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An Upscale Version of a Noteworthy Event

Rob Kyff on

Did you ever wonder why the names for the notes of the musical scale are "do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do"? And, sorry "Sound of Music" fans, it's not because a "do" is a female deer or a "re" is a drop of golden sun.

In fact, these musical terms can be traced to the 11th century when the eminent musician Guido of Arezzo was teaching his choristers a hymn honoring St. John the Baptist. "Take it from the top!" Guido shouted to his singers, apparently oblivious to the fact that John the Baptist had been beheaded.

Rolling their eyes, the vocalists began singing, and Guido was suddenly struck by the slowly ascending pitch of each line's opening Latin syllable: "UT queant laxis ... REsonare fibris ... MIra gestorum ... FAmuli tuorum ... SOLve polluti ... LAbii reatum ..." Unfortunately, he was also struck by the vocalists who, feeling they were underpaid, abruptly walked out of the rehearsal.

But from the first letters of those six syllables, Guido devised a six-note scale: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. "Sol fa, sol good," he thought. Later on, when a seventh note was added to the scale, it was named for the initials of the words in the last line, "Sancte Iohananes" (si). Latin had no "J," so "Johannes" was rendered as "Iohannes."

Over the centuries, the English-speaking countries replaced "ut" with the more singable "do" and, when that "do" had risen, the English declared it "ti" time, and replaced "si" with "ti." This gave us the modern musical scale: $50 per hour for studio work and $100 for concerts, which is much higher than the 2 drachmas per hour Guido's singers were earning.

The stingy but versatile Guido gave us another English term. In his written notations, he used the Greek letter gamma to designate the lowest note on the scale, "gamma ut," which was eventually shortened to "gamut," a word that came to refer, not only to the scale's lowest note, but also to the entire singing range.

 

By the mid-1600s, "gamut" was being used figuratively to mean the full range of anything, as in the song "Home, Home on the Gamut." And we still say something that ranges far and wide "runs the gamut," not to be confused with "run the gauntlet," which refers to pledge initiation rites at Gamma Gamma Gamma.

I'm delighted to announce that you can find more fascinating stories about words in my latest book, "Mark My Words." It's available in paperback for $9.99 on Amazon.com, and as an ebook for $6.99 at Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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