Guido D’arezzo and the History of Written Music

Published 03 Nov 2017

During the medieval era of music history, music was not documented and transmitted the same way that it is today. Rather than a choir learning a new song by looking at a piece of sheet music and sight reading, oral transmission was used. In plainchant music, for example, a leader or conductor would teach the choir a song by first singing it. The choir would then sing back the same melody or phrase in an emulative manner. This method of learning music, however, changed during the 11th century, when Guido d’Arezzo formulated the world’s first version of the musical staff that used music notes rather than numbers to indicate a certain pitch. Along with other tools such as the Guidonian hand, Guido developed valuable methods of teaching and transmitting music, especially to plainchant singers of that period. Although his system has since been refined and simplified, Guido’s contributions to music theory greatly assisted young singers of his time, allowing them to read and learn new pieces more efficiently than through oral transmission alone.

Guido’s musical developments, at the time, made the most significant impact upon those who participated in plainchant music. Plainchant music is interchangeably referred to as Gregorian chant music, which was a major part of medieval culture. It is religious-based music that was believed to be the only style music that was acceptable to be performed in churches, and it is still performed in certain cathedrals or Catholic churches today. In plainchant, there are absolutely no instruments accompanying the singers. Instead, the pieces consist of specific pitches and words that are combined to result in a full, chant-like sound that echoes throughout the vicinity of the church or cathedral. Plainchant music was not considered to be as modern forms of vocal performance in the sense that it is intended solely for entertainment and audio pleasure. Since it was performed only in a religious environment, plainchant was meant to enhance a person’s susceptibility to a spiritual or religious experience-that their minds would be more open and focused on God and the messages that were to be heard in church.

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Prior to Guido’s system of written staff music, singers depended upon oral transmission in order to learn new pieces. What is interesting about oral transmission is that, contrary to what some may think, the oral system was not used simply because a written form of music had not yet been created. Learning music by repeating what a singer heard from their leader or conductor is based on memory, which was believed to be a form of art. Oral transmission, therefore, was a way of exercising the art of learning through memory-a valued technique that dates all the way back to the days of ancient Greece. This particular way of learning was relatively simple, especially since more primitive forms of plainchant only consisted of one part-that is, all members of the choir would sing in unison and there was only one melody to be learned. Oral transmission began to lose its effectiveness, however, once the concept of harmonies and split parts was introduced to plainchant.

By 1100 the practice of singing in two parts moving together was becoming more elaborate and soon a third part would be added. Such developments created problems for choirs and choir masters looking for well coordinated ensemble singing. Up to this time musical notation, such as it was, consisted of mnemonic marks rather than precise indications of varying musical pitches.

To teach a group of singers a piece of plainchant in unison is relatively easy; but when more than one part has to be taught, it becomes much more difficult for all singers to remember their individual melodies. Consider a choir that is attempting to learn a three-part chant simultaneously. The first group of singers is able to memorize their parts without any difficulty. Then instructor then moves on to the next two groups and teaches them their parts in the same manner. By the time the third group has learned their harmonies the first group is likely to have forgotten their part of the chant or has confused some of their melodies with the other two groups. Even with the form of written music that was used in the early 11th century, those mnemonic notations approximated a tone rather than being a specific representation of one single note.

As plainchant music advanced and became increasingly more complicated with the introduction of harmonies, it was evident that singers would require a more advanced form of written music in order to efficiently and effectively learn new pieces. In order to understand the importance of Guido’s contributions to music, it is important to understand the difference between the world of music back then and how it is today. Many of the most talented and successful musicians, such as The Beatles’ Paul McCartney, have proven that one does not necessarily have to be able to read or write music in order to be considered a successful composer.

They are able to compose, however, because there is a standardized system of music that consists of notes and chords that can be played in a given sequence in order to create a complete musical phrase. In the 11th century, there was no such system and notes were thought of as random pitches rather than part of a series of musical patterns that complemented each other. It was not until Guido d’Arezzo, a monk from a small town in Italy, developed a new way of writing music that notes and pitches became standardized. Guido, who was highly intelligent and referred to today as a musical genius, received his education at the Benedictine monastery located in Pomposa; and it was there, that he worked as a choir director who was soon known for teaching choirs new chants in record time.

This is one of the earliest examples of how written music served to teach music much faster than oral transmission alone. Guido single-handedly changed the future of written music when he developed the four-line musical staff, or stave, in the mid-11th century. Although a five-line stave is used today, Guido’s four-line version was based on similar theory. With this system, “…notes were represented by diamond shaped marks. Each move up the grid, from a line to the space above it, represented a fixed interval, usually a single tone”. Hans-Joachim Braun describes the relationship between Guido’s musical stave and his time period in the following statement:

Guido’s system anticipated the European fascination with labour saving devices and this in the one area which in other cultures was almost intended to be laborious. Where the Asian musician expects to spend years memorizing the vocabulary of his art, the choir at Arezzo and soon the choirs of all Europe’s cathedrals, freed from that particular chore, were liberated for the exploration of new music.

The four-line stave not only facilitated the learning of European choirs, but it also gave Europe a sort of advantage over countries who did not yet adopt the use of the stave.
Guido’s stave provided the foundation for notes that would be added to the set of horizontal lines.

The four lines indicated the movement up and down a keyboard-that is, as a note moves from a line up to the space above it, the pitch rises along with it. Alternatively, a note that was shown on a line or space below the previous note would indicate that a singer was to sing a lower pitch. In order to use the stave as a teaching utensil, Guido had to give names to the various diamond-shaped notes that were written on the lines and spaces. If the notes were not labeled, then they would not mean anything. It was Guido’s development of solmization that facilitated the learning of notes, pitches, and sight reading amongst singers.

