What Does It Mean to Play in the Key of C?

This is the basic layout of a piano. Each key, whether black or white, is assigned a letter name. To maintain the simplicity of this lesson, we will only focus on naming the white keys today.

In the world of music, the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are used to describe notes (or pitch). Regardless of whether a note is played in the low register or high register, it is still known by its pitch, which gives us the musical alphabet repeated in chunks up and down the keyboard.

Do you remember that old Donald Duck cartoon where it talked about math and how everything comes back around to math, even music? This makes music theory easy to understand, because you just need to know simple math.

What does it mean to “play in the key of C”?

Let’s go back and look at our keyboard. Starting with C, we are going to touch every key, white and black, until we get to the next C up. Each key, whether white or black, represents a HALF STEP.

That is a total of 12 half steps.

Two halves make a whole, right? So go back and make WHOLE STEPS.

To play in the key of C as we know it here in America, you will need to apply a pattern of steps.

Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step

Starting with C, the notes used in the C scale are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.

This is the major scale of C. Only these notes will be used, unless your sheet music tells you otherwise.

The major scale C is used most often in teaching because it is does not use any of the black keys.

You can take that same major scale pattern (WWHWWWH) and start with D (or any of the keys) and you will then know which keys are used in that particular scale, named for the letter note that you start on.

The twelve major keys download is always helpful to keep around, whether for you or other musicians that you are playing with. Notice the correlation between the twelve half steps and the twelve major keys. Each key has its own major scale.

Note: Understanding music theory will not take the place of finger fluidity. I’m afraid nothing but practice, practice, practice will cure clumsy fingers. Very few people are blessed with natural talent, especially natural talent with attitude. Check out this old clip of Frank Robinson as a child. This little dude rocks! One day, I’m going to bang on the piano with my fist and see how the congregation responds, lol.


4 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Play in the Key of C?

    • You are so welcome! I am a technical learner and Susan Triplett’s 3 book series breaks everything down technically, and it is fantastic for me. Book 1 on its own is terrific. It gives you the knowledge you need to really delve into learning for yourself. Good luck with your playing. Unfortunately, what they say is true–practice, practice, practice is the key. Good thing I love playing : )

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