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January 15, 2013 11:53 PM   Subscribe

If C is the basic, root note of the Western musical scale, why is C not named A?
posted by gnossie to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why middle C?

The naming of the notes and position of middle C arise from the way we set out our great staff. Guido d'Arezzo (c.995-1050) called the first line on the lower staff by the Greek letter gamma. The lowest note in the scale was called ut and was placed on gamma. This first note was soon called gamma ut, which contracted to gamut.

Alpha - A
Beta - B
Gamma - C
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:32 AM on January 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


There isn't really such a thing as "the" root note of "the" Western musical scale.

C is the root note (tonic) of the Major scale if you want to play it on the piano using only white notes. Since this is the simplest scale to play that sounds nice, C became kinda popular. But on the guitar for example, C isn't all that special.

There are two main scales in Western music, "minor" and "major".

These two scales are based on two of the seven modal scales - which are basically the seven scales you get if you play all white notes on a piano, but start on different notes.

Today's major scale is equivalent to the Ionian mode (the "third" mode, starting on C) while minor is based on the Aolian mode (the "first" mode, starting on A). My understanding is that at the time when the notes got their names, people thought in terms of the modes rather than in "major" and "minor".
posted by moorooka at 2:45 AM on January 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, if we're talking about music in general and not just the piano, it is really A that deserves to be called the "basic root note" since it the A above middle C that is the general standard for tuning the pitch of instruments (at 440 Hz).
posted by moorooka at 2:49 AM on January 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


[A couple of comments deleted. Short answers like "it isn't" (similar to "yes"/"no") aren't helpful. If you think there is an error in the basic premise, go ahead an explain it, or link to something that explains it.]
posted by taz at 5:17 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, if you want to play a natural minor scale on the piano with no black notes, you start on A. So A is pretty important too, being the base note of the other primary scale in modern Western music. But there are also other modes besides major and minor that were historically popular and/or are frequently used in non-Classical/neoclassical music today.
posted by mskyle at 6:57 AM on January 16, 2013


I don't even play piano but would say that since C seems to be the physically easiest major scale to play on the piano and middle C is midway between the 2 staffs in notation , middle C is often used as a reference point in musical discussions.
posted by canoehead at 8:33 AM on January 16, 2013


If C is the basic, root note of the Western musical scale

What? Says whom? C is not the basic, root note of anything other than a C [pick a mode] scale or chord with C as the root.

C seems to be the physically easiest major scale to play on the piano

Very incorrect. C major is physically the most difficult scale to play on a piano because it is all white keys and they all feel the same. C major is the easiest key to read in or to teach beginning theory, but the easiest scale to play, physically, is Db major. Your hand fits the pattern of black and white keys beautifully while playing a Db major scale, and while playing in that key in general. (You could also argue for F# major, I suppose, but Db is considered the easiest among the keyboard community.)

That is one (of many reasons) why when we teach little kids to play piano before they read music, we do everything on the black keys for a while.

the A above middle C that is the general standard for tuning the pitch of instruments (at 440 Hz)

Sure, for an orchestra. Not for wind/brass bands, though, typically. And 440 seems to be the modern standard, but it still isn't the standard-standard. Some groups will still tune to 415.
posted by TinWhistle at 11:16 AM on January 16, 2013


Yeah, well surely you know what is meant by "easiest" in this case!

"Physically" easiest is a different story. (I'd give B major an honorable mention here too).
posted by moorooka at 12:53 PM on January 16, 2013


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