|Relative key||A minor|
|Parallel key||C minor|
|Dominant key||G major|
|C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C|
C major is one of the most common key signatures used in western music. Most transposing instruments playing in their home key are notated in C major; for example, a clarinet in B♭ sounding a B-flat major scale is notated as playing a C major scale. The white keys of the piano correspond to the C major scale. Among brass instruments, the contra-bass tuba is in C. A pedal harp tuned to C major has all of its pedals in the middle position.
C major scale
One octave played up and down in the c major scale on the piano
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C major is often thought of as the simplest key, because there are no sharps and no flats, and beginning piano students' first pieces are usually simple ones in this key; the first scales and arpeggios that students learn are also usually C major. However, going against this common practice, the Polish-French composer Frédéric Chopin regarded this scale as the most difficult to play with complete evenness, and he tended to give it last to his students. He regarded B major as the easiest scale to play on the piano, because the position of the black and white notes best fit the natural positions of the fingers, and so he often had students start with this scale. There are no black keys in the C major scale, thus it doesn't fit the natural positions of the fingers well.
Compositions in C major
Twenty of Joseph Haydn's 104 symphonies are in C major, making it his second most often used key, second only to D major. Of the 134 symphonies mistakenly attributed to Haydn that H. C. Robbins Landon lists in his catalog, 33 are in C major, more than any other key. Before the invention of the valve trumpet, Haydn did not write trumpet and timpani parts in his symphonies, except those in C major. H. C. Robbins Landon writes that it wasn't "until 1774 that Haydn uses trumpets and timpani in a key other than C major ... and then only sparingly." Most of Haydn's symphonies in C major are labelled "festive" and are of a primarily celebratory mood. (See also List of symphonies in C major).
Many Masses and settings of Te Deum in the Classical era were in C major. Mozart wrote most of his Masses in C major and so did Haydn.
Of Franz Schubert's two symphonies in the key, the first is nicknamed the "Little C major" and the second the "Great C major."
Many musicians have pointed out that every musical key conjures up specific feelings. This idea is further explored in a radio program called The Signature Series. American popular songwriter Bob Dylan claimed the key of C major to "be the key of strength, but also the key of regret." "French composers such as Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Rameau generally thought of C major as a key for happy music, but Hector Berlioz in 1856 described it as "serious but deaf and dull." Ralph Vaughan Williams was impressed by Sibelius's Symphony No. 7 in C major and remarked that only Sibelius could make the key sound fresh. However, C major was a key of great importance in Sibelius's previous symphonies. Claude Debussy, noted for composing music that avoided a particular key center, once said, "I do not believe in the supremacy of the C major scale."
In musical catalogs that sort the musical pieces by key, whether they go by semitones or along the circle of fifths, they almost always begin with those pieces in C major.
Whereas traditionally key signatures were cancelled whenever the new key signature had fewer sharps or flats than the old key signature, in modern popular and commercial music, cancellation is only done when C major or A minor replaces another key.
Well-known compositions in C major
- Johann Sebastian Bach
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Frederic Chopin
- Georges Bizet
- Felix Mendelssohn
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Maurice Ravel
- Franz Schubert
- Robert Schumann
- H. C. Robbins Landon, The Symphonies of Joseph Haydn. London: Universal Edition & Rockliff (1955): 227. "In the course of composing his first symphonies, the tonality of C major became indelibly impressed on Haydn's mind as the key of pomp, the key of C alto horns, trumpets and timpani, the vehicle for composing brillian and festive music, although at least during this period [the 1760s] he did not always reserve the tonality of C major for this particular kind of symphony: Nos. 2, 7 and 9, and possibly Nos. 25 and 30 ... are C major symphonies without the psychological manifestations inherent in most of the later works in this key. For the rest, however, the C major path is astonishingly clear; it can be traced from its inception, in Nos. 20, 32 and 37, through No. 33 and the more mature Nos. 38 and 41 to its synthesis in the Maria Theresia (No. 48) and No. 56. It continues with No. 50 and proceeds through Nos. 60, 63, 69, 82 and 90, reaching its final culmination in No. 97."
- James Webster & Georg Feder, The New Grove Haydn. New York: Macmillan (2002): 55. "The Missa in tempora belli ... in C features the bright, trumpet-dominated sound typical of masses in this key."
- Philip Coad, "Sibelius" in A Guide to the Symphony edited by Robert Layton. Oxford University Press. Sibelius's Seventh "is in C major, and a look back at the previous four symphonies [by Sibelius] will reveal how great the domination of C major has been [in his music]. It is the key of the Third, the relative major of the Fourth and the important 'neutral agent' in its Finale, the key which first forces away the tonic in the Fifth's Finale, and the principal opposition – the key of the brass – in the Sixth. Although it is now the tonic key, C major is also strongly associated with brass in the Seventh Symphony."
- Matthew Nicholl & Richard Grudzinski, Music Notation: Preparing Scores and Parts, ed. Jonathan Feist. Boston: Berklee Press (2007): 56. ISBN 978-0-87639-074-0. "In popular and commercial music, the old key signature is cancelled only if the new key is C major or A minor."
- David Fanning, "Shostakovich: 'The Present-Day Master of the C Major Key'". Acta Musicologica. 73 (2): 101–140. 2001. doi:10.2307/932894. JSTOR 932894.
- David Wyn Jones, "The Beginning of the Symphony", chapter in A Guide to the Symphony edited by Robert Layton. Oxford University Press.
- H. C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: The Symphonies BBC Music Guides
Media related to C major at Wikimedia Commons
|Diatonic scales and keys|
|The table indicates the number of sharps or flats in each scale. Minor scales are written in lower case.|