western concert flute, which has a higher and narrower playing range than the piano, while C5 (523.251 Hz) would be Middle C. This technically inaccurate practice has led some pedagogues to encourage standardizing on C4 as the definitive Middle C in instructional materials across all instruments.[1]

Other octaves

In vocal music, the term Soprano C, sometimes called High C[2] or Top C[by whom?], is the C two octaves above Middle C. It is so named because it is considered the defining note of the soprano voice type. It is C6 in scientific pitch notation (1046.502 Hz) and c''' in Helmholtz notation. The term Tenor C is sometimes used[by whom?] in vocal music to refer to C5, as it is the highest required note in the standard tenor repertoire. The term Low C is sometimes used in vocal music to refer to C2 because this is considered the divide between true basses and bass-baritones: a basso can sing this note easily whereas other male voices, including bass-baritones, typically cannot.

Tenor C is an organ builder's term for small C or C3 (130.813 Hz), the note one octave below Middle C. In stoplists it usually means that a rank is not full compass, omitting the bottom octave.[3]

Designation by octave

Scientific designation Helmholtz designation Octave name Frequency (Hz) Other names Audio
C−1 C͵͵͵ or ͵͵͵C or CCCC Octocontra 8.176 About this soundPlay 
C0 C͵͵ or ͵͵C or CCC Subcontra 16.352 About this soundPlay 
C1 C͵ or ͵C or CC Contra 32.703 About this soundPlay 
C2 C Great 65.406 Low C About this soundPlay 
C3 c Small 130.813 Bass C, Tenor C (organ), Viola C About this soundPlay 
C4 c′ One-lined 261.626 Middle C About this soundPlay 
C5 c′′ Two-lined 523.251 Tenor C (vocal), Tenor High C[4] (vocal), Treble C About this soundPlay 
C6 c′′′ Three-lined 1046.502 Soprano C (vocal), High C (vocal), Top C (vocal) About this soundPlay 
C7 c′′′′ Four-lined 2093.005 About this soundPlay 
C8 c′′′′′ Five-lined 4186.009 Eighth octave C About this soundPlay 
C9 c′′′′′′ Six-lined 8372.018 About this soundPlay 
C10 c′′′′′′′ Seven-lined 16,744.036 About this soundPlay 

(20,000 hertz is the start of the ultrasound in healthy young adults.)

Graphic presentation

Middle C in four clefs
Middle C in four clefs
Position of Middle C on a standard 88-key keyboard
Position of Middle C on a standard 88-key keyboard


Common scales beginning on C

Diatonic scales

Jazz melodic minor

B sharp

Comparison of notes derived from, or near, twelve perfect fifths (B♯)
Comparison of notes derived from, or near, twelve perfect fifths (B)

Twelve just perfect fifths (B) and seven octaves do not align as in equal temperament.

  • Pythagorean: 701.955 × 12 = 8423.46 = 23.46 = B+++
  • ET: 700 × 12 = 8400 = 0 = B = C
  • 1200 × 7 = 8400 = 0 = C

This difference of 23.46 cents (531,441 / 524,288) is known as the Pythagorean comma.

See also


  1. ^ Large, John (February 1981). "Theory in Practice: Building a Firm Foundation". Music Educators Journal. 32: 30–35.
  2. ^ "At the Met Opera, a Note So High, It’s Never Been Sung Before", The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2017
  3. ^ Wakin, Daniel J. (2007-09-09). "The Note That Makes Us Weep". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
  4. ^ "Luciano Pavarotti - King of the High C’s", The New York Times", Sept. 9, 2007
This page was last edited on 23 November 2018, at 03:24
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