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Where Is Middle C ?


This is one of those questions that can be really confusing for a guitarist learning to read music. Middle " C " on the piano is the note " in the middle " between the Treble and Bass Clefs. In early times the Treble and Bass cleffs were joined, making the Great Stave or Staff, consisting of 11 ledger lines. The middle line was the C ledger line, hence the term middle C.

The Great Staff was too large and confusing for reading music, and was divided into two sections, the top 5 ledger lines became the Treble Cleff and the bottom 5 lines became the Bass Cleff. Pretty logical stuff when you think about it, imagine trying to play music written on the Great Staff !! Scary..
Even though the two cleffs are separated it is understood that the line between them is still the middle C line from the Great Staff. The example below shows Middle C on both the Treble and Bass Cleffs. But where is it on the Guitar ?


You can look at it two ways,

  1. Music written in Treble Cleff for the Guitar is written an octave higher than the actual pitch of the note. Or
  2. The actual pitch of the notes you are playing are an octave lower than where they are written.

The example below illustrates both ways of looking at it. So to finally get to the point about where middle C is on the guitar, the actual pitch of middle C is the C note played on the second string, first fret which is written in the third space up on the Treble Cleff. This is why we have become confused, its Not where we are expecting to see the middle C we have been taught, which exists on the piano staff. When we play the Middle C on the piano staff, (which guitarists play on the 5th string third fret) we are actually playing a C note one octave below Middle C.


Of course this theory doesn't just apply to middle C , it applies to all Guitar music written in the Treble Cleff. Just remember if you are writing for piano to write the notes an octave below where we write them for guitar. This means you will be writing in both Bass and Treble cleff.

Well, what I thought would be easy to explain has made one thing very clear, now I know why I get so many emails asking where middle C is, its just not that simple.

By the way, don't you just hate the way Bass Cleff notes aren't on the same lines and spaces as the treble cleff. Now if there had been 12 ledger lines on the Great Staff we could have called the middle space Middle B , then when they separated the treble and bass cleffs the notes would be the same on both staves and only their pitches would be different. I wonder if it is too late to change ...........