My understanding of syllables used in solmization is when Guido d'Arezzo created syllables ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, it was a mean to refer to intervals in any hexachord built on :2:2:1:2:2: intervals found in the natural hexachord.

From The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory:

The six notes of any hexachord, regardless of its location, are sung to the syllables ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, which act as vocables for solmization, or as the medievals called them, voces (singular: vox), and also embody the intervallic relationships of each note to the others.

Syllables weren't a mean to identify the pitch, but to help remember intervals and sing them. It wasn't a reference to notes C D E F G A, re could represent the interval C-D as well as F-G or G/Γ-A.

The system was spread in several countries, including mine, where today C major scale is just spelled do ré mi fa sol la si in place of C D E F G A B elsewhere. Today old ut, now do, definitely means C in these countries.

Assuming I am correct, how did we move from Guido d'Arezzo concept of using syllables to refer to intervals to the concept of using syllables to refer to notes?

  • With movable do solfege, do(/ut) is any pitch, and mi is two tones higher.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 29, 2022 at 0:06
  • Intervals are useful when singing, but actual note names are more useful for instruments. Jul 29, 2022 at 0:13
  • 1
    Since the "natural" hexachord corresponds to the familiar solfege assignments, I wonder if the "notewise" solfege either arose fram that being the most commonly occurring arrangement or from that perhaps being the principal hexachord during the transition into major/minor tonality.
    – Aaron
    Jul 29, 2022 at 3:31
  • 1
    @Tim that was my reaction at first, too, but then keep in mind that the point of Guido's theoretical innovations was to make it easier to learn where the half steps are: between mi and fa. All other steps are whole steps. This purpose is shared by modern movable do solfège. And in Guido's system, notes were not named by syllables but by letters and syllables both, for example A la mi re or C fa ut.
    – phoog
    Jul 29, 2022 at 9:52
  • 2
    @Tim ti a.k.a. si was invented roughly 500 years after Guido. Before Guido, none of the syllables existed. So Guido invented a system with six syllables, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la, that are all separated by a whole step except for mi-fa.
    – phoog
    Jul 29, 2022 at 12:15

1 Answer 1


I did some research. This summary of the facts I found can be re-used in an improved answer from someone more knowledgeable who can better contextualize them and perhaps fix omissions or errors.

Guido's used note letters for music theory

Guido invented today's syllables (except si) to teach intervals to singers but always used letters and signs for music theory, like ancient Greeks. The key factor in switching from letters to syllables to refer to pitch classes is the adoption of the fixed ut, which likely first occurred among French musicians.

Fixed ut/do early popularity among French musicians

French started looking for alternatives to the moving hexachords on 17th century. The hexachord was turned into an heptachord by adding si, the idea of extending hexachords to a full octave was proposed earlier by Bartolomé Ramos de Pareja (1482).

Jean Rousseau described major/minor modes as well as the link between heptachord syllables and major/minor modes. Syllables are definitely linked to notes:


The first column contains usual notes letters. The third column contains syllables associated with letters in the natural mode (no flats -- b quarre is ♮, and ſi/ſol are actually si/sol).

The growing complexity of hexachord mutation in the new music landscape was favorable to a fixed ut. Another Rousseau, philosopher and musician Jean-Jacques, developed a detailed argument against fixed "ut", namely the loss of functional properties but, end of 18th, the newly created French music academy taught music theory using syllables and the fixed ut method.

From six syllables to fixed do

From Guido's hexachord (1032) until c. 1800, music evolved a lot, from voice to instrumental, from modal to tonal. During this period modulation and transposition gained popularity:

  • Hexachord mutation, i.e. switching from an hexachord to another one to accommodate the ambitus, became increasingly complex with transposition and altered notes.
  • Using keyboards introduced the tuning problems. Perfect hexachords weren't practical with temperaments.
  • Modal theory inherited from old modes also progressively lost momentum, while tonal theory became attractive. This pushed forward the octave interval, and the need for a degree after la to create the tritone.

