Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Down-low on Do-Re-Mi

Some bits and bods you might not know about Do-Re-Mi.

The words solfege, solmization, and the Italian solfeggio aren't as racy, alas, as they sound. They refer to the practice of assigning syllables to the diatonic scale in music and sightsinging. In other words: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do.

In place of Do-Re-Mi, Germanic countries use the names of letters of the alphabet. (Via Wikipedia)

Sharps and Flats have their own, lesser-known soulfege syllables, too. The syllables are based on the note that is augmented (raised) or diminished (lowered), and thus the same "piano key" can have two different names. (Via Wikipedia)
Ascending Chromatic Scale (by sharps)
Do Di Re Ri Mi Fa Fi Sol Si La Li Ti Do

Descending Chromatic Scale (by flats)
Do Ti Te La Le Sol Se Fa Mi Me Re Ra Do.

Natural Minor Scale
Do Re Mé Fa Sol Le Te Do

Finally, the syllables were not chosen, as you may have assumed, by Julie Andrews:

The great medieval music theorist Guido d'Arezzo (990-1050) designated the initial syllables of the first six lines of a hymn to St. John the Baptist as the names for the six notes of the hexachord:
"Ut queant laxis
Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
Famuli tuorum
Solve polluti
Labii reatum,
Sancte Johannes.

Translation: "That with easy voices thy servants may be able to sing the wonders of thy deeds, remove the sin from their polluted lips, O holy John."
The first tone of each phrase of the melody moves in ascending order of tone, tone, tone, semitone, tone to designate the progression of each hexachord and could be represented by a particular progression on the digits of the hand. The system was capable of accomodating all eight of the church modes, and, if the range of a melody was extensive, two or three hexachords might be required, interlocked by a process called mutation. As a memory aid these tones and hexachords were pictures on diagrammatic hands (manus musicalis) seen in many medieval and Renaissance music treatises.

(The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen, by Barbara Lachman, page 97, footnote 126.)

Note that originally, Ut and Do were both used; Ut was later dropped in favor of Do. I don't know how Do snuck in there, though, or where and when Ti came along. I hope a Reader might be able to shed some light on these syllables mysterious infiltration of the solfege.

I was shocked to realize that all these years while I was singing along with Julie Andrews, I was actually invoking the hygenic properties of John the Baptist.


"Re" as in "Lemon"

Reading about Do-Re-Mi's origins with Guido d'Arezzo reminded me of the Japanese alphabet--because Japan has not one, but two official "alphabetical orders," one of which, like Abruzzo's solfege, is based on a poem.

The Japanese phonetic writing system is not actually based on an alphabet, but rather a syllabary, where each written character desribes a syllable: either a stand-alone vowel sound, or a consonant+vowel (the exception being the standalone consonant "n", which only follows other syllables.) There are two phonetic writing styles, called hiragana and katakana, which correspond very roughly to printing and cursive script in the Roman alphabet. (A fairly misleading analogy, but I'll leave a more detailed explanation of kana for another day. If you are dying to know right now, ask in the comments, and I'll be happy to explain.) The kana, or syllabic systems, are distinct from the use of kanji, the Chinese ideographs. The Roman alphabet, to round out our lexicon of writing systems, is known in Japanese as romaji, or literally "Roman characters."

The poem which gives Japan its alphabetic, or more properly syllabic, order is known as the Iroha, after its first three syllables. The poem is a pangram--it makes use of all of the kana, and uses each one only once.
Iro wa nioedo
Chirinuru o
Wa ga yo tare zo
Tsune naran
Ui no okuyama
Kyō koete
Asaki yume miji
Ei mo sezu.


Translation: As flowers are brilliant but [inevitably] fall, / who could remain constant in our world? [No one could] / Today let us transcend the high mountain of transience, / and there will be no more shallow dreaming, no more drunkenness.
Astute readers will have noticed the discrepancy between Iroha and "Iro wa." Since the composition of the Iroha in the Heian era (AD 794–1179), the pronounciation of some of the kana has changed. (Two of these ha/wa and o/wo, are used to denote grammatical particles, making them some of the most frequently-written kana, and a great bugbear for beginner students of Japanese.)

The Iroha may have been based on the Nirvana Sutra, and expresses typical Japanese Buddhist ideas about the fleetingness of worldly things.

The Iroha order is traditionally used for labelling rows of seats in theatres or auditoriums. I admit that I never got around to memorizing the poem, and had to depend on ushers when I lived in Japan to help me find seat Go-14 or Ra-22.

Dictionaries are sometimes ordered by Iroha, sometimes by the more modern Gojuon or "fifty sound" ordering system (which doesn't contain fifty sounds), and sometimes by the Roman alphabetical order (most notably bilingual dictionaries). Kanji, or Chinese characters, on the other hand, have their own specific ordering system based on radicals, their pictographic roots.

