Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why isn't 'C' called 'A'?

Discover the history behind the name of the notes

In this video, Robert tells you why the first note of the music scale, the C, is not called A.

Released on July 12, 2017

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, this is Robert Estrin at and Somebody asked me a question, which is, "Why isn't 'C' called 'A'?" And at first I thought, "What is he talking about?" And then he explained it to me and it makes perfect sense. Since "C" is the...kind of the starting note for most pieces that you start with on the piano, number one, and number two, a "C" major scale is formed by playing all the white keys, you would think that that would be the foundation, and that would be "A" and you'd name the notes accordingly. I got to thinking about this, and I came up with a very valid reason why this would have evolved this way. And you have to go way back in time, before major minor tonality was entrenched in Western music.

Originally music was built upon modes. Modes are starting on any of the white keys, and of course it can be transposed. So for example, the notes from "D" to "D" diatonically is the Dorian mode. And interestingly, the Aeolian mode is from "A" to "A". Now why do I bring this up? Because the Ionian mode, which is the major scale, was not very popular. If you listen to renaissance music, rarely will you hear something in the major, even though it was technically one of the available modes because you can start on any of the tones. The minor modes were most popular, and the Aeolian was one of the very most popular, which is why I believe that "A" is the starting note. If anybody out there has different information about this, this is my conjecture, and it makes perfect sense when you think about the origins of music coming from the renaissance and the modes. I hope that satisfies the question. Again, Robert Estrin at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Ioannis Raftopoulos * VSM MEMBER * on August 25, 2022 @4:09 am PST
one more question on notes nomenclature. why did western music adopt a different name for the notes (A, B, C, and so on) than the Italian/ French ones (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si?)
thank you!
Robert - host, on August 25, 2022 @10:43 am PST
I imagine that the adoption of the letters of the alphabet for music notes were introduced because they are more familiar than the Latin syllables.
Shakespeare in love * VSM MEMBER * on August 25, 2022 @2:11 pm PST
I guess you are right Robert! Thank you!
JAMES STROSBERG * VSM MEMBER * on August 24, 2022 @8:42 am PST
I had "imagined" that the early orchestras played in sharps, and sometime started on A. Hence the oboe tunes in A.

But what do I know, I am just a tuba played, jim strosberg, schenectady ny (I enjoy and learn from your columns)
Shirley Fraser * VSM MEMBER * on July 12, 2017 @10:29 am PST
Great article! I will have to share it with some of my nerdy band friends and I bet they will like it too.

"do re mi" etc is a bit of a different thing, isn't it? It's called solfege and we use it in the US too. I believe it is a way to name the pitch in any major scale. I think it is especially helpful to singers. I'm sure Robert can answer better than I can!
Robert - host, on July 13, 2017 @2:14 pm PST
I have a video on solfeggio you may enjoy: There is another one coming which is a tough solfeggio exercise!
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on July 12, 2017 @6:04 am PST
I have always wondered about the C and A, I am sure you came up with the right answer. I also wonder why in Europe, at least in Italy, we call the notes Do, Re, Mi, etc.
Andrea Studzinski on July 12, 2017 @5:38 am PST
I had this same question when I studied music theory, and I later came to the same conjecture as you - that is has to do with the Aeolian mode. It makes sense, but I have no idea if it is in fact true.
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