As your Piano Tuner Wilmington DE , I am occasionally asked to teach my clients’ children the correct answer to the trick question of, “What is the middle note on a piano?” It is a trick question for several reasons that will require some explanation. A recent television quiz show asked that question and awarded a correct answer to the contestant who answered, “Middle C.” That answer is is widely believed, but it is technically incorrect. Some basics of piano design will help in the explanation.
Modern pianos have 88 piano keys, which means that there are 44 keys above and below a space between two keys. That space is between the E and F above “middle C.” The next question, then is whether “middle C” is the middle “C” on the piano, and again there is a problem. There are 8 “C”s on a modern piano keyboard, so of the “C”s, there is still no middle “C”. There are four above and four below the middle of the keyboard. The answer lies in the history of piano making.
Pianos did not always have 88 keys. In the 18th century, there was no standard number, and piano makers varied widely in the number of keys they designed for their hand-made instruments. As piano making became more industrialized in the 19th century, keyboards expanded and became more uniform. By the end of the 19th century, most pianos had 85 notes, three less than today. The three notes that were missing were the three highest notes on our modern pianos. Since 85 is an odd number, there was a middle key on these instruments, but it still was not a C. It was D# slightly above what we know as “middle C.”
Since the top C was missing on these 85 note keyboards, there were 7 “C”s, so the C that was closest to the middle of the keyboard actually was the middle C on the keyboard, but it still was not the middle note.
What we call “Middle C” on modern keyboards, is simply the C that is closest to the middle of the keyboard. It is a useful landmark, since most instruction books start a student on “middle C” for ease in learning to play. The key of C uses only white keys, so the beginning piano student does need to deal with the extra complexity of learning the black keys initially.
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