4/6/11 - how we got "do, re, mi"

In today's excerpt - the Italian monk Guido of Arezzo invented the method of learning notes we now refer to as "do, re, mi" or solmization (from the notes "sol" and "mi") in about 1024 CE—thus giving each note or tone in the scale its own name. Along with his invention of the four-line musical staff, it allowed singers to master new music in a year rather than a decade, and permitted the subsequent rise of polyphony:

"Actually... it was ut, re, mi, etc., that Guido invented. He got the names of the notes—ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la—from the initial syllables of the half lines that make up the first stanza of an eighth-century Latin hymn to John the Baptist written by Paul the Deacon. In this work, each nonitalicized syllable below fell on a higher successive tone of the hexachord, the first six notes of the major scale (c, d, e, f, g, a):

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solvepolluti labii reatum ...

(So that your servants can, with unrestrained voice, sing the wonders of your deeds, remove the guilt of our tainted lips!)

"The initial letters of "Sancte Iohannes," the next words in the text, which directly address St. John, later gave us the name of the note si, which was eventually changed to ti, just as ut was later changed to do and sol to so in many countries for reasons of euphony. The singing of vocal exercises to these syllables is termed solfeggio or solfege, names deriving from sol and fa, just as solmization itself is derived from sol and mi.

"The background to this development was the difficulty of teaching monks and cathedral singers the Gregorian chant, which was named for Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), though it probably coalesced about two hundred years after his time. This official music of the Roman Catholic liturgy was a monodic plainchant, meaning that the same notes were sung by all the voices. Although the Arabs had developed a system of musical notation in about 700, and the French manuscript called Musica enchiriadis ("Handbook of Music") used Latin letters for notation in c. 870, the most common system in Europe by the early tenth century was notation by means of neumes (from the Greek for 'breaths').

"Looking like accent marks placed higher or lower over words to be sung, neumes indicated in a slapdash way whether the pitch was rising or falling. This crude way of reminding singers of the direction their voices should go was better than nothing, but the specific pitches had to be laboriously memorized for each individual piece of music—and the church had a vast repertoire of hymns and liturgical songs.

"Enter the Benedictine monk Guido of Arezzo (c. 991 - 1050) a composer, choirmaster, and theorist of liturgical music who is sometimes called 'the Father of Modern Music.' Building on insights gleaned from a French musical treatise, he and a fellow monk named Michael began to experiment with the teaching of music at the northern Italian monastery of Pomposa on the Adriatic coast.

"Their success was such that Guido became something of a celebrity in the locale, and the envy of the other monks caused him to depart for the city of Arezzo, southeast of Florence, in about 1025. Bishop Theodald of Arezzo gave him a job training singers of the cathedral school and asked him to write a book on musical theory. The resultant Micrologus de disciplina artis musicae (Manual of the Art of Music) in twenty chapters included discussions of early polyphony and was used as a standard European text for several hundred years.

"Guido's major innovation, however, was a protomodern system of musical notation. In his day, two lines were sometimes used to indicate the range of pitch within a composition—a red line to indicate the note now known as F and a yellow or green line to indicate C, and the aforementioned neumes were placed at varying distances from them to roughly indicate pitch. Guido added a black line between F and C and another black one above C to create the first four-line musical staff (the current five-line staff first appeared in 1200). He thus made use of his lines—as well as the spaces between them—to place letters indicating the specific notes. He continued to mark the C and F lines—the C would appear above the F for a song with a high melody, and the reverse would be the case for a lower melody. His symbols for these notes have now become our treble and bass clefs. Following on Guido's notation, square notes appeared in the thirteenth century, the ancestors of our oval ones.

"Now that musical intervals could be clearly indicated with Guido's notation and four-line staff, music could be learned much more rapidly—and composed and preserved much more efficiently—than in the past."


Peter D'Epiro


The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet


Anchor Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2010 by Peter D'Epiro


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