For those of us who took piano lessons in our childhood the first scale we all learned to play was, undoubtedly, the C major scale. Limited to only the white keys, the C scale was oh so nice and easy. We youngsters with our still small hands were spared the trickier fingering required to reach the black keys which provide those pesky sharps and flats. Of course all that beginner’s ease would quickly change as we advanced in our scale practice. Soon, our teachers were assigning scales whose key signatures contained two and three sharps, three and four flats, half steps interspersed with whole steps, then relative keys. chord progressions, and all hell broke loose! 😆
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Piano Lesson, 1889:
Composers have to take several things into consideration when they sit down to write a piece: what instrument or instruments will be playing, what is the inspirational “subject” if any, what mood is to be conveyed, and what purpose will the work serve. Is it a waltz? Is it a march? Is it a requiem? Is it a sonata? Is it a hymn? Is it a folk song? So before a single note is jotted down on the sheet, the choice of key must be decided. And any composer will tell you that the key of a work matters a great deal. Musical keys hold different tonal qualities and thus communicate different emotions and moods. To some degree, interpretations are subjective, but as a rule the commonly held perceptions of key characteristics abide. For example, E Minor is serious and tragic, almost grim. F Major is calm and somewhat spiritual, D Major is triumphant and rejoicing, F Minor is kind of miserable and funereal, and so on.
Musical compositions written in the key of C major present that wonderfully unadorned key signature absent of sharps and flats. (sharp/flat notations can be added throughout a composition of course). Key of C with its uncomplicated pitch is associated with the sound of innocence and simplicity, free of angst and heavy drama. A word often used to describe the C Major sound is pure. It’s very “listener-friendly” so to speak. Naturally, the best way to grasp the musical effects of C major is just by listening to works of music composed in this key. Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” is written in C Major. So is Ravel’s Bolero, Beethoven’s brilliant “Waldstein” piano sonata, Franz Schubert’s “Symphony No. 9”, and a work that I happen to think is a splendid example of the C Major sound, Mozart’s ebullient “Jupiter” Symphony, a listening delight from beginning to end.
Popular music compromises the key mood “categories” somewhat because you have lyrics communicating specific emotions. The charismatic personalities of singers and rock stars figure prominently in the music’s expression as well. However, the musical qualities of purity, simplicity, and cleanness unique to the key of C can still be discerned in many instances. The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” is in C Major, as is John Lennon’s “Imagine” . Also in C Major are Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Elton John’s “Daniel”, Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”, U2’s “One”, and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”.
Are there criticisms to be made of C Major? You bet. Hector Berlioz called it “dull”. Others complain that it lacks freshness and is vulnerable to sounding flat. Not the musical “flat”, just . . . flat. Perhaps there is some truth to those. I’m not composer nor am I an expert in music theory, but if you want to write a piece of music of great compositional depth, dimension, complexity, and emotional gravitas, C Major is probably not the way to go. On the other hand, C Major holds the inestimable distinction of providing the musical starting point for every seven year old sitting at a piano playing her first arpeggio, discovering for the first time why we even learn scales in the first place. Middle C is that first brick in the foundation of a mighty big house.
I’d like to dedicate this Music Monday post to my childhood piano teacher, because I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. For the late, great Bette Renzulli, who always believed in me and gave me a standing ovation at my first recital, thank you. For everything 🙂