A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Guido d'Arezzo Part 2

24 May 2013

The entire gamut


Piazza Grande in Arezzo, where the opening scenes of Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful, 1997) were filmed.


In Part 1 of this blog entry, we discussed Guido’s invention of the staff and, for his use in teaching, the hymn “Ut queant laxis” and the syllables that he derived from its Latin text.  We also briefly touched on the concept of the hexachordal system, which now calls for a little more attention.

So Guido constructed a scale of 21 notes made up of overlapping hexachords to accommodate all of the modes within the range of the human voice in singing chant.  Each pitch came to be known by the syllables of its associated hexachords.  For example, middle C is the fifth degree (sol) of an F hexachord, the fourth degree (fa) of a G hexachord, and the first degree (ut) of a C hexachord, making it unique in the 21-note scale. Its name would therefore be "C sol fa ut."

The lowest note of the scale, G on the first line of our modern bass staff, was given a mark of distinction by being called by the Greek letter gamma ().  Hence, that pitch, being the lowest and belonging to just one hexachord on the scale (the G hexachord), was termed “gamma ut,” or “gamut.”  Gamut came to  refer to the entire scale, and today the word indicates the complete range of anything.

In Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” (Act III., sc. 1), Bianca reads the Gamut of Hortensio, which, using Guido’s syllables, forms an acrostic that outlines the lowest G hexachord of Guido's scale:


“Gamut” I am, the ground of all accord,

“A re,” to plead Hortensio’s passion;

“B mi,” Bianca, take him for thy lord,

"C fa ut,” that loves with all affection:

“D sol re,” one clef, two notes have I:

“E la mi,” show pity, or I die.


Alas, Hortensio’s gamut gambit didn’t work — his rival Lucentio wound up as Bianca’s biscottino [little cookie].

In conjunction with the hexachordal system and its syllables, Guido is thought to have devised an early form of what came to be called the Guidonian hand.  In this mnemonic scheme used to help singers, each joint of the hand signifies a specific note, from "gamma ut" up almost three octaves to "E la."  Thus a melody can be indicated by pointing to different parts of the hand.


Guidonian hand, carved marble, 1662, Cité de la Musique, Paris


Guido’s concepts have evolved over the one thousand years since he devised them, as certainly has music itself.

Even after Guido’s treatise was supplanted by several others in the Renaissance, his syllables didn’t just sit around on the sol-fa.  A novel use of the Aretinian syllables was hit upon by Josquin des Prez.  In his Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae, he encoded his boss’s name — Duke Ercole I of Ferrara — into the cantus firmus (a sort of structural underpinning) of a mass that he composed.  For each vowel of the Latin form of the duke’s name, Josquin took a syllable with the corresponding vowel to determine the pitch succession:


The name of Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, informs the cantus firmus of Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae by Josquin Desprez (c. 1440-1521) through the technique of soggetto cavato.


A term for this technique was later coined by the theorist Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590):  soggetto cavato dalle vocali di queste parole [subject carved out of the vowels from these words], or soggetto cavato for short. Josquin and other Renaissance composers, including Cipriano de Rore, Jacquet of Mantua, and Adrian Willaert,  went on to use the soggetto cavato technique in masses, motets, and other works.  The technique has resurfaced from time to time, even in modern music.

As the Guidonian hexachord spans only six degress, in the eighteenth century the syllable "si" — some think it was drawn from the initial of Sancte Iohannes in the last phrase of the hymn — was added for the seventh scale degree, with the octave starting the sequence of syllables over again.  Next, in the nineteenth century, in some countries, “si” was changed to “ti,” so that every syllable of the scale would begin with a different letter.



The method of singing with syllables is known by different names today:  solfeggio in Italian, solfège in France, and sol-fa in English, each term deriving from the fifth and fourth syllables of the scale.  The method is also referred to more generally as solmisation or solmization (deriving from the fifth and third syllables).  Singers and musicians have been taught with this technique throughout the centuries.

There are two distinct practices today, known as the fixed-do system and the moveable-do system.  (It may sound like we are talking about the stock market here, but we certainly do not mean moveable dough here. In fact, most people have known at least since the eighteenth century that musicians tend not to be burdened by stock options.  As Johann Joseph Fux [1660–1741] offerred in Gradus ad Parnassum [1725], “Perhaps the hope of future riches and possessions induces you to choose this life [of music]? If this is the case, believe me you must change your mind; not Plutus but Apollo rules Parnassus. Whoever wants riches must take another path.”)

