See The Guidonian Hand, the Medieval System for Reading Music, Get Brought Back to Life


Singing a piece of music for the first time while read­ing the notes from a sheet is hard, and requires com­plete con­trol of one’s vocals. Today, the most pop­u­lar ways of teach­ing this skill to musi­cians are based on the solfège method, where notes on a scale are matched to par­tic­u­lar syl­la­bles: your stan­dard do, re, mi, fa, so la, si. Stu­dents prac­tice singing dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of these syl­la­bles, using vary­ing rhythms and inter­vals, and even­tu­al­ly cement their knowl­edge of that par­tic­u­lar scale.  The method is, sur­pris­ing­ly, almost a mil­le­ni­um old, with the first Euro­pean use of this mnemon­ic tech­nique dat­ing back to the mid­dle ages.

In the 11th cen­tu­ry, a monk known as Gui­do of Arez­zo, began to use the “Guidon­ian hand” as way to teach medieval music singers his hexa­chord, or six-note scales. Arez­zo, who had also devised the mod­ern musi­cal nota­tion sys­tem, had noticed that singers strug­gled to remem­ber the var­i­ous Gre­go­ri­an chants that the monas­tic orders per­formed in the monas­ter­ies.

To help their mem­o­riza­tion, Gui­do decid­ed to take the first syl­la­ble in each line of the well known hymn Ut Queant Lax­is, and cre­at­ed a hexa­chord, or six note scale, that singers famil­iar with the hymn already knew: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la.  The hand, shown above, was a map of the musi­cal notes in this hexa­chord sys­tem, with each note asso­ci­at­ed with a par­tic­u­lar joint. In all, the Guidon­ian hand ranges almost three octaves. Although it had fall­en out of use for the past few cen­turies, the Guidon­ian hand seems to be mak­ing a come­back. Here’s a video of the method in action, for­ward­ed our way by Anton Hecht, an Open Cul­ture read­er:

I love the con­cept, but can’t help feel that using the Guidon­ian hand dur­ing a per­for­mance makes you look a lit­tle like a first grad­er strug­gling with basic arith­metic.

For more infor­ma­tion on the Guidon­ian hand, check out this write­up of a 2011 Stan­ford sym­po­sium, and watch anoth­er demon­stra­tion video, here.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman, or read more of his writ­ing at the Huff­in­g­ton Post.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to a Record­ing of a Song Writ­ten on a Man’s Butt in a 15-Cen­tu­ry Hierony­mus Bosch Paint­ing

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Dis­cov­er the “Brazen Bull,” the Ancient Greek Tor­ture Machine That Dou­bled as a Musi­cal Instru­ment

Explo­sive Cats Imag­ined in a Strange, 16th Cen­tu­ry Mil­i­tary Man­u­al

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