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why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'? (Read 61652 times)

Offline keiths

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #50 on: February 18, 2014, 05:10:53 AM »
I asked this same question of my Piano teacher some 55 years ago when I was in my first year of lessons.  The answer that I got was essentially this: The letters of the notes were assigned before there were keyboard instruments.  If you stop and think about it, they could have chosen to have all the keys be white. The reason that the keyboard is arranged with the white and black keys is because the instrument was designed to be played so that the musician can look at the music and be able to know exactly what notes his fingers are on by feeling the keys.  C is the note with a white key directly next to it to the left and a group of two black keys to the right.  I won't go through all 12 notes but the arrangement of the two black keys above the C and the 3 black keys below the B gives each note a unique position that you can feel and identify without looking.  Assigning any key other than C to be the major key with all white keys yields a pattern where the key groupings are not unique....meaning you would not know by feel what notes your fingers were on.  The fact that you can identify the piano notes by feel is why you have so many blind piano tuners and blind pianists. 

Offline cactusinalaska

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #51 on: March 15, 2014, 03:25:31 PM »
I wondered this same question when i was new. To add to the above post, my music theory teacher told me once that "Middle C is the pitch that most men cannot sing above, and women below". Maybe that's a lie to avoid a nuisance question...however the fact that C4 sits directly between the Bass and Treble clefs suggests some importance to pitch. With C4 as a solid reference point to both clefs and supposedly women and men alike, this seems like a note worth building new theory around. With the logical explanation that notes were named before the western 12 tone conversion, this should hopefully answer your question. Maybe an E# just didn't fit the ear of the converter...

Offline yessir

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #52 on: July 27, 2014, 03:37:08 AM »
To build a piano, first a pitch has to be assigned to one of the keys. That's agreed upon as A440. The first pitch chosen is logically called A. 440Hz is chosen for the pitch because it's easy to work with; i.e., easily divisible by, or multiplied by 2 (to get the octaves). It's also somewhat near the middle range of human hearing and singing.
But A is not chosen to be the lucky key of no sharps or flats. Instead we go down 6 notes to middle C, which is closest to the middle of human hearing, singing, and the middle of the piano keys. C will have a tempered pitch corresponding to A440.
To recap, the first pitch chosen is called A.

Offline Bob

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #53 on: July 27, 2014, 04:22:27 AM »
I don't think anyone's really answered this question for sure -- How did they determine which letter goes with each pitch, or at least each key on the keyboard?
Favorite new teacher quote -- "You found the only possible wrong answer."

Offline yessir

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #54 on: August 02, 2014, 03:22:03 AM »
For centuries it's known that the natural diatonic scale has 7 different pitches, which come from the 3 major triads of tonic, subdominant, and dominant.
The 7 pitches are logically name A thru G.
One pitch---the first pitch (called A of course) has to be assigned a frequency (440 is chosen for more than one reason), then all of the other (87) come from it.
After all of the 87 notes are tuned from A, it turns out that C4 falls in the middle of the 88, and is the winning key of having no sharps or flats (only 1 of the 7 keys can have no sharps or flats).

Offline Bob

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #55 on: August 02, 2014, 02:49:55 PM »
But why did they pick that spot on the keyboard?  Haha.
Favorite new teacher quote -- "You found the only possible wrong answer."

Offline yessir

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #56 on: August 11, 2014, 02:10:34 AM »
At the beginning (of the piano), a popular harpsichord had 5 octaves with 2 and 1/2 octaves on either side of a middle C.

Offline nyiregyhazi

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #57 on: August 11, 2014, 02:27:10 AM »
For centuries it's known that the natural diatonic scale has 7 different pitches, which come from the 3 major triads of tonic, subdominant, and dominant.
The 7 pitches are logically name A thru G.
One pitch---the first pitch (called A of course) has to be assigned a frequency (440 is chosen for more than one reason), then all of the other (87) come from it.
After all of the 87 notes are tuned from A, it turns out that C4 falls in the middle of the 88, and is the winning key of having no sharps or flats (only 1 of the 7 keys can have no sharps or flats).

You've stated well known facts but given no reasoning about the question. Also, the centre of the 88 is the crack between e and f. Oh and a used to be lower than 440 so the reasons you give are wrong, sorry.

