Why C?: The Convoluted History of Note Names

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.”

100 thoughts on “Why C?: The Convoluted History of Note Names”

  1. 👍👍👍 but why do we americans always do (or want to do, or try to do, or whatever) everything different to the rest of the world? Classical and normal musical notes are do re mi fa sol la si do. Other examples: miles vs kilometers, kilograms vs pounds, liters vs gallons, common law vs roman or civil law, and many other examples, etc etc. What's wrong w us?

  2. Way back when I took formal music theory, we did a segment on how the major scale was first derived. It's actually pretty interesting, at last from a music nerd perspective…lol. A bit technical, but if you want to know, check out "Pythagorean Tuning." I think there is a decent wiki page on it. It's a bit technical, but if you can wade through it, you can gain a little deeper insight as to how all the diatonic names and intervals came about based on ratios and formulas.

  3. A few years ago, I worked with a career music teacher to create teaching resources for 11-14 year olds. Most of what you said made sense to me. The rest is still fascinating. Thank you.

  4. Sorry, there's more than just five 'other' pitches, as you probably know anyway. For us pianists equal temperament was chosen, meaning we simplified some intervals (see also minutephysics 'How to tune a piano'). So the full truth is that there are at least three, if not more (counting double flats and double sharps) ways to approach the same general note depending on its actual name.
    In short, this is why it is possible to play in better tune on violin or sing in better tune as a vocal ensemble, as compared to the compromises made on the piano.

  5. With my very small musical knowledge, I've always accepted C as the major scale with it's relative A minor.
    A Spanish friend argued with me that on the continent, the whole note major scale does start on A and things are different in England. He was asking why do we do this? Is he mistaken or are the note names different on the continent?

  6. Those names came from an old medieval religious piece: the beginning of each word: ut re mi fa sol la ti (si). The ut was and is not singable so they change it to do. Greetings from Guido!

  7. I’ve always found music theory and notation confusing, maybe it’s time we simplify it all around? Make it less arbitrary, less ambiguous, easier to learn, more expressive, compact and universal.

  8. Technically, no major scale has an accidental, as accidentals are notes that don’t appear in the key, not sharps and flats.


  10. In Germany they had H instead of B. Go figure.i took music lessons from Max Hohner, in Stuttgart. I was probably the only American he taught. Yes Hohner…same family. Harmonica giants.

  11. Why C?
    Eye of Providence (a.k.a Illuminati)
    Is enclosed by a triangle
    Triangle has 3 sides
    C is the 3rd letter in the alphabet
    And that's why they used C

  12. This was really interesting. A shame my music theory teacher had us skip the chapter on church modes when we got behind schedule.

  13. Accidentals… "before" in the regular staff notation, but after in other parts of the print and the way we speak them.

  14. Do not fear fellow folks. I will make a new system that will make more sense and a small percentage of you can learn it and confuse the majority who knew the other system…or you can just play the scale

  15. You forgot the H note. Oh righ that’s just the weird German system that us in Norway also use for some reason. Can you please make a video explain why in that system the B=H and the B flat=B. I don’t understand why. This used to confuse me to no end as a child, and it still kinda bothers me.

  16. I actually recognized L’Orfeo when you started playing it. Well I recognized that it was opera anyway. Close enough. Thank you Great Courses lecture series on how to listen to and understand opera. I’m learning things.

  17. I thought I recalled reading somewhere that the ancient Greeks held preference for what we'd now call 'minor scales' over what we'd call 'major scales'. I assumed, it was from this fact, that the keyboard design was chosen to make A minor the easiest scale to play. But our society has switched to preferring major scales, so now the easiest scale to play is C major. Is there any truth to this interpretation?

  18. Solfege is actually an older system created by the same person who invented the staff. The only change was from Ut to Do.

  19. T'avissiru a siccari i baddi: it was so interesting until that gregorian thing that add chaos and makes hard to follow…why? is that somehow funny to keep it for more than 2sec?

  20. 1:14 this is a different way to decend with the left hand (the second finger on the a)– did you have a reason to do it this way?

  21. The intro and outro sounds like you opened Sibelius, seclected a note, put it on a staff, selected it again and started flailing the mouse around

  22. Teaching is not the point. You could just as well teach minor to have a scale without black keys for beginners. The point is that the majority of contemporary popular music is in major keys, so we start on the major scale with the white keys, and that is C.

