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Musical Alphabet



The Musical Alphabet

“A” versus “C”


Most of you have probably heard or been taught that the Musical Alphabet starts on “A.” But this is not entirely true.


Yes, you have heard me correctly, there is a rivalry between “A” and “C” and I must inform you, that the Musical Alphabet truly starts on “C.”

It is troubling and mind-boggling that such dissonance exists at the very core of music notation and music’s language.

It is like two dogs fighting for the title “Alpha-Dog” and in music, “A” and “C” are fighting for “Alpha Musicus.”

Why is this?

Well, normally “A” and “C” live together in peace, because “A” is the accepted starting point when alphabetizing objects, like books, rows, seats, charts, chapters. When ordering, things are listed starting with “A” followed by “B” and go from there. “C” follows “A” and knows its place in business, science, biology, architecture, and this fact is universally accepted throughout literature and western languages.

However, the exception is in the field of music, where “C” stole the throne of “A.” How did this happen and why???

In music, “C” is clearly the Alpha-Dog, the Alpha-Musicus. To explain this in detail would require some digging into historical events, decisions and evolutions, which are outside the scope of this article.

We must just accept the crystal-clear fact, that “C” and the C-Scale somehow were crowned with the status of “Alpha-Musicus.”

In music, “A” has not much going for it, nothing exciting to write home about, except for the fact that orchestras tune to A, ranging from 400 to 480 cycles per second, which is not so glamorous, considering the large and ambiguous wiggling space it allows for tuning.

It is however a small consolation.

Throughout musical history, and in the halls of scholarly musical thinking, “C” holds predominance and rules unchallenged in the ancient scrolls of music theory, and is revered to be sovereign among music pedagogues.

After all, “C” sits at the throne atop the Circle of Fifths, reigning above all keys. It is the de facto “Do” of solfeggio and central to those that are musically trained.

Why should “C” be the key that has no sharps or flats, why should “C” be the default “Do?” Who let this happen? Who approved this? Is there a method to this madness?

For no good or fair reason, there are five undeniable principals that give “C” the upper hand over “A.”

1) C is the simplest scale to notate and read, and for unexplainable reasons it has no sharps or flats.

Only the C-Scale is pure and self-sufficient without the need of sharps and flats in its key-signature. It provides he standard for defining all other musical structures in the field of music-theory.

2) C is typically the simplest scale to play with uncomplicated notation and fingering.

This fact is most evident on the piano. You start on “C” and then proceed up the white keys to the next “C.” This is why piano instructors teach their pupils the C Major scale before all others.

Lessons on the “A” scale come much later down the road.

When I teach my students Keyboard Geography, I teach them to find and play the Groups of 2 Black Keys first and then explain to them that “C” is located to the left of the Groups of 2 Black Keys. It’s the first note and key my students learn to identify.

3) C is usually considered the initial letter of the music alphabet.When teachers explain Do, Re, Mi…., their alphabetical examples use the C scale: C D E F G A B … not A B C# D E F# G#. Again this is because the C scale has no sharps or flats. As mentioned, the piano bears the closest natural relationship to music theory, and thus the C scale and the piano keyboard are the most easily depicted backbone of music theory.

4) Octave changes occur at C, not A.

In scientific pitch notation, octaves are numbered from C to C. Therefore Middle C is written as C4, because it’s the 4th C above the lowest C on the piano, counting the lowest C as C1.

5) C sits enthroned atop the Circle of Fifths.

The Circle of Fifths is music theory’s magnum opus! The main theoretical, relational and organizational chart, and it is centered around C. All other keys must bow down to “C” and assemble around her, and “A” sits 3 seats down like a distant heir to the Queen.

As you can see, this is a complete “A-trocity”…..hahaha. The humble musical submission to C totally throws off alphabetical traditions and customs and confuses those newly acquainted with music theory. It is tantamount to the number 3 being the first number in math and numeric counting.

Since musicians honor C as the center of music, then the world’s greatest music halls should start labeling their seating isles starting with C. Although it might confuse concert goers as much as C’s superiority confuses young and beginning musicians. Besides, ushers would then be as busy as music theorists, always explaining and guiding through a situation that is permanently off kilter.

But coronating “A” and putting her at the top of the Circle of 5ths, would be as difficult as trying to get the United States to change its language to German and adopt the metric system.

That is WHY the Musical Alphabet is, always has been and always will be:


© Daniela Clapp. All Rights Reserved

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