C Major
May 18, 2004 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Beat the Profs: I asked all my music professors this one, and none have an answer. Why is Western music based around C major rather than A major? (More inside)

Western music theory, based around the piano keyboard, is designed around the major scale and its modes. The piano keyboard pattern separates out the major scale tones (white keys) from the total of the 12 semitones in an octave (white plus black keys). Why is this scale of no sharps or flats assigned the letters C, D E, F, G, A, B rather than A, B, C, D, E, F, G? Keep in mind that I am not sugeesting that what we now call tones A through G should be "The new major scale," but just that the letters we tag to the tones would shift (2 spaces to the right on the piano keyboard).
posted by Phatty Lumpkin to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
Music notation systems have used letters of the alphabet for centuries. The 6th century philosopher Boethius is known to have used the first fifteen letters of the alphabet to signify the notes of the two-octave range that was in use at the time; it is not known whether this was his devising or common usage at the time; nonetheless this is called Boethian notation.

Following this, the system of repeating letters A-G in each octave was introduced, these being written as minuscules for the second octave and double minuscules for the third. When the compass of used notes was extended down by one note, to a G, it was given the Greek G (G), gamma. (It is from this that the French word for scale, gamme is derived, and the English word gamut.)

I'm no music geek, so I can't quite follow all of that Wikipedia entry. But it sounds like the answer to your question is: "Because some old dude invented the scale a really long time ago and we've been using and modifying it ever since."
posted by falconred at 2:52 PM on May 18, 2004

The powers-that-dictate deemed the more serious sounding minor scale as more appropriate for church music. The relative minor scale to C major is A minor. So, blame the christians. ;-P
posted by mischief at 3:40 PM on May 18, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks man. I checked out the Wikipedia entry; it didn't quite have the info I need, but the trace to Boethius is cah money. I have a hunch that perhaps the aeolian mode of the major scale, which on the white keys is spelled [a, b, c, d, e, f, g], may have been the dominant tonality or "hip sound" of Boethius' day. This may require more in-depth research...hmm...to the library!
posted by Phatty Lumpkin at 3:44 PM on May 18, 2004

To complete my answer, your question makes a false assumption. Western music is not based around C major, but rather A minor.
posted by mischief at 3:45 PM on May 18, 2004

PH, the set of notes ABCDEFG predates "major" and "minor" by many hundreds of years.

Older western music (and much modern music, come to that) is neither major nor minor but modal. The mode starting on A is the Aeolian mode, and it's pretty. (You may recognise Aeolian as the descending melodic minor, by the way).

Over time the Ionian mode (the one starting on C) has become most popular, and this has become known as the "major scale".

The assignment of letter names to pitches predates the rise of major/minor tonality, and that's why there's this apparent mismatch.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:47 PM on May 18, 2004

PL, your assignment now is to write an entry for Wikipedia.
posted by mischief at 3:51 PM on May 18, 2004

If you do, check out the entries for "early music" and "diatonic scale".
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:52 PM on May 18, 2004

Response by poster: ok guys, now we're cookin'.

Older western music (and much modern music, come to that) is neither major nor minor but modal.

Ok, but these modes are still variations on the major scale pattern (which, as noted, predates our application of the term 'major' to that pattern of whole and half steps.

Over time the Ionian mode (the one starting on C) has become most popular, and this has become known as the "major scale".

It's my understanding though that the reason we see Ionian mode as the fundamental mode is not because it is most popular but because it is most closely related to the overtone series.

The assignment of letter names to pitches predates the rise of major/minor tonality, and that's why there's this apparent mismatch.

I'm not sure on this, but I thought that although 'major' and 'minor' were not in place, musicians from the early medieval period and perhaps earlier did have concepts of consonance and dissonance in place. Aren't these also related to the overtone series?

posted by Phatty Lumpkin at 4:01 PM on May 18, 2004

Exactly arse-about-face. Your major scale pattern is one mode among many, not a fundamental pattern from which others derive.

the reason we see Ionian mode as the fundamental mode is not because it is most popular but because it is most closely related to the overtone series.

That may be the contemporary explanation, but it did not hold 1000 years ago. And for that matter, who's "we"? Listen to your radio, and tell me how much of what you hear uses major/minor. I will bet that most popular music these days is modal. Certainly yer "blues scale" is really a mixolydian, dorian or aeolian mode in drag, depending on its configuration.

Consider that in many kinds of music that aren't western 17th-19th c art music, other scales predominate; weird-arse pentatonics in gamelan, microtune srutis in classical Indian raga, Lydian and Phrygian-type scales in Eastern Europe, etc etc.

Think of the arrogance that puts everything outside 350 years of Western art music in the ghetto of ethnomusicology, and then ask yourself who says C major is fundamental.

Your last question is very interesting.

We're hampered somewhat because the notation did not settle down early enough for us to rely on it for 1000 year old music.

However, the oldest church music was modal.

