The origin of the musical notes

The eve of St. John is celebrated with bonfires, due to the summer solstice original celebration. In the shortest night of the year a fire is lit to ‘give the sun more strength’, and by the way we can burn all the old things we donnot need and welcome the new ones.

Curiously, it was precisely the hymn that was sung on St. John’s Eve, back in the 10th century, which illuminated the monk Guido of Arezzo to name the musical notes, practically as we know them now, and placed them in a tetragram: a staff with four lines.

Canto gregoriano

The first Western art music

In the Medieval era those who were in charge of guarding and preserving the culture were the monks. It is not surprising, therefore, that they were the first to have the need to keep their songs to be sung in the same way, for ever and ever. Thus, the first Werstern art musical notation is the one used in Gregorian chants, named after Pope Gregory the Great, who collected them from 590 to 604.

In these enormous books the ‘notes’ were written and under them, the syllable to be sung, in a very big handcrafted ‘font’ to be read from a far distance. In those books the intonation of the piece was not known, only if the next note was higher or lower. In order to show this, a reference line was drawn.

And the tetragram was born

Guido of Arezzo (991/992-1050) invented the ancestor of the staff but with four lines instead of five, one of them yellow that represented C ut (later it became do) and another one red indicating F (fa). B (ti) was not included until the 16th century, because it gave rise to the tritone, which was considered in the Medieval era as ‘the interval of the devil’.

In the picture you can see the hymn of St. John with the first syllables of each verse in bold, which became the name of musical notes. In addition, since this song was easy to remember, it was a mnemonic for the name and the sound of the notes: observe that these syllables were going up on the staff as they changed verse. Subsequently, the note si was taken from ‘Sancte Ioanes’.

The invention of the tetragram was crucial for the history of music, as it made possible to transcribe the melodies more accurately without depending on the oral transmission of the chants.

Guido’s life

Guido is known by the surname of Arezzo because it was in the cathedral school of this Italian city where he was able to teach his innovative method of singing. When Pope John XIX come to know about him, Guido was invited to instruct the papal singers.

Meanwhile, his former companions of the Benedictine abbey of Pomposa, in Ferrara, who had been hostile to him, up to the point of prompting him to move to Arezzo, were green of envy. The abbot of Pomposa begged him to return, but he could not, so he solved the issue sending them a letter explaing his discoveries.

Guido d'Arezzo

The Guidonian Hand

Guido of Arezzo was also worried about teaching music with a simple method to assist singers in learning to sight-sing. Some form of ‘The Guidionian hand’ may have been used by him to show the monks how to sing up to almost three octaves in hexacordes (groups of 6 notes, remember that B did not yet exist).

This video is the best explanation I found of this method, it also gives more information about Medieval music.

C: the note

The nomenclature ut was replaced by ‘do’ by Giovanni Battista Doni in the first half of the seventeenth century. Do is also the first syllable of his family name, so according to some sources he wanted to become part of music history, although the official version says that it was chosen because ‘do’ was easier to pronounce than ‘ut’.

Musical notation in English

And what about calling notes with letter names? In fact, English musical notation is much older than the medieval one.

It is an Old Greece derivation, which named the notes strarting in the letter alfa (A) up to Gamma (G). The Roman Empire extended this nomenclature to the North of Europe, and the British colonies would be responsible for extending it to the new world.