Thursday, May 17, 2018

Musicology and the Arab Origins of Solfege (Guest post by Michael Vincent)

From Linda: Hello, everyone! I want to alert you to the fact that this essay is a guest post by Michael Vincent. Not only is it informative and thoroughly researched, it fits with the overall mission of this blog. I am grateful that he shared this with me, and I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

When in doubt, ask a musicologist. As Linda has noted elsewhere, musicologists are great for contextualizing music and history with larger ideas. But our discipline has blind spots. We train in European-style universities, where we sometimes continue to work. We tend to be Eurocentric, incorporating other perspectives but safely cordoning them off as secondary areas of interest. Owing to this blog’s mission, Linda hasn't shied away from the issue.

When I read this post from WQXR Blog on the origins of solfege, I was happy to see that the author consulted musicologist Andrew Dell’Antonio, who has contributed to Not Another Music History Cliché. Everything that James Bennett II (the WQXR author) writes conforms with what is commonly understood in our discipline—an improvement over an earlier essay that caught the attention of this blog. Bennett acknowledges complexities, since solfege is “found in musical cultures all over the world.” He specifies the subject of the post as “the form [of solfege] most associated with western European music.” He has done his due diligence in researching and presenting the information accurately. So what’s the issue?

It’s where Bennett writes “Guido d’Arezzo (ca. 991–after 1033), the monk to whom we attribute the beginnings of staff notation as we understand it today, also gets credit for solfège.” Bennett smartly hedges the language, noting that Guido “gets credit.” Yes, he does! While this level of information is appropriate for the reader of the WQXR blog, here we can get into why Guido gets credit: because of the Eurocentric perspective adopted by musicologists.

There is a theory of Arab origins for solmization, the system that employs solfege. The theory of Arab origins appears as a footnote—if at all—in musicological sources. I want to present this theory but I don’t aim to prove it. Acknowledging its existence when discussing the origins of solfege takes a step toward intellectual honesty. We don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay! The theory parallels something we already know: Europe’s culture draws important aspects from non-European sources (gasp!).

Simpsons clip of man dropping and breaking monocle in astonishment.

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, musicologist Bonnie Gordon noted the importance of acknowledging dissonances in our academic fields. White nationalists want to stress the ethnocentrism of European culture. Academics need to be rigorous when our work intersects with these issues, decolonizing our disciplines when they lean toward structures of European supremacy.

Since I’m talking about how we write history, let’s start with a French composer and writer named Jean-Benjamin de La Borde (1734–94). In 1780, La Borde published his Essay on Ancient and Modern Music, a 4-volume compendium of music’s history, social aspects, and style. Like other eighteenth-century writers (see Charles Burney), La Borde was interested in the origins of music. Unlike others, he treated non-European music in depth, and even suggested that some aspects of European music had alien parallels, if not origins. He writes, “We will undoubtedly be amazed to find the similarity between the Arab gamut and the Italian one. The similarity is so striking that you need to see it to believe it” (La Borde, 181–182). La Borde included a table of comparison for his skeptical reader, drawing attention to the similarities between the syllables:

La Borde’s table of comparison
La Borde’s table of comparison, which you need to see to believe.

The gamut, referring to a range of notes, is an aspect of solmization attributed to Guido d’Arezzo. On the right of La Borde’s table, the European reader sees familiar solfege syllables from the gamut (do [or ut]-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti [or si]). The question arises: Should Guido get credit for this system? Or did he get it from somewhere else, simply being the first European to preserve it in writing?

As Bennett correctly explains, these solfege syllables are a mnemonic device from the medieval chant “Ut queant laxis.” Each solfege sound corresponds to Latin syllables from sequential phrases in the chant. But what is this chant’s origin? Traditionally, we attribute these kinds of chants to anonymous monks who notated them for liturgical use in the Catholic Church.

Henry George Farmer, writing in 1930, throws the origins of this chant into question. He writes, “the somewhat bombastic style of the language of the hymn, ‘Ut queant laxis,’ coupled with the glaring vocal arrangement of the syllables, suggests that the hymn was based on the syllables” (Farmer, 76, emphasis in original). The theory here is that the chant itself—music and words—was composed as a reference to Arabic solmization. Guido then developed his remarkable system from that chant, preserving the Arab origins. Claude Palisca and Dolores Pesce write that “It is probable that Guido invented the [Ut queant laxis] melody as a mnemonic device or reworked an existing melody now lost” (Grove Music Online, s.v. “Guido of Arezzo”). If that’s true, it might suggest that Guido was familiar with Arab music theory.

Some scholars have reinforced the possibility that Guido had explicit knowledge of Arab music theory. Architect Rabah Saoud cites numerous instances of cross-cultural exchange in the middle ages, particularly among medieval scholars in Spain and Southern France (Saoud, 11). Ethnomusicologist Hicham Chami tackles bibliography of Guido’s possible travels outside Italy, and evaluates the veracity of sources that Saoud takes for granted (Chami, 60–64). Chami’s thesis is outstanding for identifying instances of partisanship from other scholars.

