Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ut — a Boot, a Hobnailed Boot

In reading about various bits of music history in order to write the previous post, I stumbled onto something that I couldn’t fit but felt I should make note of anyway. The hexachord is was invented by the 11th-century music theorist Guido of Arezzo, who is honored in the alternate name for the concept, the Guidonian hexachord.

First of all, the fact that the adjective Guidonian exists is awesome. It should be used more often, possibly in the following manner: “I like your gold medallion. It’s quite Guidonian.” Or “If I slick my hair back, do I look Guidonian enough?”

Second, good ol’ Guido is also credited as having invented another concept known variously as the solfège, the solfeggio, or the solfa. It’s more commonly known by its components: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti. All three terms for this are derived from two of the syllables, so — which previously was sol — and fa. There’s also a term solmization, which refers to the practice of giving each note in a musical scale a corresponding syllable and which itself comes from to syllables in the solfège, so and mi. The Wikipedia page on solmization notes that various cultures have their own string of nonsense syllables. Various Vedic texts refer to the seven notes sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni, while Byzantine music based its syllables off the first seven letters of the Greek alphabet to form pa- vu-ga-di-ke-zo-ni. Japan has i-chi-yo-ra-ya-a-we, which comes from the poem Iroha, which also notably uses each character in the hiragana syllabary exactly once.

A good Christian, of course, Guido got his syllables from the initial syllables of every half-line in the first stanza of a hymn to St. John the Baptist, “Ut queant laxis.” That stanza reads as follows:
Ut queant laxis
resonare fibris,
Mira gestorum
famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti
labii reatum,
Sancte Ioannes.
But clearly, do-re-mi has been modified a bit from the original hymn. Ut gave way to do, presumably because the latter allows for a more open sound and possibly inspired by Dominus, meaning “Lord.” As I mentioned above, sol gave way to so, I’d guess for the same reason. And the final line, originally si, became ti, possibly to give each syllable a different initial letter. The text, by the way, translates to English as “So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.”

So now the question you should rightly be asking is this: Can Drew relate this to video games?

Of course I can.

My first use for the solfège happened to be in a video game. In 1990, during the days of the original NES, Nintendo released a game called StarTropics, noted for its Legend of Zelda-style gameplay and unique in that it was never released in Japan. Players must solve various puzzles in order to progress, and one of them involves a parrot that offers the rather cryptic instructions, “Do me so far, do me?”

image courtesy of

Rather profane, no? Especially when spoken in combination with the command “Hide Peter hide.”

As clever video game players discovered — and dumb ones found out by calling the Nintendo help line — the parrot is giving the order that the keys of an organ must be played in order to extinguish some flames blocking access to the next area of the game.

While the legacy of Guido of Arezzo lives on, it bears mentioning that Nintendo never made another StarTropics game beyond the lifespan of the NES, likely as a result of that inappropriately sexual parrot.

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