Adventures in C Major

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:

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.

MozartJupiter41

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 🙂

9 thoughts on “Adventures in C Major

  1. Nice post the paragraph staring “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….” explains my musical prewriting stage extremely accuratley

    • artmodel says:

      James,

      Thank you! I’m glad that paragraph provides a correct description. It also helped that another composer, my brother Chris, gave me a lot of help with this post.

      Claudia

  2. Bill says:

    Excellent posting — I’m always impressed by/appreciative of the time and effort you put into these.

    Kind of a coincidence on the timing of the posting. I didn’t take piano lessons as a child even though I really wanted to. No piano, little money for lessons anyway. When I moved into this house when I was in my late 30’s, it came with a somewhat damaged upright piano in the living room. But it was good enough to play — so I dove into lessons. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good (I still remember a recital dominated by stage fright) and, with facing the inevitable time crunch of early middle age, found myself having to choose between art and the piano. Art won.

    So now, 20+ years later, I’m pretty much retired — with a bit more time and maybe not quite so concerned with the quality of my playing. So I had just called the tech before I read this blog posting — he’s coming over next Thursday to see whether a tuning/minor surgery can resuscitate the upright. We’ll see.
    But the point is that it was a timely posting for me.

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      First let me say that I was absolutely terrified at my first recital. For all of my acting performances – school plays, musicals etc – I never felt an ounce of stage fright. But piano? Oh man. It was totally nerve-wracking.

      I enjoyed reading about your piano journey, and yes the timing of this post is perfect! After my Dad passed away, my mother sold our family piano to a family acquaintance. I was a little heartbroken. At the time I thought about taking it but didn’t think I had the space. Anyway, I’m a strong advocate of piano study, for anyone who loves music. Only a small percentage of us become proficient, but the “lessons” hold value beyond just learning to play notes.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, Bill!

      Claudia

  3. Jim O'Neil says:

    Damnitgirl, how can I slide comfortably in to crankiness & curmudgeony, firm in the knowledge that the younger generation (& yes, from my perspective, _you_ is much much younger generation.) is superficial, bland, shallow, etc., in my old age when you keep posting such nicely thought out, well chosen, pieces here to catch my eye! -grin-

  4. Johnson as well. Thoughtfully written music stuff, and even a novice like me can follow! I always liked how the key of “Summertime, and the living is easy….” was in a key that made me think the living wasn’t really so easy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s