I’ve made a point about musicology having bias. To show what I mean, let’s look at entries from standard music encyclopedias. In Grove Music Online under “solmization,” the author offers the possibility of Arabs being influenced by Europeans, but not the other way around. “One of the true [Arab] solmization schemes may be cited which had certainly been devised through some contact with, and imitation of, the Guidonian system” (GMO, s.v. “solmization”).

Similarly, in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, the author writes “The Arabic solfege syllables . . . are composed according to their phonetic similarity with the Guidonian solfege syllables” (MGG, s.v. “solmisation”). Neither entry acknowledges the theory of Arab origins as a possibility. Sure, it hasn’t been proven. But neither has a Guidonian origin. So why, when two things are unproven, do we privilege one over the other? It’s a question we should ask ourselves when we write history.

The essayist and social critic James Baldwin wrote that “All countries or groups make of their trials a legend or, as in the case of Europe, a dubious romance called ‘history.’” It’s important to acknowledge that writing history means taking certain things for granted. For example, we privilege written records, which in turn makes literate cultures (read: cosmopolitan European ones) seem like pioneers or progenitors. If you were taught that Columbus discovered America, you’re familiar with the effects of imperial privilege.

As for musicologists, we are obsessed with origins and authenticity. We can use this obsession to turn musicology on itself: to become self-aware, to critique the very institutions that make our discipline possible.

Thanks to Linda Shaver-Gleason and Nina Menezes for reading drafts of this essay.

Michael Vincent researches cosmopolitan music culture in eighteenth-century Europe. He recently defended his dissertation on Luigi Boccherini’s chamber music.


Baldwin, James. “Here be Dragons, or Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” in Playboy, January 1985.

Chami, Hicham. “Deconstructing a Mediæval Legend: Guido d’Arezzo, the ‘Arabian Influence,’ and the Role of the ‘Historical Imagination.’” Master’s thesis, University of Florida, 2014.

Farmer, Henry George. Historical Facts for the Arabian Musical Influence. London: William Reeves, 1930.

Hughes, Andrew and Edith Gerson-Kiwi. “Solmization” in Grove Music Online.

La Borde, Jean-Benjamin de. Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne. Paris, Ph.-D. Pierres, 1780.

Palisca, Claude and Dolores Pesce. “Guido of Arezzo” in Grove Music Online.

Ruhnke, Martin. “Solmisation” in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart.

Saoud, Rabah. “The Arab Contribution to Music of the Western World.” Manchester, UK: Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation, 2004.


  1. I love this blog! Looking a bit more at mediaeval Arabic music (as much as I can without paying $745 for the e-book):

    ... the complex Arabic system of scales, containing all sorts of unfamiliar intervals (to western musicians), seems an ill fit with a solmization scale with six or seven degrees. This could be indirect evidence for the gamut's invention by Guido. Although who knows what “exotic” chant intervals were smoothed out by the introduction of the gamut in the west?

    1. If there was a way I could contact you more directly, then maybe I could it to you.

  2. So to risk not being credited, I would like you too look into the surahs of the qu'ran from which all things arabic extends. Prior to Mohammed there were beliefs in the djinn or spirits that gave artists and musicians their inspirations and so from that culture came Mohammed who would task his followers to recite the quran much like the monks did. if you take note several surahs contain these same arabic gamut abbreviations after the blessing is given. From my research I have come to the conclusion that Mohammed's followers developed this gamut to denote the vocalizations for the surah and the meter used are encoded in the diacritics. Since vedic scriptures and Quran allude to the healing power of the words then by extension they may be alluding to the tones of creation that the gamut also corresponds to which is the harmonic frequencies.

    1. That's... not really a mainstream theory. But it is an interesting one. I take it you're talking about the appearance of letters like Alif Lam Meem at the beginning of Surat Al-Baqara? If not, could you maybe elaborate?

      I mean, it's difficult to say in regards to the diacritics. Firstly, they dictate the inflection of vowel sounds, not timing or metre. Second, the original Arabs intimately knew the words of their own language well enough that they didn't need them for pronunciation, they were written down as guides for non-Arabs later down the line.

      I'd also *maaaaybe* not go whole hog into the Harmonic Frequencies assumption. Music theorists in the region over the centuries went in with the assumption that harmonic frequencies did in fact inform Middle-Eastern tonality, using that as a descriptive framework (which is something they lifted from the Pythagorean/Ptolemaic music tradition), but it didn't always reflect practice accurately.

      Then again this is related to me by a source who, in their very Arabic tendencies, seems to reflexively deny Just Intonation as a source for arabic music *historically* while still using modern examples that seem to fit that framework, if only a little.