Over the years, many of my beginner students have asked why their music books and music lessons start their teaching methodologies with the letter C instead of the letter A. They feel that since the alphabet starts with the letter A, and since the first seven letters of the alphabet represent the names of the seven basic tones of our musical system (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G), why shouldn’t their music books and music lessons start with the letter A too?” Good question!
The short answer is easy! Major scales are upbeat and happy-sounding scales and the “C” major scale has proven to be less confusing to lots of beginner students because it is the only major scale that contains natural keys only– no black keys or accidentals.
Now there is a scale that starts with the letter A which doesn’t involve any black keys but it is a minor scale. So, in fact, beginner music lessons could very well start with the letter A. However, that would mean a beginner’s first musical experience would be based on a minor scale. The minor scale experience is fine for later on, but you don’t want the minor backdrop to be the first musical experience for you or your kid, do you? Of course not! Listen to what the minor experience would do to Mary Had A Little Lamb and see what it does to your kid’s mood!
I hope this short answer helps explain why I feel that beginner music lessons start with C instead of A.
Now the longer answer involves taking a look at a little more detail because questions like “What are natural keys?” and “What are accidentals?” need to be defined and examined. If you are an absolute beginner, let me start your music “edu-ma-cation” with a miniature lesson on piano key names and how the “black keys” first appeared and came to be known as accidentals.
The world’s first “piano” keyboards did not have any black keys at all! From one end to the other, there were white keys only! Now imagine the challenge of distinguishing one key from another if you were playing back then on a piano that had a sea of all white keys! Not an impossible task, but I’ll bet it was a real challenge nevertheless. More importantly, as a few centuries passed and the piano keyboard layout with the 7-note music system remained unchanged, the limits that the 7-note, natural-key-only music system was having on melodic and harmonic composition were becoming clearer to musicians and composers. Some type of break-through was needed. Eventually, black keys came to the rescue! The 5 black keys are the original accidentals.
The 7 natural keys combined with the 5 black keys that were added centuries ago, are two key elements that help form the 12-key semitone music system that we use today. Our present system still offers seemingly infinite possibilities, so we should all keep practicing and composing. Let’s get back to work!