I play/practice the piano for some decades and when improvising (Jazz, Romantic, and sometimes even Baroque), I observe a certain magnetism of the C Major key. I'm able to play scales, arpeggios, cadences in every key, but this didn't help. For this reason, I started transposing pieces into other keys, and I'm able to play transposed pieces, but the magnetism of C Major still remains.

Did you ever experience this? Do you have any suggestions?

Addition: As to be more specific, when improvising free (over a handful of motifs), I find myself modulating towards C, regardless where I start playing.

  • 2
    Nearly everyone learns initially round the key of Cmaj. I seems to happen on other instruments, too. Probably something to do with no sharps and flats.Thus it becomes the key we gravitate to most easily. A self-taught friend can only play in F#, just loves the black notes.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 6:04
  • 6
    Have you tried A minor? :) Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 11:09
  • 1
    And on guitar, of course E minor/G major...
    – PA6OTA
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 15:46
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    It's F or Eb for me. If you want to get away from C, just do it.
    – Laurence
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 12:02
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    I myself if anything feel a repulsion from C major. If I were to start in C major I likely would do these modulations: 1) Parallel modulation to C minor and then continue the piece in keys related to C minor or 2) Distant modulation via either pivot chords or modulation chains and again, staying away from C major. C major is my avoid key and I honestly feel that C major as a key is overused. I mean most genres, even outside of classical have a lot of pieces in C major. The 2 keys I feel a magnetism towards are Bb major and C minor. They both sit well in my hands.
    – Caters
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 3:47

7 Answers 7


From your question, and some of your responses to comments, it sounds like you are relatively proficient playing in all the keys, and in improvising, but you find yourself modulating back towards C over the course of the improvisation, regardless of where you start. Am I interpreting you correctly?

If this is indeed the case, then you may want to figure out how and why these modulations are occurring. Are you using pivot chords to shift from one key to the next subtly, or are you changing all at once, like the infamous "truck driver gear change" modulation? Are you doing it accidentally because the chords just seem to end up leading you there, or are you deliberately doing it because the piece sounds boring if you don't?

A few things you may try doing: while improvising melodies in a non-C key (perhaps Gb or Db!), limit yourself to only a handful of chords. Maybe start with just I, IV, and V. Maybe throw in the occasional ii or vi. But try to limit your improvisation around those chord structures. When you find yourself using a chord outside this set, stop, backup, and find a different way to proceed. If you really want to limit yourself, improvise the melodies only using notes from the pentatonic scale, which avoids the notes that are most actively used in several common modulations. Sometimes less is more.

Another possibility is to improvise around a simple existing melody, such as a hymn or a pop song, which stays in a single key. You can be more free with harmonizations, but if you stick close to the original melody, you'll eventually need to work your way towards a cadence in the original key.

If you find yourself modulating eventually because you get bored of playing in the same key after a while, try finding other ways to make it interesting by changing the texture. One option is to use registration changes -- play an octave higher, or play the melody in the left hand and chords in the right. Or switch between block chords and arpeggiations. By varying the texture rather than the key, it might keep the piece from feeling like it needs to modulate to stay alive.

If you absolutely must modulate, and don't want to go towards C, then try finding keys that are further away from C, and deliberately modulate to them.

To a certain extent, I think it's only natural to think in terms of C on a keyboard, since it is the most natural (ahem) scale to play. Sometimes, I still find myself thinking of music theory and chord relationships in terms of their C-equivalents, and needing to "translate" them. The best thing for that is to think of chords and scales in terms of numbers rather than letters.

Also, if you aren't already familiar with the concept of functional harmony, you may want to look into that, since its a way of structuring chord progressions in terms of their tonic goal, by recognizing each chord has a one of three functions (pre-dominant chords, dominant-like chords, and tonic-like chords). It's sort of a grammar for chord progressions.

This is a bit of a shotgun answer, since I'm not sure of your exact situation, but hopefully something here hits.

  • but you find yourself modulating back towards C over the course of the improvisation, regardless of where you start. absolutely. You are exactly describing my problem. (+1 just reading)
    – Wolf
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 10:49
  • I still find myself thinking of music theory and chord relationships in terms of their C-equivalents indeed: I thought changing to numbers. Now I'll try it. pre-dominant chords, dominant-like chords, and tonic-like chords where did you read about this "grammar", it sounds reasonable, but new to me, despite having done some functional harmony.
    – Wolf
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 10:56
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    Mostly I'm thinking about how, like model sentences have an "SVO" construction, a model musical phrase could be thought of as having a basic "TPDT" construction. One somewhat accessible online resource that takes a similar grammatical approach is "Syntactic Structures in Music", though it doesn't seem widely recognized: harmony.org.uk/book/chord_progression_musical_phrase.htm Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 14:14
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    Here's a great video that gives a more traditional view of functional harmony, and how they can be used to make chord progression "sentences". youtube.com/watch?v=IonRKmcAtAY Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 14:36

C Major is a tempting key on the piano. I would suggest trying to improvise in G Major and F Major. G Major only has 1 sharp, and F Major only has 1 flat. They're pretty easy to improvise over and since you only have 1 black key to worry about it won't be much harder than improvising in C Major. Just stick with those keys for a while, so that you can break out of the C Major comfort zone.

