Thursday, May 3, 2012

Guido of Arezzo

The Italian monk Guido of Arezzo (~990 - ~1033) is probably the most important figure in Western music history that most people have never heard of. He is credited with two innovations without which the whole history of music would have been quite different. The first of these is the staff, the set of five lines that tell us exactly what note to sing or play. Before then the predecessors to the round note-heads were squiggly neumes and they gave only a very sketchy idea of what the notes were. The idea of drawing lines to create a spacial metaphor for pitch was so astonishingly effective and simple that we have used it ever since. To my knowledge, this breakthrough was made by no-one else, no-where else, at any time.

Guido's second contribution I will introduce with a little musical number:

Now where did those stupid syllables come from? Not from the pen of Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist for the musical. No, they come right from Guido of Arezzo, a thousand years earlier. He spent much of his time training choir singers and developed a method for teaching them to sing--from his newly-invented staff notation--melodies they had never heard before. Sight-singing it is called and every music student still learns how to do it. In order to teach the techniques, he used this hymn with words by Paul the Deacon and the music probably by Guido himself:

Click to enlarge

If you look at the first word of each phrase you see the following syllables: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. This doesn't include the last phrase, Sancte Johannes. What is interesting about this tune is that each phrase starts one note higher: C, D, E, F, G and A. Very useful for teaching about the notes of the scale (or mode, as it was at this point). Later on, so as to have an open, not closed syllable, the first syllable, ut, was changed to doh. Also later on, when the idea of the scale was developed, they added one more syllable for B and they made use of that Sancte Johannes phrase so the syllable was si. This is how I learned solfege in Quebec: doh, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, doh. In other places, like the set of The Sound of Music, they use the syllable ti instead of si.

So now we know the horrible truth: Rogers and Hammerstein stole the basic idea for the hit song "Do-Re-Mi" from Guido of Arezzo's hymn "Ut queant laxis." Here is the original:

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