Offline dima_ogorodnikov

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #58 on: August 11, 2014, 04:39:51 AM »
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No amount of how-to information is going to work if you have the wrong mindset, the wrong guiding philosophies. Avoid losers like the plague, and gather with and learn from winners only.

Offline j_menz

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #59 on: August 11, 2014, 04:46:18 AM »
Why "do" is "do" ... is a more practical question that can at least be speculated about. ;)

And can also be answered.  Giovanni Battista Doni in the 17th century.  Before that it wasn't "do", it was "ut". He changed it because "do" is an open syllable, whereas "ut" is a closed one.
"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left" -- Oscar Levant

Offline dima_ogorodnikov

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #60 on: August 11, 2014, 04:53:25 AM »
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No amount of how-to information is going to work if you have the wrong mindset, the wrong guiding philosophies. Avoid losers like the plague, and gather with and learn from winners only.

Offline j_menz

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #61 on: August 11, 2014, 05:06:43 AM »
That wasn't the underlying meaning of my remark. We all know where "ut re mi" comes from. ;)

Well, latin or Arabic, depending on your school of thought.

The OPs question seems to be: why is C (= Do, = Ut) the central tone of the system, and not A? In "fixed-do" solfege, for example, do (ut) is absolute; it's a fixed point and you cannot name the first tone of an A major scale "do". I think this has something to do with young children's voice range. :)

Hmm... we use (to the extent "use" isn't an overstatement) moveable-do here, so do = A is eminently possible.

I suspect the historical primacy of fixed or moveable is contested territory, but in moveable it doesn't advance the OPs question.
"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left" -- Oscar Levant

Offline dima_ogorodnikov

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #62 on: August 11, 2014, 06:04:26 AM »
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No amount of how-to information is going to work if you have the wrong mindset, the wrong guiding philosophies. Avoid losers like the plague, and gather with and learn from winners only.

Offline j_menz

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #63 on: August 11, 2014, 06:24:14 AM »
@ j_menz

An attempt at an (un)educated guess.

I read somewhere that Boethius (?) was the first to make attempts at categorizing sounds with Latin letters. I don't know how he did that exactly, but the lowest tone he could imagine was "A" (of course). If we assume that he (as an adult) laid the foundation for "A-B-C", then his absolute/fixed "C" coincided with the absolute/fixed "ut"/"do" they established later as the tonal center, probably based on the average child's natural voice range, to be trained to sing in church. In order to avoid unnecessary complications, "Ut"/"Do" was kept "C" (in Boethius' system) to teach the simple crowd something about music. Does that make sense as a theory? :)

Haha, you might have read it here:

The first person to call notes by letter names was a monk and music theorist called Boethius. His musical discourse De Institutione Musica was written in the 6th century.

At that time, "A" was the lowest note used in music, or at least church music.  The whole of music was divided into various "modes", inherited from the Greeks, and the idea of the modern "scale" did not really exist (although the (present) Ionian mode corresponds to the major scale, modal theory also underwent some revison in the time since Boethius, and the correspondence with the modes described by him could be contested).

A parrallel line of development (as described by keypeg in an earlier post) gave us the sol-fa (do re mi fa sol la ti do) system, which corresponds to the modern scale.  The putting of these two lines of theoretical development together resulted in "C" being the bottom note of the all naturals major scale.

Interestingly, the modern standard piano still has "A" as it's lowest note.

You may well be right about how the two strands were interwoven, or at least that that was part of what went on. I suspect the move from fully modal systems to the major/minor duopoly likely had something to do with it as well.
"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left" -- Oscar Levant

Offline dima_ogorodnikov

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #64 on: August 11, 2014, 06:46:57 AM »
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No amount of how-to information is going to work if you have the wrong mindset, the wrong guiding philosophies. Avoid losers like the plague, and gather with and learn from winners only.

Offline j_menz

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #65 on: August 11, 2014, 10:36:36 PM »
Russian naming often does not coincide with English naming. :)

Haha, many hours spent deciphering miscellaneous Russian edition collections have convinced me of the truth of this!
"What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left" -- Oscar Levant

Offline jomki

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #66 on: September 10, 2014, 05:12:48 PM »
I was thinking about this the other day and found this forum so I signed up to answer. Hopefully the OP is still around. I skimmed through the answers and have formed my own opinion/theory which may not be exactly correct, but I believe it is a little closer.