The Iroha was also the basis of the earliest Japanese Cryptography system, as well as across the top of Go game diagrams, called kifu. Just like the "A B C's," the term "Iroha" is also used in Japanese to refer to the alphabet, and to the basics of a topic.

Finally, the first syllables of the Iroha are used in Japan for...solfege. Thus A through G corresponds to I Ro Ha Ni Ho He To, and Do Re Me transposes to correspond to Ha Ni Ho He To I Ro Ha.

The song Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music is perenially popular in Japan, and likely to appear at your local karaoke. It is also one of the first songs I learned in Japanese (along with Haru Ga Kita and Ue O Muite). If you think about the English lyrics ("Do, a dear, a female dear), and their reliance on homophones (Do and doe), they are impossible to translate and leave any sense intact. The Japanese lyrics you'll find to be quite different. The Japanese lyrics don't use the Iroha, but retain the Japanese pronounciation of the syllables Do-Re-Mi:
Do wa donatsu no do
Re wa remon no re
Mi wa minna no mi
Fa wa faito no fa
So wa aoi sora
Ra was rappa no ra
Shi wa shiawese yo
Saa utaimashou

Translation:
Do as in donuts
Re as in lemon
Mi as in everybody
Fa as in fight
So as in blue sky
Ra as in trumpet
Shi as in happiness
So, Let's all sing together.
As you can see, translating the Japanese lyrics back to English poses an equally insurmountable challenge. But, if you think about it, the lyrics are actually pretty nonsensical in both versions--or at least non-linear. Which is just fine with an absurdist like me.

And since I wrote this, my husband likes to amuse himself by randomly interjecting into our conversations, "You mean like "re" as in "lemon."


Gratuitous Personal Anecdote
In which the Reader gets to have a good laugh at my expense

When I was a student at Hudson Road Elementary in School District 23 in Kelowna, BC, the high schools concert bands used to come down to their feeder elementary schools and perform for us as part of our concert/school assembly program. The practice provided a great opportunity for the schools to interact, for the older students to perform in public (in an ethusiastic if unruly environment), and for the younger students to be exposed to instrumental music without hurting the school's budget. All in all, a good deal.

I remember, very clearly, sitting on the floor of the Hudson Road gymnasium listening to the Mr. Boucherie Senior Secondary band in complete and utter awe when I was in first or second grade. Most of all, I remember watching the conductor waving his hand, and the musicians responding on all of their different instruments playing all sorts of different things.

My reaction was one of utter terror. I assumed, with my innate ability to complicate relatively simple things, that the conductor was using a system based on the manus musicalis of Hildegard of Bingen's day; that every quiver of his baton or gesture of his hand indicated a specific note to a specific player. I was dead certain that all of those floutists and saxophonists and their brethren had memorized hundreds or thousands or maybe millions of visual signals before they could play in the band. My ultimate conclusion, inevitably, was that playing band instruments was infinitely complex, required a superior intellect, and should I ever venture to pick up an ensemble instrument I would be kicked out of school as a disgrace.

Later, in grade 7, I mustered my courage to sign up to play French Horn in band class, where I was disabused of my misconceptions about modern day manus musicalus. All of those trangle and clarinet and baritone players had crib sheets sitting right in front of them the whole time! They didn't have to memorize the music, and they didn't have to watch for twitches and jerks from the conductor: all they did was read their sheet music. I was greatly relieved, and continued to play in bands and orchestras for many years after that.

Of course, when we were teeny tiny, my brother and I used to "write music" for my mother, consisting of circles (using the term "circle" generously) and dots, with tails and antennae, randomly strewn across the page within the limits of our fine motor control. Our mother would then delight us by "playing back" our compositions on the harmonica or banjo. As infinitely gullible children, we didn't realize that our mother was playing any old thing--and we thought of ourselves as quite the virtuosos. It was a really wonderful game--and part of a magical childhood. I don't remember who started it; probably my brother, who is incredibly creative, and grew up to be both a gifted musician and a talented graphic designer.

Somehow, as a child, I didn't connect the existence of musical notation with my terror of conductors. I held both concepts side by side in my head with no apparent conflict. All I can say in my own defence is I had a stunning ability as a child, which has waned but hardly vanished in my adulthood, to imagine the absolutely most daunting and difficult scenario for tasks that other people find simple and easy. I did the same thing approaching geometry in high school. At the same time, I lauched myself without a second thought into projects that other, saner people thought were insurmountable, such as choosing to learn the French Horn.

The adventure comes full circle when, in my 20's, I eventually did come across a description of the manus musicalus--probably reading then about Hildegard of Bingen, too, come to think of it; and I discovered that while my childhood terror of conductors was out of proportion, the actual root concept, of showing performers what to play or sing with a gesture of the hands, hadn't been so far fetched after all.
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