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Why is C the base note of standard notation and keys?

The note names are derived from the alphabet, which starts with "a".

But why is our note "a" not on any important position? In current times you would think the major scale is the most important, but it begins with "C".

Supplemental To clarify the question: If you name something, a note, and you have a clear system like the alphabet you start somewhere meaningfull. The point is: Was in some part of history the note "a" on any important position of any scale.


2 Answers 2


C is not "the" major scale. The fact that C Major has all white notes is meaningless — there's nothing intrinsically special about major scales, nor is the choice of keyboard layout anything but arbitrary. Many other instruments are not as seemingly "C-centric" as the piano; there are horns tuned to Eb and F, for example.

See also: Why is C the base note of standard notation and keys?


Well, on the piano, a minor is the only all white note minor scale. So it kind of is.

But really, ANY of the 12 notes of the octave can be the tonic of any song - just transpose the song. Singers will require you to do that to support the range they can sing...

  • This was not a performance nor transposition question.
    – nilshi
    Jun 28, 2012 at 15:44
  • 1
    ok, well, let's just leave it at "A Minor is a historically significant scale" then. Music notation has changed little in 400 years. The reason it is the way it is is that's how it happened to evolve. But, really, C is not more important than A. We number the octaves over the C..B range just due to convention. They COULD have been numbered A..G# Jun 28, 2012 at 15:57
  • Now we have something to work with. When and what music had "A" as historically significant scale? Forget the minor and major. This has absolutely nothing to do with how the scale is or is named. Just any scale will do as long it began historically with A and had significance. And with significance I mean "THE significane" which lead to today naming.
    – nilshi
    Jun 28, 2012 at 16:28
  • Heheh, I'm not sure we DO have something to work with. A note such as A can only be judged the tonic based on the scale it's in. And the piano is the only instrument that gives all white keys on the A Minor scale. And the minor scale is what gives the A it's significance on the piano. Historically, I think it was the hymns sung by monks that were first notated. And many of those used the minor scale. I'm NO expert on music history, but I've read a little of it - it interests me. But really, no note is significant in itself, only in it's relation to the key signature's tonic. Jun 28, 2012 at 17:52

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