The short answer is that the letter names were assigned to the notes first, based on the lowest note that they used, and eventually the scale which is now "natural" to us, C major, actually just became the most popular or pleasing to us.

This article (http://www.ars-nova.com/Theory%20Q&A/Q65.html) is a little bit of a different question but I think it provides insight into this answer also. Basically what the article states is that Boethius, as other posters have mentioned, started the convention of naming the notes of the scale with Latin letters, starting with the lowest note that they thought of back then being called A.

I don't think we know exactly what kind of scale Boethius was thinking of when he started on A, but if you think that this is in the context of sacred music you can sort of see that he may have used a more minor like scale, maybe Dorian or something similar. When I think of sacred chant music a lot of it uses those natural minor type scales. Cudo's explanation above, of the Hypo-Dorian scale, would seem to make sense, although Guido of Arezzo did not introduce the letter names. What Guido did was to develop the solfege system of learning to sing and read and be musical. What the article above states is that he developed the solfege letter names (Ut (later changed to Do), Re, Mi, etc.) from a well known Latin Hymn called Ut Queant Laxis. Each new line of the Hymn starts on the next note of the scale and the Hymn starts on note C so C became Ut (Do). This is much like the Sound of Music song "Do a deer, a female deer, Re a drop of golden sun..." etc. (I wonder if Sondheim knew all this history? Probably)

Anyway, what I believe is that church music used many minor type scales in their hymns and that minor type scales were probably thought to be lower or first and so when they named the first note of their scale with a letter they started with A. It is all a little arbitrary, really, but it does make sense to start with A, rather than start A on the third note and have the two lower notes below that be F and G. Which wouldn't make sense for Boethius because he didn't actually repeat A to G but kept just going on up the alphabet from the lowest note A up to the highest note which was O or H.

Eventually, the scale which started on C became more popular and memorable for people, to the point where Guido used it for his system which probably solidified the idea that in a key with no sharps or flats the scale starting on the third note is C and it also probably solidified the C scale as the more popular scale.

This was all way before the modern keyboard configuration, I believe, and so it was already established that C major had no sharps or flats, so it wouldn't make sense to have all the white keys represent A major, since, for example, C natural and F natural would then be black keys!

Hopefully this helps!


Offline superstition2

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #67 on: October 03, 2014, 04:09:56 PM »
C = Christůs

 ;D

Offline falala

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #68 on: November 09, 2014, 12:22:22 AM »
It's because musical notation was invented before there was any idea of C as the most "natural" scale. It wasn't invented around the idea of the modern seven-note scale at all; it was invented around a system of three interlocking hexachords, based on G, C and F with the interval structure tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone. Each note of the hexachord had a name - ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la - the precursor to the modern sol-fa system of koday etc, but with "ut" instead of "do".

The entire system of these devised by Guido d'Arezzo covered 11 lines - what we now call the "great stave". The bottom line was called "Gamma Ut", from which we get the word "gamut", meaning the complete span or scale of something. The other spaces and lines were then named alphabetically from A through G, returning to A again because of octave equivalency. "Gamma Ut" corresponds to the bottom line of our bass stave, and the following A to the first space.

There was no accidentals as such within this system, but two different forms of "B" were required: a "hard B" (later becoming B natural) in the G hexachord, and a "soft B" (later becoming B flat) in the F hexachord. These were shown by different shaped noteheads.

There was no particular reason to create the names around C being A instead, because the C hexachord wasn't any more special than the others. Furthermore, the importance of MIDDLE C is just a diagrammatic accident that came later. When they split the great stave into the now familiar 5 + 1 + 5 stave of keyboard music, the note on the middle line just happened to be C.

More information here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-london/plain/A1339337

Offline yessir

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Re: why does the most natural scale start on 'C', instead of 'A'?
«Reply #69 on: August 22, 2019, 01:12:21 AM »
You've stated well known facts but given no reasoning about the question. Also, the centre of the 88 is the crack between e and f. Oh and a used to be lower than 440 so the reasons you give are wrong, sorry.

Oops, you're right. The reason for the 6th degree of the scale ("La") being named "A", instead of the 1st degree ("Do") has already been given above. The monks who invented the staff and the note names (Do-Re-Me) used mostly the Aeolian mode which is the minor scale, which starts on "A" (all white keys). So to them it was most logical to call "La", "A". It's all so simple that it goes right over our heads.