It's not necessarily a bad thing to stick to a handful of keys, but it is good to be able to to play in several keys. I favor the keys, C Major, G Major, D Major, A major, F major, Bb Major, and Eb Major. I've played in other keys, but most of my writing and improvising takes place in those keys.

Practice Practice Practice.

  • There is a double to in your answer. BTW: accidentals and black keys are not my problem, it's rather a "modulation trap"
    – Wolf
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 18:49
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    In that case, I would suggest getting as far away from C major as possible, because modulating back to C Major from G and F would be easy and tempting. Try playing in Eb Major and Ab Major, or even E Major and A major, those would make it much harder to get back to C Major.
    – MrTheBard
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 18:51
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    I'd prefer B, F#, and C#. But G and F (or D and Bb) seem to be reasonable. The problem is the every-day practice, and to stick to one alternative, IMO.
    – Wolf
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 18:54
  • If it's a matter of discipline, rather than technical proficiency, then G or F might be a good choice – learn to resist the temptation to modulate to the dominant or subdominant. Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 0:53

Start playing with guitarists. They often prefer E, A and D. This means you move from purely white keys to white and black. In each there are patterns that are similar, but not exactly the same. Learn the scales that go with new keys - they are the basic notes on the menu for each new key. Often, particular bits of tunes work better to play in other keys than C.

  • good point, but (I should update my question) as I tried to explain when commenting (maybe not very obvious), I start in Eb, F#, whatever... and sooner or later (after doing some fantastic modulating) I'm back home ;)
    – Wolf
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 10:46
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    Guitarists won't let you do that ! Once they're in a key, they tend to stay there !There may be a MIDI program that administers an electric shock to the players seat after more than 5 consecutive white notes have been played...
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 11:24

To practice improvising, practice improvising. Put on a recording that's in a key you want to be able to deal with, and start seeing what you can play against it. It's going to feel awkward at first, and that's OK; remember that when you first learned to improvise in C it wasn't all that easy either. Practice makes better.

(I play an instrument which is even more biased toward its "home keys" -- anglo concertina -- but I'm slowly learning how to use more of its capabilities.)


When do you modulate to C? For example, if you're happily playing along in the key of F and suddenly find yourself in C again, you just modulated up a fifth. Now try doing the same thing in a different key: perhaps try starting in G and modulating to D, reproducing roughly the same emotional effect you did when modulating to C. Now, not only are you playing in a different key, but you understand a particular musical effect in terms of the internals involved and can apply it more easily in other situations.


Improvise to real songs ( jazz standards for example ) in their intended keys.

If you're just following your muse and wandering wherever you feel, it's not surprising you're getting trapped in the easy chair.


I've been playing in A minor for 10 years. Literally.

I've never felt any magnetism for C maj, as it was 'too happy' for me, but for some reason I found myself going into A min at every occasion I practiced or improvised out of the top of my head.

At first, I felt restricted.

And then I realized I have the 'transpose' key in my piano.

But, more seriously - a guitarist can use a capo to transpose his playing easily; he learns his ropes in basic setting, and then just moves the capo as needed. Same can be said about a modern pianist - the electronics actually made this deal a lot easier, you can only master a couple of settings (maj, min, blues/jazz scales, pentatonics etc), and just easily go into any tone root from there.

Apart from that, try to be creative. Changing a simple F->F# in C major gives you a very distinctive sound, nicely going with 7th C/D/E chords; going for A minor extended with G# allows you to play jazz-style A-D-G-C-F-D-E-A progressions easily etc. You don't have to leave white keys and C/A root to explore the entirety of basic chromatic scale.

Also, try to reverse your flow - if you can go into C maj from everything, track your sequence and start getting everywhere from C maj.

Btw, try going into the aforementioned A min - you'll notice that there's a lot of blues/jazz tunes going that way (Westchester Lady or Fly Me To The Moon come to mind here).

tl;dr - if you like playing like you do, just play. If you can play other keys, there's nothing wrong with having a preference for C maj,

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