Guido's system continued to be a reference until 1800, but there was a large number of proposals for improvement, creating confusion.

The fixed ut method with 6 syllables seems to have been enjoyed in France starting c. 1600. In 1798, the Conservatoire de musique simplified it, retaining 7 syllables and no semitone variants. It was used to teach music, theory and singing.

It inspired music teachers abroad, at least for solmization purposes. Other countries chose to keep using a moving scale, more suitable to learn intervals, but with an additional syllable for B, and often variants for semitones.

Proposals to improve the hexachord system

  • Use 8 syllables psal li tur per vo ces is tas: Bartolomé Ramos de Pareja in Musica Practica (1482).
  • Change mutation from re to ut: Loys Bourgeois (1550).
  • Drop one of the three hexachords and use additional mutations: Adrian Petit Coclico (1552), Gioseffo Zarlino (1573), Thomas Morley (1597), Marin Mersenne (1636).
  • Drop ut and re: Thomas Morley (1597). This gave the fasola system where la-fa are used for the semitone.
  • Add syllables for B and B♭: Adriano Banchieri (1614). With these two additional syllables, syllables corresponded to pitch classes and mutation was not required.
  • Use se for B: Joachim Burmeister (1599)
  • French start to use fixed ut syllables where ut is C (c. 1600)
  • Rename ut into do: Giovanni Battista Doni (1640)
  • Use 8 syllables do re mi fa sol la ni do with variants for semitones: Otto Gigelius (1659)
  • Use a double scale based on two hexachords, with an additional si: Guillaume Gabriel Nivers (1666).
  • Integrate heptachordal solmization with major-minor system: Jean Rousseau in Méthode claire et facile pour apprendre à chanter (1683). This document first describes the two modes which can replace the old modes, and also proposes to map the seven syllables on the modes.
  • Stop using fixed ut, stay focused on intervals: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Dissertation sur la musique moderne (1743).

French Conservatoire of Music: Fixed do

In the aftermath of French Revolution, the Convention creates the Conservatoire de musique, a national body to teach music (1795). Continuing on the same trend of using a fixed ut and with si added c. 1650, the school imposes a single scale with fixed do. It's against Jean-Jacques Rousseau's earlier advice but the situation has changed, modulation is developping making moving do inspired by Guido hexachords too difficult to use.

The simplification encompasses dropping the double scale used earlier and the syllables specific to semitones. As sometimes read, it drop voces (degree functions) and only expresses claves (pitches) within an octave.

Sources (some only in Fr):

  • L’Enseignement de la Lecture à Vue Depuis les Temps Médiévaux jusqu’au XXe Siècle (online)

  • Do Fixe Ou Do Mobile?: Un Débat Historique (online)

  • Syllable Systems. Kodaly’s Choices (online)

  • The French Path: Early Major-Minor Theory (online)

  • Wikipedia's article on solmization.

  • Given the constant implication in this website that movable do solfege is just as worthy as fixed do solfege, your claim that "However most movable do methods seem to be effective only for simple solmization and beginners, most advanced uses require using letters to refer to pitches" seems to give movable do solfege short shrift.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 31, 2022 at 17:24
  • @Dekkadeci: This is the position of Wikipedia ("La méthode du do mobile devient quasiment impraticable pour chanter des musiques atonales lorsque la tonalité n'est pas forcément affirmée"), but I'll edit my post to not start a useless Apple vs PC war.
    – mins
    Jul 31, 2022 at 20:15
  • The position of Wikipedia is, for the benefit of those who do not read French, "Movable do becomes virtually impractical for singing atonal music when the tonality isn't firmly established." This statement, even if it were true, does not support the statement to which @Dekkadeci takes exception. The vast majority of music is neither simple nor atonal, so it can be solmized using movable do.
    – phoog
    Jan 31, 2023 at 0:19

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