Have you ever wondered about the origin of the solfege syllables do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do? These are syllables that singers have used for centuries as aids to reading a piece of music for the first time, as well as other reasons. I want to tell you a story about Guido d’Arezzo, a gifted teacher of music and an 11th-century monk in a monastery in Pomposa, Italy. When he taught choir boys Gregorian chant, he realized they took a very long time to learn a piece of music by rote, which was the traditional method. He looked for ways to shorten the time. He chose “Ut queant laxis,” the hymn from the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. This was a chant all choristers would need to memorize. He saw that the first syllable of each of the six phrases was a new note based on the rising degree of the major scale. Medieval monks thought in terms of a six-note scale. The first syllables of these six phrases were UT, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA (Later UT was changed to DO and a seventh step named SI – in some countries TI – was added). This system made clear to the boys where the half steps occurred in a particular chant.
So the text for Saint John’s hymn read:
UT queant laxis
English Poetic Translation:
So that we may freely sing thy marvelous deeds, cleanse thy servants’ lips from all the stains of guilt, Oh Holy John.
The solfege system of singing, invented by the monk Guido d’Arezzo, has been used by singers for over a thousand years.