Although solmization may sound complicated, it is what gave rise to seven notes that are used today-A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Solmization refers to “…the practice of assigning syllables to notes, [which] greatly simplified the sight-reading of music”. Richard Rogers’ song “Do, Re, Mi” from The Sound of Music is perhaps the most commonly used form of solmization today, as it is used with children from a young age in order to teach them the seven different notes on a staff. These syllables, however, are based upon Guido’s original notes.

Guido set an existing hymn addressed to John the Baptist to a new tune… The first note was the lowest note on 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 the 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 to sing, “Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la.”

Although there are seven notes within a full scale, most of Guido’s chants were confined to only those six. Still, he named a seventh note for those few compositions that required it, and called gamma. Altogether, the scale of seven notes is called the gamut-a word based on the combination of the first and last notes. This was later developed into a phrase that is used today, “run the gamut”, which means moving through an entire range. The use of solmization by Guido was not only a genius musical breakthrough at the time of its development, but it was also extremely clever and approachable. Unlike what one may have expected from a new system of music transmission, the “ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, gamma” scale was quite simple to learn, especially with the chants and phrases that Guido wrote in order to simplify written music for his singers.

In addition to Guido’s note names, the four-line stave, and the song he wrote in order to teach singers musical notes, the Guidonian hand was developed in order to help singers memorize notes and pitches as well. The hand is believed to have been created posthumously, but Guido is still credited for its origin and creation. Upon first glance, the Guidonian hand may be somewhat confusing. It consists of simply drawing of a hand, but there are several numbered and labeled spots, beginning with the tip of the thumb, which is labeled as “ut”. The two sequential numbers that continue down the thumb are “re” and “mi”, indicating that the different indentations and lines on one’s hand can be thought of as a representation of a certain note-yet another mnemonic that could make sight-reading and learning notes even more simple. There are twenty different places, or loca, on the Guidonian hand, each of which represent a different note on the gamut, as well as the steps up and down the four-line staff. Mary Carruthers and Jan Ziolkowski explain the diagram as follows:

On the hand, these places are the successive fingertips and joints starting with the tip of the thumb and continuing counterclockwise in a spiral motion, with the twentieth place imagined on the reverse side of the nineteenth, which is on the third joint of the middle finger… On the scale, the places are the ascending lines and spaces between them, beginning with the lowest line and ending with the space above the highest, tenth, line.

This shows that the order of the twenty places on the Guidonian hand not only represented the different notes of the gamut, but the octave in which they were meant to be sung as well. If a singer was looking at their left hand, their thumb would represent the lowest or starting “ut” on a scale. As they progressed, the notes would essentially snake around their four other fingers, progressively getting higher, and the tips of those four fingers would represent the highest notes of a scale. The Guidonian hand can be considered one of the first attempts to represent the differences between a treble and bass clef, which are both part of today’s music staff. The appropriate clefs had not yet been designed, so the Guidonian hand was used instead to indicate which octave a note should be sung in, making it easier for singers of different ranges and assigned parts to distinguish between the different octaves of notes.

With the development of his six primary notes, Guido went on to lay the foundation for what is known today as a hexachord. A hexachord involves six pitch classes, which refers to the same note played in different intervals. Similar to what the different places on the Guidonian hand represented, varying intervals affect the location of a certain note on a keyboard. Guido’s work on the matter is called Micrologus de disciplina artis musicae, which provided medieval music teachers and composers an outline regarding singing and music as it relates to plainchant. He had written the treatise after his departure from Pomposa around 1025, where he received negative feedback from those who believed his music theory to be unworthy of recognition or following.

Guido proved his critics to be wrong once “…Micrologus, which was dedicated to Theodaldus, the bishop who sanctioned it, became enormously popular and was used throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in monasteries and universities”. This written work was quite revolutionary for its time, particularly due to its focus on movement up and down the musical scale, as well as Guido’s study of intervals. According to Stefano Mengozzi, Guido’s work largely impacted the later development of, both, polyphonic sound and the diatonic system. Micrologus also became one of the most influential treatises ever produced during the Middle Ages, as it is currently preserved in more than one hundred different sources that were found throughout the centuries. It has also become one of the most copied pieces of music theory in history to date, which is only further evidence of the innovation and brilliance that Guido’s work possessed.

By the time of his death in 1050, Guido had produced several manuscripts that have been translated into several languages and are still studied today. The contributions he made to music theory greatly affected how it was taught and learned by plainchant singers of his era; but his musical theories also contributed to the written transmission of music as a whole. His goal may have been to develop a system that would allow his Gregorian singers to learn music faster than through oral transmission, but he instead formulated theories that impacted the future of Western music as a whole and hastened its development-something that oral transmission could never have achieved. Although his version of the four-line music stave is no longer used, it is a paramount part of music history as it contributed to the five-line version that is used today. In addition, his use of solmization enabled singers to learn how to read music at a pace that was unheard of prior to his time. Without Guido’s musical theories, Western music may not have been nearly as technically and theoretically advanced as it is today. Through the creation of the stave, solmization, the Guidonian hand, and Micrologus, Guido made music accessible to everyone and not only those who dedicated years of their life to learn music and music theory.


  • Braun, Hans-Joachim. Music and Technology in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
  • Carruthers, Mary, and Jan M. Ziolkowski. The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
  • Demorest, Steven M. Building Choral Excellence: Teaching Sight-Singing in the Choral Rehearsal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Hiley, David. Western Plainchant: A Handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Mengozzi, Stefano. The Renaissance Reform of Medieval Music Theory: Guido of Arezzo Between Myth and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Neff, David. “The Original Do, Re, Mi.” Christian History & Biography, no. 93 (2007): 39.
  • Spignesi, Stephen J. The Italian 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Cultural, Scientific, and Political Figures, Past and Present. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2003.
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