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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

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.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 3, 2011 at 10:21 pm