C (musical note)

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Middle C About this soundPlay 

C (Italian, French: Do) is the first note of the C major scale, the third note of the A minor scale (the relative minor of C major), and the fourth note (F, A, B, C) of the Guidonian hand, commonly pitched around 261.63 Hz. The actual frequency has depended on historical pitch standards, and for transposing instruments a distinction is made between written and sounding or concert pitch.

In English the term Do is used interchangeably with C only by adherents of fixed-Do solfège; in the movable Do system Do refers to the tonic of the prevailing key.


Historically, concert pitch has varied. For an instrument in equal temperament tuned to the A440 pitch standard widely adopted in 1939, middle C has a frequency around 261.63 Hz (for other notes see piano key frequencies). Scientific pitch notation was originally proposed in 1713 by French physicist Joseph Sauveur and based on the numerically convenient frequency of 256 Hz for middle C, all C's being powers of two. After the A440 pitch standard was adopted by musicians, the Acoustical Society of America published new frequency tables for scientific use. A movement to restore the older A435 standard has used the banners "Verdi tuning", "philosophical pitch" or the easily confused scientific pitch.

Octave nomenclature

Middle C

Middle C (the fourth C key from left on a standard 88-key piano keyboard) is designated C4 in scientific pitch notation, the most commonly recognized in auditory science[citation needed], while both C4 and the Helmholtz designation c′ are used in musical studies. Other note-octave systems, including those used by some makers of digital music keyboards, may refer to Middle C differently. In MIDI, Middle C is note number 60.

While the expression Middle C is generally clear across instruments and clefs, some musicians naturally use the term to refer to the C note in the middle of their specific instrument's range. C4 may be called Low C by someone playing a Western concert flute, which has a higher and narrower playing range than the piano, while C5 (523.251 Hz) would be Middle C. This technically inaccurate practice has led some pedagogues to encourage standardizing on C4 as the definitive Middle C in instructional materials across all instruments.[1]

Other octaves

In vocal music, the term Soprano C, sometimes called High C[2] or Top C[by whom?], is the C two octaves above Middle C. It is so named because it is considered the defining note of the soprano voice type. It is C6 in scientific pitch notation (1046.502 Hz) and c''' in Helmholtz notation. The term Tenor C is sometimes used[by whom?] in vocal music to refer to C5, as it is the highest required note in the standard tenor repertoire. The term Low C is sometimes used in vocal music to refer to C2 because this is considered the divide between true basses and bass-baritones: a basso can sing this note easily whereas other male voices, including bass-baritones, typically cannot.

Tenor C is an organ builder's term for small C or C3 (130.813 Hz), the note one octave below Middle C. In stoplists it usually means that a rank is not full compass, omitting the bottom octave.[3]

Designation by octave

Scientific designation Helmholtz designation Octave name Frequency (Hz) Other names Audio
C−1 C͵͵͵ or ͵͵͵C or CCCC Octocontra 8.176 About this soundPlay 
C0 C͵͵ or ͵͵C or CCC Subcontra 16.352 About this soundPlay 
C1 C͵ or ͵C or CC Contra 32.703 About this soundPlay 
C2 C Great 65.406 Low C About this soundPlay 
C3 c Small 130.813 Bass C, Tenor C (organ), Viola C About this soundPlay 
C4 c′ One-lined 261.626 Middle C About this soundPlay 
C5 c′′ Two-lined 523.251 Tenor C (vocal), Tenor High C[4] (vocal), Treble C About this soundPlay 
C6 c′′′ Three-lined 1046.502 Soprano C (vocal), High C (vocal), Top C (vocal) About this soundPlay 
C7 c′′′′ Four-lined 2093.005 About this soundPlay 
C8 c′′′′′ Five-lined 4186.009 Eighth octave C About this soundPlay 
C9 c′′′′′′ Six-lined 8372.018 About this soundPlay 
C10 c′′′′′′′ Seven-lined 16,744.036 About this soundPlay 

(20,000 hertz is the start of the ultrasound in healthy young adults.)

Graphic presentation

Middle C in four clefs
Position of Middle C on a standard 88-key keyboard


Common scales beginning on C

Diatonic scales

Jazz melodic minor

B sharp

Comparison of notes derived from, or near, twelve perfect fifths (B)

Twelve just perfect fifths (B) and seven octaves do not align as in equal temperament.

  • Pythagorean: 701.955 × 12 = 8423.46 = 23.46 = B+++
  • ET: 700 × 12 = 8400 = 0 = B = C
  • 1200 × 7 = 8400 = 0 = C

This difference of 23.46 cents (531,441 / 524,288) is known as the Pythagorean comma.

See also


  1. ^ Large, John (February 1981). "Theory in Practice: Building a Firm Foundation". Music Educators Journal. 32: 30–35.
  2. ^ "At the Met Opera, a Note So High, It’s Never Been Sung Before", The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2017
  3. ^ Wakin, Daniel J. (2007-09-09). "The Note That Makes Us Weep". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
  4. ^ "Luciano Pavarotti - King of the High C’s", The New York Times", Sept. 9, 2007
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