Now, over time, people came to like the sense of propulsion/tension induced by a semi-tone between the leading note (7th note) and the tonic. So they would insert a note foreign to the mode in a tune. Likewise, early polyphony favoured parallel 5ths and 4ths, and so people would flatten notes to avoid a tritone (augmented 4th). These accidentals contributed to a continuing approximation to major/minor.

Listen to renaissance music - say Dowland, or Morley, or Byrd or even later stuff like Monteverdi - and notice how melodies seem to flip about, from (say) C minor to C major, or from A minor to C major. In that period composers were still experimenting with these novel effects and "common practise" (google "common practise", "harmony") was not yet settled down. You will hear false relations a-go-go because the whole notion of "false relations" depends on a conception of tonality which those composers and their audiences did not have.

*ahem* I am not an expert, although I did do stage 3 composition at university, but I reckon that appeals to the overtone series are post-hoc explanations for practise that has evolved according to what people found pleasant, unpleasant, and novel.

All three of those criteria change over time and geography, even if the harmonic series does not.

My feeling is based on the fact that the major and minor scales are just two of the many, many scales/modes found around the world, and not the most popular at that. If we are all striving toward some ideal system based on the harmonic series, we're doing a piss-poor job of converging on it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:35 PM on May 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

To clarify the notes about the transition to major/minor tonality, what happened was that something that was once a deviation (hence the term accidental) became the norm.

You can see the remants of this kind of thing in the melodic minor scale, where we shag about in order to remove the "unpleasant" augmented second found in the harmonic minor. Imagine that kind of alteration happening on thorough-going, adhoc basis, so that some of those alterations solidify into a new set of conventions. That's how the change from modal to diatonic happened.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:45 PM on May 18, 2004

Response by poster: Ok, let me clarify what I said earlier. I am in no way trying to disparage or undervaluealternative musical systems to what is generally regarded as 'traditional western music.' Nor am I trying to say that major and minor scales are somehow the 'best' scales. The scope of my inquiry here is limited to the domain of western music. The reason for this is because, as I take it, common practice harmony is an attempt to be a sort of systematization of properties grounded in the consonance and dissonance of combinations of tones in which the octave is divided into twelve semitiones.

There are mathematical reasons for choosing twelve as a divisor. However, If others want to divide the octave in different ways and explore those possibilities, more power to them; however, since so much music today is based on this system, my conclusions need only apply to music of this type.

Earlier you noted that assignment of letter names to pitches predtaes major and minor scales. However, to assign the letters to the pitches is precisely to create that pattern of whole and half steps that creates the major scale and it's modes.


Now, this pattern has seven "modes", or permutations of sorts, each corresponding to the modes of major scale:

Phrygian: HWWHWWW
Mixolydian: WWHWWHW
Aeolian: WHWWHWW
Locrian: HWWHWWW

Considering this, and considering that paradigmatic root movement between chords is downwards in fifths, or the dominant-tonic relationship (also V7-I) the mixolydian mode provides the basis for the "dissonant" V7(scarequotes here because this chord really doesn't sound dissonant at all by today's standards) by starting on the first tone of the mode and building upwards in thirds, which resolves paradigmatically to the I chord, based for the same reason on the Ionian mode.

It is in the context of this tonic-dominant relationship that I call the major scale, or ionian mode, to be (conceptually fundamental. Its primary chord, the I chord, is the home base of a piece of music in that key; where the listener feels the music has "resolved" or is "at rest."

So perhaps the question at hand is how early was the tonic dominant relationship in place?
posted by Phatty Lumpkin at 5:23 PM on May 18, 2004

Aha. I didn't take those limitations of scope as read. My apologies.

I don't know when theorists first identifed the perfect cadence (although my guess is some time around or shortly after Palestrina). But my ears don't hear stable major-minor tonality until well after 1600.

I think you'll see many more IV-I cadences in the older (ie renaissance and earlier) church music, although I don't know how valid the notion of a cadence is in music of that age. There's also the lovely Landini cadence.

The notion of plagal modes (eg Hypodorian, which starts on A but implies a melody with a final note of D) implies some sense of a dominant, but I think that's us looking back and seeing the potential.

As I understand it, cadences and conventional harmony in the 14th and 15th centuries arose out of counterpoint. Sort of "gosh, I like the sound of those voicings, must make sure I arrange parts like that again". The systematisation you mention above codified such practises and attempted to explain what people already did.

This page here might provide a good starting point for investigation.

(And here we see a paper founded on the assumption that Aeolian is in fact becoming the basis of popular music now.)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:04 PM on May 18, 2004

Response by poster: Cool. Thanks for the help.

Btw, I personally am a huge fan of the dorian mode, but Sus4 chords are even better.
posted by Phatty Lumpkin at 6:38 PM on May 18, 2004

Pinball wizard!

Do you like Hindemith? He attempted to create a coherent harmony based on the harmonic series, but using 4ths instead of triads.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:39 PM on May 18, 2004

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