The history of ‘do re mi’
Nestled amid the familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies of The Sound of Music is a tune with a history that reaches back nearly a thousand years, as long as those famous hills have been singing their songs: ‘Do-re-mi’, the most ‘meta’ of all the numbers in a musical about music. This post will focus on the linguistic and musical origins of those mysterious syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.
Like the ill-informed Brigitta von Trapp, piping up “But it doesn’t mean anything!” in the middle of Maria’s ear-training exercise, you might be thinking, This is a blog about words! Why do we care about nonsense syllables?
Unlike Brigitta’s governess, I’m going to correct you: they are not completely nonsensical. These sounds (or, to be precise, five of them) were originally the first syllables of full, meaningful words, albeit ones in Latin:
Ut queant laxis
(Translated loosely: So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.)
This is the text of a medieval hymn to John the Baptist. Recognize the starting syllables of those middle five lines? As it turns out, Maria was not the first devout Catholic to use them to teach music.
Guido of Arezzo (born around 991 AD) was a Benedictine monk and music theorist, and is best remembered for his development of a sight-singing method that employs these syllables as a sort of mnemonic device for different notes in a scale. As Guido wrote:
If, therefore, you wish to commit to memory any pitch or …you ought to mark off that pitch or neume at the beginning of some very familiar melody, and to retain any pitch whatsosever in your memory, you ought to have readily at hand a melody of this kind which begins from the same pitch. For example, let there be this melody, which I use in teaching choirboys both at the beginning of their training and even at the end…
He then included the hymn to John the Baptist, recreated here in common western notation:
The text of the hymn is traditionally attributed to Paulus Diaconus, another medieval monk, but the melody may actually have been a composition of Guido’s. It uses a six-note scale comprised of two whole steps, one half step, and another two whole steps; this is also known as a hexachord (from Greek, hex ‘six’, chordē ‘string’).
Each phrase (except the last) begins one scale degree higher than the previous phrase began, which gives each of these syllables its own designated pitch; if you could remember this melody, you would remember the pitches and syllables associated with the beginning of each phrase. To see this more clearly, here are these pitches without the surrounding plainchant:
Once you know where these notes are, you could call them up for use in later melodies, or as Guido put it, ‘If someone, thus trained, knows the beginning of every phrase so that he can without hesitation immediately begin any phrase he chooses, he will easily be able to sing the same six pitches according to their properties wherever they appear.’
The modern word for the practice of associating syllables with pitches is “solmization”, which is derived from the syllables sol and mi from Ut Queant Laxis. This word was pre-dated by the term “sol-faing”, and indeed the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of solmization is ‘the action or practice of solfaing’. According to the OED, the term for the act of singing using these syllables, solfeggio, was first seen in print 44 years after solmization, and is derived from the syllables sol and fa. (Why some of these derivatives employ fa and some use mi and neither begins with ut I’m not sure, but it would make for an interesting post for another time.)
Of course, there are two syllables still unaccounted for. Do and ti, the latecomers, have their own origin stories. Do was proposed as a replacement for ut in a 1640 treatise by Giovanni Battista Doni, a 17th-century Florentine music theorist. It’s been suggested that it was proposed because ut was not an ideal syllable for vocalizing, and that do was derived from the first syllable in Doni’s surname.
Ti has a more complicated history. It’s not known who the first person to suggest the addition of a seventh scale degree was, though it’s been attributed to a few different 16th-century European figures. OxfordDictionaries.com states that si was eventually proposed as the syllable as a reference to the last line of the hymn, ‘Sancte Iohannes’. Si was changed to te by the 19th-century music teacher Sarah Anna Glover, who used the solmization syllables to create actual notation in her Tonic Sol-fa system, and needed to differentiate the initial letter of sol from that of si. Te changed to ti when Tonic Sol-fa was implemented in Europe.
I have to admit to liking the new syllables. There’s something about the thought of Julie Andrews singing ‘ut re mi’ that just doesn’t feel right. I also recall that, when learning solfeggio in music class growing up, there was always inconsistency among students and different teachers over whether the fifth scale degree was pronounced ‘so’ or ‘sol’. Knowing ‘Do-re-mi’ I went with ‘so’—because it’s like a needle pulling thread! Never mind that ‘fa’ meaning ‘a long long way to run’ made little sense with my American accent — I took the song’s word for it. Such is the power of musicals.