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Our Catholic Heritage: The Monk Who Taught the World to Sing

By Bill Dodds
Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do … sound familiar? It’s been around a long time.

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Some things are so obvious—so much a part of life—that it never occurs to us that they had a beginning. “Written” music—notes, scales, clefs, and the like—is one such “commonplace.” In fact, a Catholic monk began the whole system of music writing still in place today—at the turn of the last millennium. Guido d’Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine, is also credited with (most of) the famous syllables that Julie Andrews crooned so many centuries later. Learn his interesting story—and the fact that music created “stars,” even a thousand years ago.

When. You. Know. The. Notes. To. Sing. You. Can …

Thank Guido d’Arezzo.

Never heard of him? Few folks have. But, if this Benedictine got even a teensy royalty on his music method, he’d be one rich monk.

On the other hand, money isn’t his concern, what with his vow of poverty.

That and his being dead for some nine centuries.

Guido of Arezzo, Italy, was born around 990. As a lad, he was educated at the Benedictine monastery of Pomposa, near Ferrara. As a member of the order, he loved chant and was assigned the task of teaching it to younger monks. (Historians aren’t certain if Guido was ever ordained a priest.)

He and another community member came up with their own chant book (an “antiphonary”) in which he drew lines and notes above the text to be sung. It’s a system still being used for Gregorian chant. Until Guido, there wasn’t one that helped singers—unless they already knew the song.

And there were a lot of songs back then. At the turn of the last millennium, the Church was big on music. There were chants for every feast day, every ritual, and every sacred text used in the liturgy.

St. Isidore of Seville (560-636) had summed up the problem some four centuries earlier: “Unless sounds are remembered, they perish, for they cannot be written down.”

Choir directors were expected to have it all memorized, because any markings over texts only indicated the rise or fall of the voice. There was no indication of pitch, of the interval between pitch, or of a melody line.

That was the dilemma Guido faced. So when he stumbled on a simple but effective solution, he recognized its worth.

The monk happened to notice that one particular hymn followed a progression of notes that were easy to memorize. It was from vespers (evening prayer) on the feast of St. John the Baptist and the lines, in Latin, read:

ut queant laxis

resonare fibris:

mira gestorum

famuli tuorum:

solve polluti

labii reatus:

Sancte Joannes.

Check out the first syllables: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. Sound familiar?

Yes and no. There were some modifications. “Ut,” which was difficult to sing, was replaced by “do.” And Guido stuck with a hexachord—six notes—rather than our octave of eight. “Ti” and a second “do” would come along later.

What did this do for choir directors? Any melody is a progression from tone to tone. If each tone has a name—and a familiar melody is used to memorize those tones—then teaching becomes much easier.

But Guido wasn’t through. After a lot of fiddling around, he came up with a four-line staff, with a note on each line and in each space. He put the staff over a text to show the rise and fall of the melody.

Two problems down, one to go: pitch. His solution was to use a yellow line to indicate ut and a red line for fa. Now melodies could be written down, because the exact pitch and the progression of tones could be indicated on the staff.

Soon the colored lines were replaced by a clef or key sign to indicate ut or fa. (These are still the two clefs used in Gregorian chant.) Later, the G clef came to be used for instrumental music. It still is. (With the fa clef in the bass staff.)

It was Guido’s invention that made “counter-point”—two voices singing on different notes—possible. And “polyphony”—music sung with several voices, each on a different note. And “harmony”—the creation of chords for instrumental music.

Guido’s choir at Pomposa thrived. But, any success comes with its own set of problems. He was criticized for making the monks professional singers and, by doing so, making other monasteries jealous. So he moved to Arezzo (a little south of Florence) where the local bishop was pleased to welcome him. The bishop asked the monk to pen a book on this new method. The result was “Micrologus.” It was the first of several.

Later the pope invited him to Rome.

Guido died around the age of 40, but, in the world of music, his name lives on. Today his adopted town is home to the International Polyphonic Competition called “Guido d’Arezzo.”

To check out some illustrations of Guido and a line from his work, go to:

If you’d like to follow the notes as a simple hymn to Mary is sung, visit:

Planning a trip to Italy? The Italian Tourist Web Guide has information on Arezzo at:

Copyright © 2000 Bill Dodds

Bill Dodds is a national columnist, a full-time freelance writer and the author of 20 books. His latest books are Your One-Stop Guide to How Saints Are Made (Servant Publications) and What You Don't Know About Retirement: A Funny Retirement Quiz (Meadowbrook Press). For more information about his writing, visit

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