Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

The Guido’s Hand Seminar

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Today I played hooky from work and went to an early music seminar at Stanford University. Was it fabulous? You bet!

Let me tell you a story.

Back in the 11th century, music notation was a new idea in Europe. It’s not clear if he invented the system, but a Benedictine monk named Guido d’Arezzo is credited both with coming up with what we now know as solfeggio (do-re-me, etc.)  and with designing a nifty mnemonic device using the creases on the left hand to mark off the notes of the scales.

First, you have to know that music notation originally didn’t have the five lines you’re used to seeing. The earliest marks were squiggles on the page called neumes. At first, they described the musical gesture, but not which note should be sung or its duration. Gregorian chant was initially documented this way, starting in the 9th century. Music was learned by rote, and this method sufficed for more than a century.

But by the end of the 10th century, music was getting more complicated (still only one melodic line, still no harmony but now the words were painted across the page in wild and wiggly patterns) and was harder to memorize. Someone had the clever idea to scribe lines on the page, and in the 11th century, duration still was left to the discretion of the performer, but the pitch—the note that’s produced—was finally defined by the composer. The relationship from one neume or note to another could be discerned by its relationship to another neume.

In the 11th century, it became somewhat standard to use four lines rather than marking the whole page with ledger lines. And guess what? If you look at your hand from the palm side, you can see four lines: one where the fingers meet the palm, the two finger joints, and the top of the fingers! Ta-da!

This is what Guido discovered (or is credited with discovering); that each joint on the hand could represent a note, and once learned, he could point to the joints of the five left-hand fingers and the singers would know which note to sing.

This was the premise of the seminar. First, we heard the story of Guido’s life from a professor from Washington University in St. Louse (Dolores Pesce). She told us about the life and times of Guido and others who were making music at that time. She also talked a little about the way the modes were spread across the musical scale and how each mode fits with the others. She had nifty examples from early texts, and we sang a few, to illustrate the way each mode sounds. (Like modern scales, a mode is defined by the half steps—where the black keys on the piano fit in with the white keys. Modes were invented in ancient Greece and morphed into modern scales in about the 16th century.)

Next, we heard about how “literacy” could be optional if using the Guidonian Hand mnemonic device, and a professor from UC Davis (Anna Maria Busse Berger) used the famous troubadour, Oswald von Wolkenstein as an example.

Then, Jesse Rodin of Stanford, with three singers  from Stanford and one from Princeton, illustrated how it works. First, they sang a Kyrie just the way you or I would, from the notes on the page. Then, they sang it in solfeggio, illustrating the notes on their hands as they sang.

Now here’s the interesting part. They sounded pretty good when they sang it as written. But when they sang it in solfeggio and pointed at their hands, the pitch was better, they sounded like they were listening to one another more, and unbelievably, the syllables seemed to make the music more exciting. Instead of singing Ky-ri-e and e-le-i-son slowly and dragged out for a whole line or more, they sang ut (the original syllable for “do”), re, me, fa, and sol.

Suddenly, the various melodic lines popped out. Suddenly, the cantus firmus (the chant melody sung slowly while the other parts were sung more quickly) was apparent and the high voices only a compliment to it rather than burying it, as had been the case when it was sung with the words of the Kyrie.

After that, wonder of wonders, lunch was served. Get this: a free event that included lunch. More get this: an entirely vegetarian lunch with several vegan offerings. Double get this: hardly any nightshades (which I am allergic to). And triple get this: it was delicious. I went back three times for something called Carrot Halva. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out Udapa Palace who catered the event,  in Sunnyvale, Fremont, Berkeley, and San Francisco. Apparently, they are also in Los Angeles, Gaithersburg Maryland, and New York City.

After lunch, the professor from Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins (Susan Forscher Weiss) showed us the many variations of the hands. Apparently, the illustration that we all think of as Guido’s own hand was not in any of Guido’s documentation. There must have been 30 or more images, some showing a spiral pattern of notes, and others the more ladder-like pattern that is usually thought of as the Guidonian hand. Some hands did not look like hands at all, and others had illustrations of saints or other elements than the words of solfeggio.

Next up was the famous composer and teacher, Alejandro Enrique Planchart, from UC Santa Barbara. He was charming and entertaining, but mostly, it was exciting to hear him illustrate how composers used solfeggio in their work. He passed out editions of his own edition of Morales’ “Missa L’homme arme” (“The Armed Man”) and he sang bits here and there and then we listened to a recording. Then, wonder of wonders, he sang with the students from the earlier hand demonstration.

Finally, Peter Urquhart (University of New Hampshire) talked about the modulation of modes (which have five notes) to something recognizable in modern times (with eight notes). It was a controversial discussion, and I’m afraid lots of it was over my head.

It was also lovely to see some old friends, Catherine and Alcides Rodriguez-Nieto and Sachiyo Aoyama, as well as people I don’t see very often, such as Michael and Susan Murphy, Dr. Bill Mahrt, and Herb Myers. There were about 40 people in attendance, some students, lots of professorial types, and a few of us who wandered in from the early music community.

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Written by Melanie Spiller

March 3, 2011 at 10:21 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] of early harmony and polyphony. More on that later). (You might want to visit my earlier blog about Guido’s Hand for more on who and how they came up with the staff that evolved into what we use […]

  2. […] when exact pitch notation and the Guidonian system (you can read more about this on my blog entry The Guido’s Hand Seminar ) came into being in Europe. This meant that a song started on the same pitch every time it was […]


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