A Parable: Living in the Land of “C Major”


In the land of “C Major” everyone “just knew” to compose and perform their music in the “Key of C.” After all, it was the right key for everything. It was the “natural key.” The people who lived in the Land of C Major had some vague awareness that there might be other keys in music, but they wanted their music to be “natural” and that they themselves were “normal people” who made “natural music.”

One day for no apparent reason someone began to compose and perform music in the Key of D Major. The music police in the Land of C Major were frightened and appalled. Soon there was a public outcry as the composer was told to keep his “unnatural music” to himself. When he persisted in playing his music at the “clubs” where the bohemian deviants hung out the authorities decided to have him arrested and his music banished. Eventually they decided to have it publicly burned to make a point. But the more the music police protested this “unnatural music” the more the general public became curious to understand what all the fuss was about.

But pretty soon other deviant musicians were composing and performing their music in the Key of D, and then in all the other Major Keys.  The authorities, knowing that they could not stem the tide, agreed that this change was now OK, but that still the Key of C was the best of all keys. Their slogan changed from “Only the White Notes” to “The White Notes are Best.” But this didn’t last for long. Once music began to be played in every Major Key, and even modulated between the Keys, public opinion eventually decided that “All Keys Are OK.”

But then something else happened. Some deviant started composing and performing music in a Minor Key. It happened to be C Minor, but there was even more ruckus over this than there had been in the change from C Major to D Major. Minor Keys were strictly forbidden. The “music police” decided that these Minor Keys were were not only “unnatural” but “morbid, sick and depressing.” Some even blamed violence, crime, madness and suicide on the Minor Keys. But in spite of these serious accusations, others soon joined in composing and playing music in the Minor Keys.

The authorities were perplexed. After all, they just wanted people to be happy, not sad. So they decided that those who persisted in composed and playing music in the Minor Keys were a public menace. They were all rounded up, given Celtic harps and shipped off to Ireland. The Music Police called it “the Morbid Island of Melancholy and Malcontents.”

But soon music in the Minor Keys was being composed and performed all over the world and in various genre, including symphonic music. After a period of censorship the general public got used to hearing music in all the Major and Minor Keys. The common view now was that the variety of Major and Minor Keys served to enrich and expand the ecology of musical creativity and appreciation.

But then something very perplexing began to happen. A few new musical rebels began to question the normative authority of the Western diatonic scale. They began to experiment with strange new sounds, tones, rhythms, melodies and musical scales from all over the world. Others followed them and a new public uproar began. A small cultural enclave  organized “The Society for the Preservation of the Key of C.” They now felt vindicated in their resistance to departures from the old ways of musical tradition.” Their motto became, “If you can’t play it in the Key of C Major, shut up.”

In reaction to these reactionaries, others tried to banish the Key of C Major altogether, insisting that only music in the other Keys, especially the Minor Keys, along with the music that broke with the diatonic scale were now relevant and up-to-date.

Still others set forth the curious thesis that the more music abandons the ideals of harmony and resolution in favor of dissonance and irresolution the more ought we to respect it as “real and serious music.”

But it was even decided by some that unresolved dissonance was merely a “half-way measure” and that “real music of the future” must become one of fearless anarchy and cacophony. Only in this way could the point be made that music has no meaning and that it ought to mirror the meaningless chaos and futility of existence.

Eventually the general public stopped listening to the “serious music.” It expressed more “reality” than they could bear. Some even returned to just listening to music in the Key of C. And so it goes.

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