It never occurred to me to ask why the notes in a Western scale are called do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. The idea of which, by the way, is called Solfège. Then yesterday I learned that the sounds are the opening syllables of the words to the Latin hymn honoring St John the Baptist, Ut Queant Laxis, written in the 8th century. Seriously.
Ut queant laxīs resonāre fībrīs
Mīra gestōrum famulī tuōrum,
Solve pollūtī labiī reātum,
In English, that goes, So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.
The original scale was ut-re-mi-fa-so-la-si-ut. In the 16th century Giovanni Battista Doni renamed Ut (a closed sound) to Do (an open sound). Just as well, because Ut does not scan well. We’d have to sing, “Ut, a bastard, an utter bastard; re, a drop of golden sun… .”
And in the 19th century Sarah Glover – who clearly would have made a good code monkey – renamed Si to Ti so that each syllable started with a different letter, and also wrote a book that popularized the whole word/tone thing as a way of training your everyday Christian congregation to not sound so goddamn terrible.
Interestingly , it has been proposed that the concept of the system was one of the many Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe, through the Durar Mufaṣṣalāt scale of dāl, rā’, mīm, fā’, ṣād, lām, tā’, which is known as the ‘Separated Pearls’. Isn’t that lovely?
And maybe now you too know something you didn’t know yesterday.