Heinrich Eduard Winter (1788–1825): Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741), lithograph, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv, Austria

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

The fixed-do system is used primarily in Romance and Slavic countries, including Italy, France, Belgium, French-speaking Switzerland, French-speaking Canada, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Latin America, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bulgaria, as well as in Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Israel.  Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a method developed by the Swiss educator Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865–1950), employs the fixed-do system.


Émile Jaques-Dalcroze in1912

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


In the fixed-do system, the notated pitch C is always “do” (unless one finds oneself in France, in which case it is “ut,” a sound that one might find in an Asterix comic).  Thus, D (or D, or D) is always ‘re,” and so on.  In fact, these syllables are used instead of the letter names for pitches used in other countries, thus those who grew up with the fixed-do system are merely singing the note names.  For example, Bizet’s Symphony in C Major is called Symphonie en ut majeur in French.


Curiously, despite this furniture store’s location in Paris, the syllable “do" is used. Likewise, "so" and "fa" have been reversed in the interest of capitalism.


Once, while I was performing with an ensemble in Greece, a request for a piece was made in Greek.  The performer next to me leaned over and said, in English (efharistó!), “Re minor.”  At first I thought she had said “A minor,” but my ear told me that what I was hearing was, in fact, the key of D minor.  Soon, I realized that fixed-do terminology was being used:  D minor and Re minor are the same thing.

The moveable-do system, on the other hand, is used primarily in German- and English-speaking countries, including Germany, Austria, German-speaking Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, English-speaking Canada, and Australia, as well as China, Japan, and Hong Kong.

The moveable-do system is actually closer to the Guidonian concept, as the syllables are the same for whatever key the music is in.  Thus one could transpose a tune and still sing the same syllables.  “Happy Birthday” begins “sol-sol-la-sol-do-ti” in any key when the moveable-do system is used.  However, one must be careful, for example, because in D major, D is “do” and A is “sol,” whereas in A major, A is “do” and D is “fa.”

In the moveable-do system, chromatically-altered syllables can also be used, such as raising “do” a semitone to “di,” or lowering “re” a semitone to “ra,” resulting in a chromatic scale of “do-di-ra-re-ri-me-mi-fa-fi-se-sol-si-le-la-li-te-ti-do,” or some variant thereof.  Just make sure you don’t sing this at night if your neighbors are light sleepers.

Minor keys are handled in two basic ways using the moveable-do system.  In the first way, the tonic (or first degree) is called “do,” just as in major keys, using "me", "le", and "te" for the lowered third, sixth, and seventh degrees.  In the second way, the tonic is called “la,’ borrowing all of the syllables from the relative major key.  This second way is called, appropriately, "la-based minor."

Of course, kids under the age of eighteen in the Los Angeles area are also welcome to use this designation.

The Kodály Institute in Kecskemét, Hungary, trains musicians in the Kodály Method.

The Kodály Method, developed by the Hungarian composer and theorist Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967), employs the movable-do system in a manner that goes beyond mere mnemonics. The syllables are used to show the functions and relationships of pitches within the key in a powerful way for both assimilation and anaysis. This method is taught at the The Kodály Institute in Kecskemét, Hungary, the city of Kodály's birth, and at other centers around the world. Kodály also introduced a set of hand signals which correspond to each syllable.



The secessionist architectural style City Hall in Kecskemét, Hungary, where Zoltán Kodály was born. Kodály was an ardent advocate of solfeggio.



The past 1,000 years

Guido d'Arezzo, who died after 1033, and possibly as late as 1056, revolutionized the way music is taught and uniquely influenced the way it appears on the page.

To all intents and purposes, Guido invented modern musical notation.  It is difficult to imagine the complexity of sound that an orchestra produces without the innovation of the staff or some similar device.  Recognizing that oral traditions have produced the multi-layered polyphony of a Javanese gamelan, or the rhythmic intricacy of Ghanaian drumming, to cite just two examples, the role of a composer who can specify to other performers rhythms, textures, and colors never heard before is exclusive to music notation.

Guido’s treatise, the Micrologus, was the first to discuss both polyphonic music and plainchant.  Found in more than 70 manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages, this work was used extensively both in monasteries and universities.

Today, the sol-fa system, based on Guido’s insights, is used in schools and universities around the world.

Without Guido, there wouldn’t be a word that we use all the time (gamut), and that movie musical made in the 1960s wouldn’t quite be the same.  And it’s even possible that he gave us the Guidonian hand.

Let’s give Guido a hand.


Anonymous: Guido d'Arezzo teaches the monochord to Bishop Theobald, twelfth century, Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek Musiksammlung, Vienna

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}




The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

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Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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