What is Middle C?
Middle C is the 4th C note from the left hand side of a standard 88-key piano (the 5th C from the right hand side) and is commonly tuned to 256 Hz. It is referred to as C4 in scientific pitch notation, is note number 60 in the MIDI protocol and is located on the 1st fret of the 2nd string on a guitar.
Middle C sounds like this on a piano:
Why is Middle C so important?
Middle C is the starting point for many people in their musical journey on a keyboard. It is often the first note taught in school or in piano lessons and is a reference point we always come back to.
It makes sense that a C is the first note many people are taught – it is the root note (tonic) of the key of C major which has no sharps and flats in its key signature and so is an obvious starting point.
But why this particular C?
It’s not obviously the central C note of a piano (there are 8 C’s on a piano so there can’t be a middle one!).
It’s not even the mathematical centre – there are 88 keys and so the centre lies somewhere between the E and F above it!
So what is it that makes Middle C so important?
On the Treble Clef staff, middle C is written on a ledger line just below the bottom line of the staff:
On the Bass Clef staff, it is written on a ledger line above the top line of the staff:
Looking at these clefs it would appear that this particular C has even less claim on being in the “middle” of anything!!
It is not even located on the 5 lines of either of the staves!!
However, if we arrange these clefs like they appear in piano music (Bass Clef below Treble Clef) then you will see that the C starts to appear more in the “middle” of the action:
You can see that the ledger line above the Bass Clef staff and the ledger line below the Treble Clef staff refer to the same note.
The Grand Staff
This combination of the Treble Clef and Bass Clef staves is called the Grand Staff.
If we go one stage further and combine these 2 ledger lines into a new staff line then we can create an 11 line staff in which middle C is firmly in the centre of the action:
Which clef you choose to write in is largely influenced by the the range of the instrument/voice you are writing for and the consequent number of notes to be written above or below middle C.
If you are writing for an instrument that has lots of notes above middle C (such as the right hand of the piano or a flute or a violin) then you will choose the Treble Clef.
If you are writing for an instrument that has most notes below middle C (e.g. left hand of piano or a bass singer) then you will choose the Bass Clef.
You can see that this particular note C is not only an excellent starting point for learning piano or general music theory, but is also a gateway or crossover note between the treble and bass clefs.
However, not all instruments/voices have pitch ranges that fit neatly into being mostly “below” or “above” middle C – their typical range may include some notes above and below.
Two other clefs exist to tackle this issue – the alto clef and the tenor clef.
The symbols for both clefs are based on middle C and as a result they are both also known as “C Clefs”.
In the alto clef, middle C is located on the middle line of the staff. This means that there are plenty of staff lines both above and below the note:
In the tenor clef, it is on the 4th line up on the staff. Again, this gives plenty of lines above and below, but more below middle C than the alto clef to accommodate the lower pitch range:
So, it looks like this particular C note is here to stay!
Its positioning as a gateway note sitting neatly between the Bass and Treble Clefs in the Grand Staff means that it will always be of importance when understanding how to read music. In addition, the process of finding it and playing it on a piano keyboard is such an obvious first step for a beginner on their journey into the world of piano playing that this particular C will always be in the “middle”!