How did music notes get their names?

Canto Gregoriano

Hey. I’d like to introduce you to Boethius and Guido. Both of them died centuries ago but it’s important that you know who they are so you can be thankful for what they did.


The seven-note diatonic musical scale is ancient. It was most likely originally played in descending order. If you’ve ever played a musical instrument or took any kind of music lessons, even in school, you’ve heard notes being called C-D-E-F-G-A-B or Do-Re-Mi-La-Sol-La-Si, depending on where you live. Have you ever wondered when and how these notes got their names? What’s their meaning and do they always mean the same thing? Even if you’ve never asked yourself these questions, we’re here to answer them. In any case, it’s a curious story.

Boethius and C-D-E… 

For centuries, the letters of the Latin alphabet were used in different music notation systems. According to historian Willi Apel, the first person known to describe this letter-name system was the 6th-century philosopher Boethius. He used the letters of Romans to signify the notes of the two-octave range people were using at the time. It looked like this:




Three things become obvious:

  1. No J

You might have noticed that the letter J is missing. There’s a simple reason for this – it didn’t exist yet. The letter J appeared in the alphabet around the 16th century.

  1. The order

Back then the notes started with A, of course. This was the logical thing to do, as Boethius was not thinking in terms of major and minor scales we have today, but was trying to describe each pitch in his entire range of possible notes. So A, the first letter of the alphabet, was, quite intuitively, just a name he used to label the lowest tone in this range. Though eventually the Boethian “A” coincided with our modern “A”, and that is where the philosopher put it first, it didn’t always necessarily signify the note we call A nowadays. In some versions of his system Boethius used the letter A to refer to the note we now call C. (and so did Notcerus Balbulus at some point), which might be proof that our modern major scale was already being developed – starting on C makes the major scale and there were no “black keys”.

  1. Too many letters

In modern practice, we use the same letters for identical pitch classes within different octaves. This obviously wasn’t the case when Boethius walked the earth. An octave higher than A was not an A – it was an O, for example. Or an H, depending on which system you look at.

Later on, the range of possible tones was enlarged to three octaves, which led to the use of repeating letters, from A to G. When they signified a note from the second octave they were written in lower-case (a-b-c…) and double lower-case was used for the third octave (aa-bb-cc…). Then the range was extended once again, this time, down by one note. The note was named with the Greek letter G (Г), gamma – this is where the French word for scale “gamme” came from. The English “gamut” derives from “Gamma-Ut”, the lowest note in Western Medieval tradition, but we’ll get to that.


Gradually, the five remaining notes of the chromatic scale were added, which lead to adding the black keys to piano keyboards. Because of the dissonance in the tritone interval the first note to be lowered was B, so the first tone added to the scale was B♭ (B-flat). This change was not always obvious in notation but B♭ was usually written as a Latin “b” which had a very round form, as opposed to the Gothic “b” which had harder edges and was used for B♮ (B-natural). This difference in writing led to the separation of the two modern symbols for “flat” (♭) and “natural” (♮).


The Gothic “b” turned into an H in some parts of Europe. This either came from “hart”, the German word for hard, or simply due to the visual resemblance between the Gothic “b” and the letter “h”. So if you’re from Germany, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia or Sweden, there’s a big chance you’ve seen the H or even used it.


Confusingly, instead of B♮ (B-natural) in German notation H would be used. And instead of B♭ (B-flat) you would see B. Sometimes, mainly in music for international use, followers of the German tradition put H in place of the B♮ and Bb (with a modern “b” instead of the original symbol) in place of the B♭. While in this case the use of B-double-flat (B♭ or Bes in Northern Europe) may be confusing, it is so rare that people generally understand the notation.

Guido and Do-Re-Mi…

In other countries instead of the letters C-D-E-F-G-A-B (or H) notes are represented by the syllables Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si. You probably use these if you’re used to Arabic, Bulgarian, Flemish, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Mongolian, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Turkish or Ukrainian notation. The person responsible for this is Guido d’Arezzo.


The practice of assigning syllables to different notes is called solmization, from the Medieval Latin word “solmisatio” (formed from the names of the notes Sol and Mi). The oldest record we have of this is from ancient India but it wasn’t until a few thousand years later that Isidore, the Archbishop of Seville, said: “Unless sounds are remembered, they perish, for they cannot be written down.” An eleventh-century Italian monk of the Benedictine order by the name of Guido took it upon himself to think of a way to preserve the numerous sacred tunes by making the elements they consisted of easier to remember.