  23. Let me paraphrase this entire lesson. The reason is very similar to the reason Microsoft Windows still has certain inherent failings. These are a direct result of the decision not to rethink and rewrite using more contemporary justifications and designs. In other words, they put a bandage on top of a previous bandage, ad nauseum. Bottom line, poor decision making. Simple really, it's all about human laziness.

  24. Want to learn the notes in any key? Just play “Joy To The World”. It’s the major scale played backwards in any scale. Your ear will guide you to the correct note Enjoy! Hahahahaha

  25. I've asked about this so many times and never had such a detailed and well put together answer. Thank you MusicCorner!

  26. I was hoping for a mention of the Guidonion Hand, but I am glad that at least you mentioned him as one of the founders of staff notation.

  27. I definitely felt I had less understanding of music at the end of this video compared to when I started.

  28. Yes there is a clear bridge from major to minor / a movement of C to the relative A minor for example.
    In baroque you modulate from the major to the relative minor and if you start in minor key you modulate to the relative major.
    and if you're Bach you modulate from the C major to the c# diminished to then to the D major.
    videos like these make me want to punch a wall and listen only to what CPE Bach says.

  29. I alwaysed said the notes aint really the alphabet, its just borrows the alphabet letters and names for the strain notes. So thats the reason why B isnt called B in countries like Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Sadly some afro-musician is trying to change that and try to make it like this question "Well its the alphabet, so it can't be A, H, C… and so on?" Even some professors I had during my studies tri to explain it cant be B and Bess, its either B abd B flat or H and B? Bess aint a thing he said. But still many of my colleges is in sense teaching out wrong, because it feels easier for the kids.

    Another claim these people comes with is the so called "Fake history" (lol) about a munk doing a misstake somewhere in the midages. That munk should write a small be, but wrote it sloppy so it looked like a h and some stupid munks thought its a h. and so on.

  30. Subbed for life.. I asked my self that question 34 years ago never got the answer until the internet was founded then YouTube then this channel

  31. "… full of notes and lines… – What are these for ?"
    In essence, preventing the student from ever associating sonic vibration with their physical environ and thus unlocking the secrets of the mystery schools.
    Or maybe just to deter them from feeling the groove and going into some kind of devilish trance.

  32. Thanks for going to the trouble to explain this, but how is anyone supposed to follow you, as you steam through the masses of facts with the distraction of the background sounds?

  33. Doesn't it get complicated when it gets to locrian because, in addition to or instead of major & minor, you're talking about diminished then? My musical theory is self taught from a guitar book and I don't play anymore so I wouldn't be surprised to be incorrect.

  34. So, what I got was that they understood how scales work 600 years after they named those notes and it was too late to change it by then so they stuck with it…is that it?

  35. I'm a very good pianist…well schooled in classical, from plainsong, baroque to very modern atonal sound….I also enjoy jazz, rock, pop and rap/hip-hop……….basically anything not in the key of C is just showing off! Haha!

  36. I've had to speak in Dosolmish lately with Russians. Needless to say, I've had to do a lot of counting on my fingers.

  37. Hes blatantly teasing all the way and at the finale he leaves no question as to his intent if you still didnt catch it . The horn passages are hilarious, completely overdone and out of sync. They are to be galloping wild with out control and the trills. Bravo, Bravo! A masterpiece. I cried like a babe ……from laughing

  38. Apparently Gioseffo Zarlino may have been responsible or partly responsible: https://youtu.be/lyq48eybjZw?t=211

  39. The more I dig into music theory the more I realize that the reason I never understood it was because the system is completely fucked up. If I had a bigger soul I would create and promote a new universal system.

  40. They could just as easily start piano lessons in A-natural-minor (all white keys); but C-Major had more of a "for kids" feel to it.

  41. I had to rewatch the video to get all the details, but thank you so much for finally explaining this for me. It's bothered me ever since I first learned note names. And seeing music theory and notation as a stack of new ideas grafted onto old like some wobbling tower reaching back into ancient history explains so much about music. I feel like this is the missing piece of understanding I've lacked.

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