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“…Ray, the guy who sells me beer…”

Truth is, if you’ve heard of anyone one of these things then you know about solfege.  You probably are more familiar with it than you think, actually.  “Gamut” is a term most commonly used to describe a full spectrum of emotions, but did you know that it was derived from music terminology?  Stay with me here.

“…Me, the guy who drinks the beer…”

That eleventh-century monk was Guido of Arezzo, who noticed that singers had a hard time remembering and learning the massive collection of Gregorian Chants sung at the time.  In order to speed up this process he created solfege so that singers had a tool to name notes instead of just search around for the one that sounded right.  He based his solfege off a hymn to St. John called “Ut Quent Laxis”, in which the beginning of each phrase is a note higher than the previous one.

“…Far, the distance to the beer…”

“That they servants may freely sing forth the wonders of thy deeds, remove all stain of guilt from their unclean lips, O Saint John.”

“…So, I’ll have another beer…”

Notice that there are only six syllables in Guido’s solfege; ut, re, mi, fa, sol and la.  This is a basic hexachord and since Gregorian chant usually stays within the range of a sixth this system was fine.  However, there are always exceptions to rules in music and many musicians needed the full octave for composing or remembering hymns, so the hexachord system emerged.  These small six note scales were overlapped so that a larger range could be accomplished with the same syllables. In a manner very similar to pivot chord or pivot tone modulation, mutation was the process of renaming notes that occurred within neighboring hexachords in order to smoothly transition between them. There were only three hexachords used in this system; the natural hexachord, which began on C, the soft hexachord, which began on F, and the hard hexachord, which began on G.  (Smells like the beginning of the tonic, subdominant and dominant classifications to me.)

“…La, la, la, la, la, la beer…”

In order to talk about a specific note, the letter name and its role in the different hexachords were referenced.  For example; on our grand staff c (an octave below middle c) would be called c ut fa, c’ (middle c) was c ut fa sol, and c” (an octave above middle c) was c fa sol.

“…Tea, no thanks, I’m having beer…”

The lowest hexachord in this system was the hard hexachord, the one that started on G.  This principal note was labeled with the Greek letter  (gamma).  Keep in mind that identifying notes by frequency (i.e. A 440) hadn’t been established yet, but identifying notes by their mathematical relationships to each other had been.  So however the available instrument was tuned was as final as it was subjective.  A director could pick any note and say it was c without contention.  Therefore, to establish gamma ut was to identify the bottom of a complete range, or gamut, of notes.


“…Which brings me back to (looks at empty glass) D’OH!”