[Smt-talk] Movable-Do subculture in the Romance tradition?

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Tue Jul 17 01:23:11 PDT 2012

The medieval solmisation is an expression of the idea that the diatonic 
system could be described with four (pitch) classes only, which came to 
be named *re*, *mi*, *fa* and *sol*. The diatonic system is a 
concatenation of these classes, alternatively in conjunction and in 
disjunction. This, in a sense, is the most economical way to describe it 
(that the description eventually used hexachords does not change much).

As a result, solmisation syllables denote functions within the diatonic 
system itself, rather than in specified "modes", or "octave species". 
This has to do with the "character of the tones" (*Toncharacter*), as 
Handschin termed them. I tried to explain some or it in my paper *Modi 
vocum*, available at 

The relation between hexachordal solmisation and the alphabetic notation 
(with seven letters) expresses a very high tension in medieval theory 
between the tetrachordal and the heptachordal description, a conflict 
that I partly described in an earlier paper, 
The conflict is about whether the best description of the diatonic 
system involves a modulo of four or seven degrees.

The theoretical discussion about moveable vs fixed Do reflects a similar 
conflict, still raging today. It is no more concerned with hexachords, 
but it still is concerned with the question whether the 'functions' of 
the notes belong with the diatonic system itself or with specified keys, 
modes, or octave species (name them as you wish) -- or with both.

As to the geographical dissemination of either system, as mentioned by 
Dimitar Ninov, I have my doubts because the dissemination also is that 
of Occidental music: I very strongly doubt, for instance, that the 
Chinese system of note designation for their pentatonic music has much 
in common (unless superficially) with any of our systems; this has to do 
also with the matter of pitch standard. And so far as the temporal 
dissemination is concerned, the conflict seems as ancient (and as 
widespread) as the diatonic system itself.

As Jonathan Santore rightly writes, the matter of solmisation deserves a 
careful study. The problem is that it may well be one of the most 
complex subjects that music theory has to face.

Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

(With apologies for the self-promotion, especially that I may have 
mentioned these papers in earlier similar discussions. I have two 
excuses: (1) that others began the self-promotion; (2) that my papers, 
being in French, require more promotion ;-))

Le 16/07/2012 13:39, Eytan Agmon a écrit :
> "Moveable Do" syllables are (melodic) scale degrees, that is, 
> intervals from the tonic (reduced modulo the octave). The "tonic 
> Sol-Fa method" was codified and disseminated by John Curwen in the 
> 19^th century. However, the idea dates back to the "octave species" of 
> medieval modal theory (and ultimately Greek theory).
> Eytan Agmon
> Bar-Ilan University

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