Anybody who has taken piano lessons (like my wife who inspired this article), was lucky enough to have went to a school that had the budget for music class, or generally has awareness that in fact, music exists, is likely familiar with the ubiquitous and often practiced exercise colloquially known as “Do-Re-Mi”. For those of us who prefer fancy, “extraordinary” forms of words from foreign languages, this exercise is known as “Solfège”.

Solfège is essentially a technique for teaching pitch intervals in scales and as practice reading music. This exercise uses those familiar seven syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.

Even if you have never taken a minute of musical training, chances are your parents sat you down in front of the TV during some Sunday evening of your youth and let you (read: “made you”) watch the 1965 classic film “The Sound of Music”. And chances are that if you saw this movie, you remember this song…

[This movie starring Julie Andrews has some solid Catholic credentials, as it centers around a woman who leaves and Austrian convent to become a governess to the children of a Naval officer widower, under the looming clouds of the rise of Nazi Germany, but that’s another article.]

Speaking of films, If you’re like me, you may possibly remember the “Ghostbusters” version even better… “Do-Re-Egon”

[“Ghostbusters”, unlike “The Sound of Music” has some pretty bad theology… a nightmare afterlife of being stuck in a containment unit, with no chance of redemption…. like purgatory with no prayers of the Church Militant, but that, too, is another article…]

Anyway, back to the point at at hand; I think it is fair to say that “Do-Re-Mi” is firmly ingrained in our culture and has had a key role in the development of a system that gives us the ability to express our gratitude, joys, sufferings, and other generally “humany” feelings through the power of music.

But, like nearly literally everything in Western-culture (though college professors are mostly loathe to admit) Solfège has a very Catholic origin.

The use of a diatronic 7-note music scale is ancient, with some archaeological evidence going back 45,000 in the form of a bear femur flute found in modern day Slovenia, known as the “Divje Babe flute“. But as time marched on, it seemingly became more convenient to have an organized system of musical notation instead of just tearing to awesome Jethro Tull inspired Jazz-flute improvisations on the bear femurs….

Guido of Arezzo
Guido of Arezzo

Enter Guido of Arezzo ( b. 995 d.1050), an 11th century Benedictine monk and music theorist. While at the Monastery of Pomposa, Guido noticed the difficulty his less musically inclined monastic brothers had in being able to remember Gregorian Chants (something that apparently predates Vatican II). He developed what was to become the modern musical notation system. His system helped his fame grow throughout all of Italy, even to the point of the Pope John XIX requesting that he come to Rome to teach the clergy there his system.

Guido of Arezzo’s system of naming the notes was based on an easy to remember melody that he wrote for the purpose of instruction, but was lyrically a reworking of an older Hymn to St. John the Baptist “Ut queant laxis” or “Hymnus in Ioannem”. (Which to my ears sounds more or less like a cooler, chanted version Julie Andrews’ song from The Sound of Music…)

The first note was the lowest note of the scale, and each subsequent phrase began one note higher than the previous phrase, just like the modern musical exercise. Guido used the first syllable of each phrase to name that note of the scale, that is “ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la”

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris, Mira gestorum famuli tuorum, Solve polluti labii reatum, Sancte Iohannes.

(It may be translated: So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.)

Not long after, a seventh note was added, “Si”, derived from the first letters of the first two words in the next phrase in the song, “Sancte Iohannes” giving us the familiar 7 notes. In the 17th century the note “Ut” became “Do”, seemingly because it simply sounded better to the now more modern Italian tongue. The “Si” was later changed to “Ti” so that there would not be two notes that started with the same sound. And there you have it; “ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la” had become the bane of the 8-year old piano students everywhere, “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.”

Another interesting note (pun intended); because some of the Gregorian Chant of the time had a note that went past his scale, Guido  also sometimes used a provisional note that he called Gamma, after the Greek letter. The range of notes now ran from “Gamma” to “Ut”, which is where we get the modern word “Gamut” meaning “an entire range or series”.

So the next time you listen to music, literally any music, you will know the absolutely critical part an 11th century Catholic Benedictine Monk had in it’s development.

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