Is Middle C really the middle?

I had a Masters degree in performance when I discovered in a lesson with Edna Golandsky that Middle C was in fact, not the middle of the piano. It came up in our lesson after trying to copy exactly what Edna was doing: where her torso was, key placement, alignment, and so on. No matter what I did, it wasn’t quite the same. She then asked me where I was lining up my middle. I had deliberately lined up my belly button with Middle C, as I had been told to do since childhood. Yes, Middle C is the middle note between the treble and bass staves, but in fact, E and F just above middle C are the middle notes of the piano! No wonder that whatever I did, I was about an inch off, which is significant. I was shocked, embarrassed, and a bit annoyed. Sure, I could blame previous teachers, but I could have also worked it out for myself. These days, I check with my students where they are lining themselves up, and more often than not, it’s Middle C instead of the true middle of the instrument.

Recently, this issue appeared again in working with a pianist in Ireland, named Aoife Mac Alister, making a big difference for her. She is commencing her doctoral research, and was curious about how this Middle C phenomenon had developed. Perhaps Middle C used to be the middle of older keyboards, with a smaller range? This is what she discovered in her research, and was kind enough to allow this to be shared.

There are two surviving Cristofori pianofortes. The instrument dating from 1720 has four and a half octaves from C – f’’’. The centre is the line between d’ and e’. The 1726 instrument has four octaves from C – c’’’, the centre being c’ (middle c).

 In Vienna, Stein’s pianofortes of the 1780s generally span 5 octaves, from F’ – f’’’. The centre is thus the line between b and c’. From the mid 1790s, Viennese pianos usually span this range, often extending in the treble to the g’’’. With this g’’’ added c’ is again the centre.

 It is reported that Broadwood’s first six octave pianoforte was made in 1794, its range from C’ to c’’’’. Again, c’ is the centre. Beethoven’s 1817 Broadwood had this range. English and French makers generally copied Broadwood, and during the first half of the nineteenth century, the English and French makers transformed the standard five / five and a half octave range into a more powerful seven octave instrument.

 Around the 1820s a typical Viennese grand was 2.3m long; 1.25m wide; and six or six and a half octaves in range. The latter half of the nineteenth century up to about 1916 saw the increasing dominance of American piano makers and an increase in the standard range to seven or seven and a third octaves. Since WW2, the standard settled at 7 and a third octaves as we have today (A,, to c’’’’’).  The centre of the keyboard is now located between e’ and f’. 

Are you lining up your middle with the middle of the piano? That is, E and F?

Sources

 Registers reference image: 

Aldwell, E & Schacter, C. (2003) Harmony and Voice Leading 3rd ed. London: Thompson Schirmer

 Cristofori ranges:

Gerig, R. (2007) Famous Pianists and Their Technique 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 37

 All other info: Ripin, E.M. et al (2001) Pianoforte (Piano) in Stanley Sadie ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians [online] at

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