“Do Re Mi” – A History

Last week, we spoke about the origins of singing itself. While exploring how archaeology is uncovering the history of song, we also stumbled across the wonderful history of “Do Re Mi” or Solfège, a method of teaching music that many of us will remember.

While the sounds, Do Re Mi So La Fa Ti might seem like nonsense, they actually form a mnemonic device that has revolutionised the way we think about music.

The scale’s origins date back to 11th Century Italy and Guido of Arezzo, a music theorist, who modelled the scale on the “Hymn to St. John the Baptist”. Guido took the opening syllable of each line to create a scale that wouldn’t be entirely unfamiliar to music students of the modern era: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. By pinning the conventional notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) to a fixed sound, Guido hoped to create a fixed value to the sound, and thus, a unified form of musical notation.

This remained until the 1600s when Giovanni Battista Doni suggested changing “ut” to “do” (from the first two letters of his surname) and adding “si” (the initials of the hymn’s next line). It is speculated that this change took root as “ut” was not an ideal sound four vocalisation, and we have to admit, it’s hard to think of Julie Andrews using it.

Sarah Ann Glover, an English music teacher, developed the method further. Adapting the previous system for English audiences, Sarah replaced “si” with “ti” so that each sound began with a different letter. She would go on to publish her work “The Norwich Sol-fa Ladder” in two volumes “The Manual of the Norwich Sol-fa System” (1845) and “Tetrachordal System” (1850). However, it was John Curwen, a minister who popularised the system after being commissioned in 1841 to find a way to teach singing in Sunday schools. Curwen believed that music should be accessible to everyone, so he set out to research teaching methods. He would learn sight-reading from Glover’s system and, after studying the work of Pierre Galin, Aimé Paris and Emile Chevé, he settled upon a new, easy method of teaching the system, now known as the Tonic Sol-fa.

Curwen pushed the system hard, publishing Grammar of Vocal Music in 1843 and founding the Tonic Sol-Fa Association in 1853. The Standard Course of Lessons on the Tonic Sol-fa Method of Teaching to Sing followed in 1858. In 1879, Curwen started the Tonic Sol-Fa College and began publishing a magazine, the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter and Magazine of Vocal Music for the People.

While the loftier aims of replacing music notation never came true, Glover and Norwich’s method is instantly recognisable today and has secured a legacy as a simple-to-learn method of understanding music.