Food & Culture

The Unexpected 1,000-Year-Old Origin of "Do, Re, Mi"

How many songs do you know by heart? We're guessing there are probably a few pop earworms that have made their way into your brain forever, but what about Gregorian chants? Those are a little less catchy. To make sure those ancient hits weren't forgotten, an 11th-century Benedictine monk invented a notary system for memorizing songs — and you heard Julie Andrews sing his work in "The Sound of Music."

Notes on a Monastery

If you were a choirboy in a monastery in the year 900, you would have learned a hymn over the course of weeks, months, or even years. You'd have to follow along with your conductor as he played each note on a single-string instrument known as a monochord, which was used for both tuning and performing. And then you'd have to remember that exact hymn for years, even as you memorized more and more musical pieces. It was a surprisingly arduous process, especially since memory tends to collapse as years go by. Enter one Guido d'Arezzo.

Guido d'Arezzo (just "Guido" before he moved to the monastery at Arezzo in 1025) was tasked with training the singers at the city's cathedral. He already had a reputation for musical innovation, but it was during that time that he developed the five-line method of writing music that we still use today. Well, something like it, anyway. If you've ever seen a piece of music written down, you'd recognize what Guido came up with. His system had clefs — those curly shapes at the beginning of the music that tell you what range to sing in — and notes scattered on a set of lines to indicate different pitches and intervals. But there were some differences from today's versions. Guido also incorporated colors into his system, marking the location of the F in red and the C in yellow to give his students a musical bookmark they could use to keep themselves in tune.

Ut, a Deer?

Have you ever heard of solfège? Scratch that — you have. You just might know it better as "Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do." Well, Guido came up with that as well. Sort of. Let us explain.

The hymn "Ut queant laxis" predated Guido's tenure at Arezzo, but armed with his new notation system, Guido identified the steps of the scale within the song to make an easy-to-recall verbal reminder of the tone of each note. The pattern was taken from the first syllable of each of the hymn's musical phrases, each of which started one note up from the last. The result was the following: "Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si." Just imagine that being sung up in the Swiss Alps.

Over time, "ut" was replaced by "do," which is a bit easier to make melodious. "Si" was changed as well — since he already had "Sol," changing "Si" to "Ti" made each step in the pattern begin with a different consonant. And as the years drew on, the world forgot the musician who built the foundation for everything from "Hosanna" to "My Heart Will Go On." We remember, Guido. We remember.

There's a lot more to music than the nuts and bolts of musical notation. Check out the fascinating "How Music Works" by David Byrne from the Talking Heads for an in-depth exploration of the art, science, and business of music. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Music: The Universal Language

Written by Reuben Westmaas March 19, 2018

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