Music Matters: June 2018

Music Matters: June 2018

Though not nearly as popular a teaching method in the UK as in some other countries, readers may be familiar with the idea of solfège – the practice of representing each note of the scale by using a different syllable:

Image result for do re mi

Thus, the first line of the hymn “Ye holy angels bright”, for example, could be sung as do mi do sol mi do.  In The Sound of Music, Maria famously teaches this system to the Von Trapp children with each syllable of the musical solfège system appearing in the song’s lyrics, sung on the pitch it names (see how the first note of each four-bar phrase forms the scale shown above).

Image result for do a deer

But Rodgers and Hammerstein were not the first to think up a song to help remember this system!  In fact, the first such musical mnemonic was written by a Benedictine monk, Guido of Arezzo around the turn of the eleventh century.  Here is his version (which only uses the first six notes, and uses the syllable ‘ut’ instead of ‘do’):

Image result for ut queant laxis

In fact, this chant is a hymn to John the Baptist, and will be sung (in the New English Hymnal’s English translation) as the introit at Compline on Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist, Sunday 24th June.  A alternative, paraphrase translation by Cecile Gertken, includes the solfege syllables:

Do let our voices resonate most purely, miracles telling, far greater than many;
so let our tongues be lavish in your praises, Saint John the Baptist.

Guido of Arezzo’s contribution to music doesn’t stop with his invention of the solfège system, he is also credited with being the first to arrange musical notation onto the set of parallel horizontal lines we now know as a stave.  Before then, musical notes were little more than rough indications of whether the pitch went up or down, as one can see in this ‘before and after’ illustration:

Image result for guido notation

So come, enjoy Ut queant laxis at Compline on 24th June, and never see The Sound of Music in quite the same way again!