Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Composer Biography: Guido D’Arezzo (c991-1033)

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Guido D’Arezzo was an unassuming Benedictine monk who invented Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do and the staff system that modern music is written on. Are you stunned? Did you think those things always existed?

Guido was born around 991 in France and when he was of age (about 8), he joined the monastery at Pomposa in Italy, on the Adriatic coast. While he was still pretty young (in his 20s), he came up with a system for learning music by rote—a mnemonic device—that is his claim to fame, and probably features prominently in the song you remember best from Julie Andrews movies.

The Abbot at Pomposa disliked the innovations Guido was making, so Guido found a sponsor in the Bishop of Arezzo at the cathedral (125 miles or so inland from Pomposa) and moved there. No longer part of a monastery, he found himself annoyed with the constant politicking of society, and he wrote longingly to his friend Michael (or Michele, depending on your sources), a monk who remained at Pomposa, of the life of study and solitude that he so missed. He suffered through his official responsibilities, he wrote.

Guido wrote a practical guide for singers, called Micrologus de disciplina artis musicae, somewhere between 1025 and 1028. This remarkable document covered notes, intervals, scales, the modes, melodic composition, and improvised polyphony. It was commissioned by the Bishop of Arezzo, and only good things came to the world because of it.

Micrologus described the rules for combining voices in organum, a primitive form of polyphony, where parts moved in parallel (no matter where one line moves, the other stays at exactly the same distance from it) and opposing (one line moves up and the other moves down in equal steps) directions. Defining the rules for these movements made it possible to think about breaking the rules, and opened up the opportunities for composition. For the first time, rather than adding a line of parallel or opposing movement to an existing chant, the lines could move independently, and polyphony was born. After polyphony came chords, so this really was the beginning of modern music.

Micrologus also described solfeggio, a clever mnemonic device that Guido invented to facilitate sight singing. Solfeggio, or solmization, introduced a set of syllables that responded to the steps and half-steps in the succession of notes in a mode, such as C-D-E-F-G-A (you probably know this as the first six notes of a major scale. Go ahead, you know you want to sing Do-Re-Mi. That’s it! That’s just what it sounds like). Guido noticed that the first notes of each of the six phrases of a popular chant traced the pattern of that upward scale, and so he called the syllables Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, in their honor. (The chant was “Ut queant laxis,” if you want to look it up). He named the system solmization (long for Sol-Mi).

Guido’s syllables are still used today, although in the late 19th century, the first syllable was changed to “Do” as it was easier to sing on the open vowel, and added a “Ti” above the “La.” And there you have it:  Guido invented Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do.

The cool thing about solmization is that it shows the placement of half steps (the white keys on a piano with no black key between them, and Mi-Fa, Ti-Do in solfeggio). Modes were not fixed to a particular starting or ending point like a modern scale, but rather to a stable half-step placement. Using solmization allowed flexibility in choosing a starting note but facilitated staying in the correct mode anyway. (If you pick any note on a piano, you need to know where the half-steps—or black keys—are needed to keep the scale major. Only the scale that begins on a C stays major with no black keys. In modes, you can start on any note, and as long as the half-steps are in the right place, you’re in the right mode.)

Guido is most famous for what is known as Guido’s Hand, but it was probably developed after his lifetime. This particularly charming invention uses the creases on a hand to show the placement of the notes, each corresponding to a note from solfeggio. There are many versions of the Hand (perhaps 50), some following each finger up its length and then starting again at the root of the next finger, and others winding in a spiral fashion, counter-clockwise around the top of the fingers and down and around the joints. (See my blog, The Guido’s Hand Seminar  for more details about the Hand.) Using this, Guido (or any choir director) could point to a place on his hand, and the choir would sing the corresponding note. Suddenly, entirely rote memorization for learning music evolved to use visual aids.

Guido also invented the hexachord, which means that the half-step (such as two white notes together on a piano with no intervening black note, or from a white note to its neighboring black note) is always between the third and fourth tone. So if your Do-Re-Mi pattern begins on a C, you play C-D-E-F-G-A-B, and if it begins on an A, you play A-B-C#-D-E-F#, and if it begins on a G, you play G-A-B-C-D-E-F#, and so on. If you can’t visualize this, imagine a major scale (Do-Re-Mi) and sing it first in one part of your range and then in another. Keeping it sounding “major” is the hexachord effect. If you played all the same notes on the piano starting on D as you played starting on C for a major scale, you’d have a mode. (I talked about this at great length in my blog Musical Modes, Church Modes (part 1) ) So in that sense, Guido also invented the idea of modern scales.

Unheightened neumes existed already, and scholars at Notre Dame in Paris studied and scrupulously applied them to the collections of chant texts that Pope Gregorius (c540-604) had ordered (they were still collecting and documenting them 400 years later). These neumes (discussed in my blog The History of Music Notation) provided information about the movement between notes and a little about their duration, but no information about which specific note to sing or how one note related to another on the scale. Notation provided a clue as to how the music should sound, but a great deal of memorization (and guessing) was involved.

Guido suggested the use of lines and spaces to depict which note was sung (including a red line for F and a yellow line for C). He identified the notes in the left margin next to the line they were written on, and although even that identification varied with the mode or clef placement, suddenly, someone could learn the chant from manuscript without ever having heard it, and it could be accurately reproduced by someone else who had never heard it.

The method was widely adopted, and neumes changed to accommodate the format, becoming less florid, and more regular, eventually evolving into the block notes still used today for Gregorian chant, and ultimately into the fixed and stable notation that modern music uses. The original staff had four lines, each depicting notes a third apart. The modern staff of five lines evolved to avoid adding ledger lines as singing and instrumental ranges expanded beyond a single octave.

This invention made it easier to memorize music (because of the visual aspect), and it became possible for individuals to study separately and come together with the same music learned. This led the way to the development of non-monastic musicians; once the need for learning by rote went away, educated nobility included music-making as an essential skill. This method of recording music in manuscripts also allowed a greater number of songs to be learned because the memorization factor went away.

Guido boasted that using solmization and staff notation, he could “produce a perfect singer in the space of a year, or at most in two,” rather than the ten or more it usually took when learning by rote.

Guido’s official responsibilities in Arrezo included educating a large group of cathedral singers for Bishop Teodald (or Theobald or even Theobaldo, depending on your sources). He was good at it, and his reputation as both an innovator and a choir director spread to Rome. When Pope John XIX called Guido to Rome In 1028, he showed the Vatican his new method of notation. They were excited by both the new system and by the probability of finally beating the school at Notre Dame to musical innovation.

But Guido grew ill in Rome, and never really regained his health. Ailing, he joined a Camaldalese monastery at Avellana (about half-way between Rome and Arezzo) in 1029. The Camaldonians later became a separate order from the Benedictines, and many of the new-style manuscripts that Guido invented came out of Camaldese houses.

The date of Guido’s death is unsure and he died without publication of the event. It’s not known where he’s buried.


“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham, Oxford University Press, New York,1985

“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000

“Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 1: Ancient Forms to Polyphony,” by Denis Stevens and Alec Robertson, Pelican Books, Baltimore, 1960


Written by Melanie Spiller

June 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

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