Middle C

Middle C is the first key beginners are told to locate, identify and play on the piano. Ever wondered why it is called middle C, what is its significance in the study of piano, and how to find it on the piano or in other instruments like a guitar?

Read through the entire article to know all this and more.

What is Middle C?

The 12 chromatic notes of Western music spanning one octave do not cover the whole range of pitches that your ears can hear. Hence, these notes repeat in lower and higher registers or octaves. Most acoustic pianos have 88 keys producing 88 different pitches in seven registers with eight C note keys.

Most piano keyboards have 61 keys distributed over five registers with six C note keys. To identify each of these C notes, the corresponding keys are assigned a number from 1 to 8 for 88 key instruments, like C1, C2, C3, …, and C8. The upper number is, of course, lower for instruments with fewer keys. The same numbering system is followed for all the other notes. The number tells the pianist exactly in which octave he has to play a given note.

88 Keyboard Middle C

The C note is the starting note for each octave, hence the C note that lies nearly in the middle of the piano or keyboard is called the middle C note. It is the fourth C key (C4) on the piano and the third C Key (C3) on the 61-key keyboards.

The pitches of the different keys of the piano are given in the table below with equal temperament. You may be aware that the A note in the octave of middle C serves as the reference note with a frequency of 440Hz, and all the balance notes are set relative to it. It is known as the standard or the concert pitch.

Notes / OctavesO0 (Hz)O1 (Hz)O2 (Hz)O3 (Hz)O4 (Hz)O5 (Hz)O6 (Hz)O7 (Hz)O8 (Hz)
Octave NameSub ContraContraGreatSmallOne-linedTwo-linedThree-linedFour-linedFive-lined

How to find the middle C on the Piano Keyboard?

Finding the middle C on the piano is quite easy. Hence it is told as the first exercise for beginners. As you are aware, the keys in a piano or a keyboard are organized into groups of two black keys followed by three black keys with a gap in between, in every octave.

To find middle C, try to look for two black keys in the middle of the piano. The key on the left of the first of these two black keys is the middle C. They are shown in the diagrams below for easy reference.

It is not the key at the exact center or middle of the piano or the keyboard. Then why is it known as the middle C? Let us understand the reason in the next section.

White Keys on Piano & Middle C

Middle C on the Treble and Bass Clef

It is customary to use the grand staff for the piano music notation. As you may be aware, the grand staff has a treble and a bass clef joined by a bracket. The notes to the left of the middle C are usually notated on the bass clef, while those on the right are on the treble clef.

As you can see in the diagram above, the middle C, shown in red on both the clefs, is on the first ledger line below the five lines of the treble clef and one ledger line above the lines of the bass clef.

This means it is in the middle of the grand staff, hence deriving its name. It is the same note denoted on both the clefs. If it is notated on the treble clef, you should play it with your right hand, and if notated on the bass clef, with your left hand.

Grand Staff Notation of Other Octaves

In the table of frequencies of different notes on a piano, we indicated all the octave names on the piano. Out of the eight, only five are relevant for the 61 key instruments. These are known as the great octave, the small octave, the one-line, the two-line, and the three-line octave.

The below diagram shows them on the grand staff. You can observe the middle C on this diagram as the lowest note of the one-line octave.

Piano Keyboard with keys by octaves

First Exercise for Beginners – The Five-Finger Exercise

The first main exercise that most beginners are assigned, commonly known as the five-finger exercise, involves playing the five natural notes from the middle C to G in the same octave. Place and use your thumb to play middle C, the index finger for D, the middle finger for E, the ring finger for F, and the little finger for G.

Start by playing the middle C, then D, E, E & F with your respective fingers stated above and all the way back to C. This is to be followed by a similar exercise with your left hand and then both hands combined.

We have described it in detail in our article “Piano Exercises For Beginners.

Where is Middle C on the Guitar?

For the purpose of the discussion, we will take C4 with a frequency of 261.6 Hz as the middle C to avoid confusion. It is important to know the location of the middle C and other keys on the guitar if you play in a band. You must also know that the guitar is a transposing instrument that is notated one octave higher on the sheet music than the actual pitches. This is done to reduce the number of ledger lines in the written music.

The frequency and the scientific pitch notation for the standard tuning of the guitar are shown in the table below:

String NumberFrequencyScientific pitch notation
1 (E)329.63 HzE4
2 (B)246.94 HzB3
3 (G)196.00 HzG3
4 (D)146.83 HzD3
5 (A)110.00 HzA2
6 (E)82.41 HzE2

The position of the C4 musical note, along with C3, C5, and C6, is indicated in the table below and also shown in the diagram. When you play piano, you encounter a C4 pitch only on one key. However, C4 can be played on five of the six strings on the guitar.

Notes / String6th String5th String4th String3rd String2nd String1st String
C38th Fret3rd Fret
C420th Fret15th Fret10th Fret5th Fret1st Fret
C522nd Fret17th Fret13th Fret8th Fret
C620th Fret
Middle C - C4 on guitar

Where is Middle C on the Bass Guitar?

The standard tuning of the four-string bass guitar is E-A-D-G, and these strings are tuned one octave lower than the six-string guitar, as shown in the table below.

String NumberFrequencyScientific pitch notation
1 (G)97.999 HzG2
2 (D)73.416 HzD2
3 (A)55.00 HzA1
4 (E)41.203 HzE1

The C4 note can be found on the 17th fret of the first string in all bass guitars. It can also be found on the 22nd fret of the second string if your guitar has that many frets.


Hopefully, this article was helpful to you in finding middle C and understanding its significance. Please write in the comments section below if you still have some doubts or want additional clarifications or topics to be covered.

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