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When the irrepressible nun-turned-nanny Maria taught the Von Trapp children to sing, she began with "Doe, a deer, a female deer, Ray, a drop of golden sun." Or so Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein portrayed it in their 1959 musical, The Sound of Music.

Do, re, mi is just one of several ways of naming notes (generically called sol-feg or solfeggio) to help singers learn a song rapidly, or even sing it at first sight. This system had its origins in a medieval monastery, where an Italian monk (rather than an Austrian nun) was teaching boys to sing. The monk's name was Guido d'Arezzo (born between 990 and 999), and he is one of the musical geniuses of the Middle Ages.

Guido was educated at the Benedictine monastery at Pomposa near Ferrara, and like church choir directors everywhere, he had to turn musically illiterate people into singers who could lead worship. At Pomposa, he gained a reputation for teaching chants to the singers in record time. He and his friend, Brother Michael, compiled a book of musical responses (or antiphons) for monastic worship using a new system of notation.

Guido's innovations included a system of naming the notes, based on an easy to remember melody. Guido set an existing hymn addressed to John the Baptist to a new tune. That melody was arranged like Richard Rodgers's "Doe, a deer, a female deer." The first note was the lowest note of the scale, and each subsequent phrase began one note higher than the previous phrase. Then Guido used the first syllable of each phrase to name that note of the scale. The hymn's first phrase was Ut queant laxis. So Guido named the first note ut. The second phrase was resonare fibris. So he named the second note re. The hymn had six phrases, and so his charges learned ...

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