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Where do the names of the notes come from? Ut Queant Laxis

Picture this: We are in Italy in the beginning of the 11th century. Specifically, we are in Tuscany and the little city of Arezzo which is in the center of Italy. It’s spring and already the sun is shinning. It’s warm enough to walk around wearing a light jacket. As you stroll around the medieval streets of the city, the smell of bloomed lilacs along with the smell of freshly baked break hit your nose. And then you hear it: a sole voice singing (play audio)↓

Ut queant laxis

Audio MP3

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

Thankfully, you’ll very well versed in Latin and immediately understand that the lyrics of Ut queant laxis translate to:

So that your servants can sing with their voice your wonderful feats, clear their lips that are stained with guilt, oh Saint John!

You walk towards the direction of the voice and you see a sole church among the traditional houses. You enter through the small worn out door and there, in the darkness of the abbey, you see a monk.

Hi. Who are you?
I’m Guido. I’m Guido from Arezzo. Si, signore, Guido d’Arezzo.

Ut Queant Laxis melody song score in Staff And what was that you were singing? It was beautiful.
That is a hymn to Saint John. It was written by Paulus Diaconus in the 8th century and I set it to music. I love teaching choristers how to sing chants, but it’s really hard for them to remember the melodies. Therefore, I use this song as a mnemonic. I’ve named our 6 notes out of the first syllable of each line and I’ve composed my hymn such that these syllables, also, fall on their respective notes. So, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la.

This is very interesting Guido. But aren’t there 7 notes?
Ah, yes, my friend. But this is medieval Italy. For now, we only use 6 notes and we call them the hexachord. The 7th note “Si” won’t be added until the 16th century by Giovanni Battista Doni. Giovanni will be nice enough to use the initials of Sancte Iohannes to name the 7th note.

Ut Queant Laxis by Guido d' Arezzo

Let me ask you one last question. In my time, we use do instead of “ut”, and ti instead of “si”. Do you happen to know how these came along?
Dear Giovanni thought that “ut” is hard to sing and instead turned it into “do” which is an open syllable. Good call there. And in the 19th century, a wonderful music teacher in England, Ms. Sarah Ann Glover, turned “si” into “ti” so that all notes started with a difference consonant. You see, we already had “sol” starting with an “s.”

Wonderful story Guido. You’re pretty cool for a medieval Benedictine monk!

5 comments

  1. Olga, I am so very grateful for the valuable information here and the charm and originality with which you present it! Thank you a godzillion!

  2. Louis Melahn, L.C.

    The hymn is still used in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is the hymn sung at first vespers for the solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24–the first vespers are prayed the evening before).

  3. Bless you. The hymn you posted has the best feel to it. There is lightness to this version. The other versions I’ve heard feel heavy and make my heart sink rather than sing.

  4. Bless you. The hymn you posted has the best feel to it. There is lightness to this version. The other versions I’ve heard feel heavy and make my heart sink rather than sing. If this is a recording from an album or CD would you share it so I might listen to more.

  5. Hello,
    Would you give permission for the 40 second clip to be used in a monologue about Guido? Soundwork is a not-for-profit website that provides plays, stories, poetry and monologues to listeners for free. You would, of course, be credited.
    Please let me know.

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