The do in do-re-mi

The solfège system teaches Western music scales: do re mi fa sol la ti do. But who is “do”?

Do re mi plaque to Guido of Arezzo
Ivanhoe, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Back in 2019 I wrote about the Guidonian Hand, a finger- and palm-based mnemonic device to remember music. The inventor of that mnemonic, Guido of Arezzo, was one of the most influential music teachers in Western history: he invented the music staff, his text Micrologus was a cornerstone of Medieval music theory, and we have him to thank for the “do re mi” system – also known as the solfège. Except, in Guido’s time, it was not “do re mi.”

Guido used a hymn about St. John the Baptist called “Ut queant laxis” to define the solfège:

Ut queant laxīs
resonāre fibrīs
ra gestōrum
famulī tuōrum,
Solve pollūtī
labiī reātum,
Sāncte Iohannēs

Ut queant laxis

The Gregorian chant of this hymn contains a series of ascending notes, and the first syllable of each line (in bold above) corresponds to those ascending notes: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. Here’s what the hymn sounds like:

We’re not yet at the familiar do-re-mi. Guido’s 11th century CE version only had six notes, and the first one was “ut” rather than “do.” Fast forward six hundred years, and an Italian named Giovanni Battista Doni proposed a change. Rather than the rather ugly “ut” at the start of the solfège, he suggested, why not use “do” instead? It has a nicer ring to it, and it was pious too because “do” could be an abbreviation of “Dominus” (Latin for “The Lord”).

Giovanni Battista Doni
Gaetano Vascellini (1745-1805) after G. Irabattesi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, it escaped no-one’s notice that “do” could certainly be an abbreviation of “Dominus” – but it could also be an abbreviation for “Doni.” Was this a sneaky way to inveigle himself into the solfège? For whatever reason, it worked, along with Doni’s other addition to the solfège, the final note “si.”

A 19th century music teacher named Sarah Glover switched the “si” to a “ti” – so that each note in the solfège could begin with a different letter – and that leaves us with the system commonly used in English-speaking countries today.

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