Why is C major the center of the universe?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Rockin Mike, Jul 21, 2013.

  1. Rockin Mike

    Rockin Mike

    May 27, 2011
    A long time ago they decided that C major (A minor) was going to be the key with no sharps or flats.

    Why C? Is it the center of the average vocal range? Is it the center of peoples' hearing range? Is there some historical reason or interesting story behind it?

    They named the notes from A to G, why wouldn't they pick "A" as the default key?
  2. Saxn


    Oct 23, 2010
    Nashville, GA
    Dammit, no replies?!? I have wondered the exact same thing! Come on you geniuses, inquiring minds want to know!
  3. Rockin Mike

    Rockin Mike

    May 27, 2011
    It's only been 3 minutes, give them a chance...
  4. Only Lemmy knows
  5. 20db pad

    20db pad

    Feb 11, 2003
    I been everywhere, man...
    None. At all.
    It's referred to as the "dummy key" because it has no sharps or flats. Much easier to read, notate, or play on piano than the keys of C#, F#, or Db for sure.
  6. RedLeg

    RedLeg Supporting Member

    Jan 24, 2009
    Kaiserslautern, Germany
    Nov Shmoz Ka Pop?
    meh, I like A minor :ninja:
  7. pbasswil

    pbasswil Supporting Member

    Feb 17, 2008
    No genius here, but here's a couple of hints, and a guess or two:

    Before "Even Temperament" tuning happened in Bach's time, each semi-tone wasn't equal. Natural (untempered) scales were lumpier: that is, the distances between the various adjacent scale tones were uneven. They were dictated by the natural series of overtones in the "tonic" -- i.e. the first note in the scale.

    In Bach's time these lumps got ironed out -- every semi-tone became an equal distance. So from that point on, you could play in any key, and they all sounded the same.

    But _before_ even temperament, things only sounded right to the ear if you played in the key of the natural tuning.

    I'd wager that the white notes of a keyboard were invented before the black notes. Back in those days, you only played in the keys that the instrument was tuned to play in. Black notes were added in as extra half-way steps for extra creative effects. But originally, you wouldn't play in, for instance, the key of F#; it would sound out of tune, because the instrument was tuned so the white notes would sound good.

    I'd also wager that the notes weren't named La Ti Do Re Me Fa Sol, or A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B until long after these natural scales were established. Maybe at the time the A, B, C, labels came about, the natural scale that starts on what we call A, was the most popular scale (what is it, Aeolian mode or something??).

    Another thing to note: Today, note names are tied to particular frequencies; most places in the developed world call around 440 hz (give or take a few) "A" or "La"
    But back in the day, there were huge variations in what frequency the various notes meant. The further back you go, the less the note names were tied to actual frequencies.

    Ok, that was a few vague ideas to confuse the O.P. question. :^D lol
  8. megafiddle


    May 25, 2011
    Next to the english language, music seems to have the most arbitrary set of rules.

    It is surprising that there is not a lot more historical information about these things.

    I wonder why B is natural to the C major scale and not Bb. Since the major scale is
    based on harmonic intervals, Bb occurs earlier, and more dominant, in the harmonic
    series than the B. The flat 7 (the Bb in the key of C) is certainly quite common in music.
  9. Stick_Player

    Stick_Player Inactive

    Nov 13, 2009
    Somewhere on the Alaska Panhandle (Juneau)
    Endorser: Plants vs. Zombies Pea Shooters
    You can also ponder "Why not F#, instead of F"?

    Some do suggest the scale, that is sometimes called "Lydian Flat-Seven", is the most natural.