Guido spent his early years in a monastery in Pomposa. His creativity earned him fame and respect in northern Italy but brought him the envy of monks from his own monastery. Perhaps this jealousy was the reason he eventually moved to Arezzo. There he wrote a training book for the singers at the local cathedral. Guido’s practical ideas and innovative thinking caught the pope’s attention and he was soon invited to Rome to teach his methods to the clergy.


Brother Guido noted that most Gregorian chants popular at the time could become easy to learn through the already existing practice of solmization. Singers would not have such a hard time remembering music if they can associate the written notes on the (then six-note) scale with the appropriate sounds. Since the modern scale already existed he started from C and assigned a syllable to each note. Later Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si became the basis of the solfège system, the term deriving from the names of the two notes Sol and Fa.


Actually, the names Guido originally came up with were Ut–Re–Mi–Fa–Sol–La and he took them from the initial syllables of each of the first six half-lines of the first stanza of the Gregorian hymn Ut queant laxis. The piece’s text was most probably written by Italian monk and scholar Paulus Diaconus (8th century) and its musical line (possibly written by Guido) was either inspired by the earlier setting of Horace’s “Ode to Phyllis” or directly taken from it.


The words of the first stanza go as follows:


Ut queant laxīs    resonāre fībrīs
ra gestõrum    famulī tuõrum,
Solve pollūtī    labiī reātum,
Sancte Iõhannēs.


It may 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.

Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale:

Works every time!

The initial syllables and the meter are beautifully preserved in this paraphrase by Cecile Gertken:


Do let our voices

resonate most purely,

miracles telling,

far greater than many;

so let our tongues be

lavish in your praises,

Saint John the Baptist.


“Ut” was replaced by “Do” in the 1600s because the latter had a more open sound and thus was easier to sing. There are some places, however, where people still use “Ut”. “Do” most likely came from “Dominus”, meaning Lord in Latin.


“Si”, the syllable for the seventh degree, wasn’t added until the 18th century.  It was changed to “Ti” in Anglophone countries by Sarah Glover so that each syllable would begin with a different letter.


In Elizabethan England, a simplified version of this system was adopted where only the syllables Fa, Sol, La and Mi were used. This resulted in the scale being “Fa, Sol, La, Fa, Sol, La, Mi, Fa”. Thankfully, this system was eliminated in the 19th century.


By the way, Guido d’Arezzo practically invented the staff (or stave) – the five lines you’ve seen notes written on. Before his time, musicians wrote the notes between the lines of text. Whether a melody went up or down was indicated by their position. But, due to the lack of staves, this method was too inaccurate. It was very difficult to tell how far up or far down a note was situated. So Guido drew the lines (no pun intended) and began writing the notes on them or between them.

Do doesn’t always mean Do

There are, in fact, two versions of sol-fa used today – Fixed Do and Movable Do. In Fixed Do, Do is always equivalent to C, Re to D and so on.  In Movable Do, the “value” of Do is the pitch you start on. You then continue, preserving the respective intervals but naming the subsequent notes with the syllables that follow in their standard order. It’s basically singing the same thing in different keys. For example, if you’re singing the major scale in C major your scale would be C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C but if you’re in D major your Do,Re,Mi,Fa,Sol,La,Si,Do would be D,E,F♯,G,A,B,C♯,D. They’re both used in different parts of the world.

Alternative theories

It has sometimes been suggested that the solfège syllables were really derived from dāl, rā’, mīm, fā’, ṣād, lām, tā’ – the syllables of the Arabic solmization system درر مفصّلات Durar Mufaṣṣalāt (meaning “Separated Pearls”) during the Islamic influences in Medieval Europe. A few people throughout history have supported this claim but none of them have ever presented any documentary evidence for it. In Indian classical music, the corresponding syllables are sa, re (ri), ga, ma, pa, dha, ni. This technique was used to set Hindu holy texts (the Sanhita portion of the Samaveda) dating back to 1300-1000 BCE to music. This is the earliest use of solfège that we know of.

ANYWAY, this was mostly the story of Boethius and Guido – two men we should all be thankful to for making music what it is today. For more interesting info on the nature and history of music, go to Drooble – we’ll meet you there! :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *