The sound of music…. notes.

Something that surprises many Spanish-speaking people when in contact with anglophones is that the names of the music notes are different. This is because there are two systems of naming the notes. In several countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Greece, or Russia, among others, the music notes are called Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Si. However, in England, Germany, Finland, Poland, Norway, Hungary and other countries the notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. I do not really know a lot about music, but I thought that this may be interesting to know to avoid misunderstandings, so I will comment a bit on the linguistic aspects of this, without deepening the musical issues.

clave de sol

The Do-Re-Mi system comes from Latin. This seems obvious when we notice that the system is used mainly in countries whose languages come from Latin. The origin is the hymn “Ut queant laxis”, dedicated to John the Baptist and written by Paul the Deacon in the VIII century. Guido D’Arezzo was who took the first syllable from each verse and formed the actual scale in the XI century. This is the Latin text:

Ut queant laxis

Resonare fibris

Mira gestorum

Famuli tuorum

Solve polluti

Labii reatum

Sancte Ioannes

It could be translated 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. “Ut” was changed as “Do” in most countries, but in France the original form is still used. In some areas “Si” is changed by “Ti”.

As for the Anglo-Saxon system, it also comes from Latin, but from the alphabet. It is said that the philosopher Boethius took the first letters of the Latin alphabet to from the scale: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-K-L-M-N-O, but over the centuries it was changed to the present day “C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C”. In Germany “B” is sometimes changed by “H”.

On a curious note, in Chinese they use the Anglo-Saxon system, whereas in Japanese they use the Do-Re-Mi system, but adapted to their writing system. Here is the Chinese scale:

C谱号, D 谱号, E 谱号, F 谱号, G 谱号, A 谱号, B 谱号, C谱号.

And this is the Japanese scale:

ド 全音, レ 全音, ミ 半音, ファ 全音, ソ 全音, ラ 全音, シ 半音.

It is surprising to know how many people do not know that in other countries the music scale is different, so I hope that this entry will be helpful and that someone will learn something new.

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2 thoughts on “The sound of music…. notes.

  1. There is a lot of history and speculation about B->H in German musical nomenclature, from a typographical error to a leftover from the ancient Greek system (I guess Goethe himself could have been a serious defender of this theory). There is also the fact that, if you’re using that nomenclature, you need to interpret any B that you might encounter as B♭, causing some confusion all over the place. This comprises not only Germany, as there are a lot of countries that still use it for its classical studies, such as Norway, Finland or the countries that spawned from the USSR.

    All in all, more power to Bach, who used the notation to represent his family name as a musical motif (B♭-A-C-B; or B-A-C-H).

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