    C, D, E, F#, G, A, Bb, C

    Bb is the 7th overtone, F# is the 11th overtone.
  10. joebar


    Jan 10, 2010
    to me, Lydian sounds prettier every time than the major scale; most of the time we avoid the natural 4 due to a suspended feel.
    i agree with stick
  11. pbasswil

    pbasswil Supporting Member

    Feb 17, 2008
    About the most "natural" scale:

    If you go around the world, the further away from modern culture and European musical influence, the more you see evidence of real variety in the scales used.
    All of us non-Arabs probably remember the first time we noticed middle-eastern scales -- it initially sounds so odd to western ears; but of course to those cultures, it sounds perfectly natural.

    Even in Europe, you only have to go back to pre-renaissance liturgical music to hear some pretty funky modes! Like, try the scales on your piano that use only white notes, but start and end on different notes besides A or C. Try E to E. Or: Scale on white notes from B to B, anyone? :^)

    And these modes would sound even weirder to our ears on a keyboard that predates modern tempered tuning.

    All this to point out that different cultures, and different eras, hear things different.

    The scale tone labels A,B,C etc and Do Re Mi, as well as the configuration of the keyboard, are hugely influenced by the scales and tunings that were in style at the time these devices were invented.
  12. megafiddle


    May 25, 2011
    Good point. It is easy to hear F# as 'natural' sounding also.

    Not sure why I overlooked that. Possibly we get so used to hearing certain intervals,
    that we hear them as natural. An F chord is very common in C major.
  13. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    Why isn't a chair called a glockenspiel?
  14. Rockin Mike

    Rockin Mike

    May 27, 2011
    Spiel is German for play, so "Glockenspiel" should mean, "to play with your Glock".
  15. Stempelloos


    Nov 3, 2008
    What I remember from music classes is that the first note that someone gets out of a trumpet like instrument, is in C or near C most of the time. That's why the C key is important in tuning and music.
    Most conversations seems to be in C or Do too, which makes C naturally appearing or go with what the average person is used to hear.

    Rockin Mike, A glockenspiel is:
    No bells or arms involved. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glockenspiel
  16. Hapa


    Apr 21, 2011
    Tustin, CA
    um no, this is just terrible.
    "Us Non Arabs" real pc... and it's Eastern theory not middle eastern.
    Second B to B just white keys is Locrian, western music theory mode. What you missed to grab is called solfege. And it is practiced on two ways fixed and movable do. That goes back to western music.
    Eastern theory and scales are semi tones or notes in between western music. 11 note scales..that all end on an octave...all scales end on the octave. Pianos were not invented until well after western music was written on paper. So finding a key board that could play eastern scales is impossible.
  17. Hapa


    Apr 21, 2011
    Tustin, CA
    To the OP
    Look at a key board, the C is in there middle. That note it's the middle of the human vocal range as well. And when you look at an orchestra score the vocal ranges are stacked and in order to not have unnecessary staff lines making the music hard to read, each clef is centered did the range of each instrument. That also why bass clef is read with C where treble clef reads E.
  18. Saxn


    Oct 23, 2010
    Nashville, GA
    Man, I really gotta fix the clock function on this site :D

    Good responses so far... Gives someone a jumping off point to research anyway.
  19. BassyBill

    BassyBill Still here Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    There are some rather speculative answers in this thread, of varying degrees of inaccuracy. The "middle C" on a standard 88 note piano keyboard is not the middle of the instrument's range (that would be "in the crack" between the E and F above middle C). And C is not the middle of the human vocal range as that range varies widely depending on the singer.

    The reason the key of C major contains no sharps or flats is a matter of historical accident as much as anything else, like most other conventions. It just so happened that about 1500 years ago or so, a Roman philosopher called Boethius used a system (at least, the system got named after him) for referring to notes using letters of the Latin alphabet. And it also just so happened that starting from the third note in his system corresponded to the modern scale of C major. Sharps and flats were added in afterwards (and the whole concept of notation on a staff with a clef much, much later in about the 10th Century).

  20. iiipopes

    iiipopes Supporting Member

    May 4, 2009
    Google "Great Staff" and you will get the music history as to why the C is "middle" C, and yes, why the Great Western Music Theory World revolves around it.