Words & Stuff

LL: A Fa Fa Better Thing

(20 September 1998)

"California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi."
Woody Guthrie

Solmization (also known as sol-fa) is the use of syllables (such as do, re, and mi) to indicate musical notes. You might think it would be named "doremization," but the word dates to slightly before "do" was part of the scale (at least in English). Later, "solfeggio" (and the French form solfège) came to mean applying sol-fa syllables to a scale or tune.

Solmization began as a way of teaching scales and intervals; it was first formalized by Guido d'Arezzo in the 11th century, using six syllables: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. (I'm guessing d'Arezzo was writing in Latin; he predates Middle English.) In England, this "hexachord" system was eventually simplified to four syllables: fa, sol, la, mi. The major scale was apparently sung to the syllables fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa; I have been unable to determine why it didn't occur to anyone initially to use seven different syllables to disambiguate the notes.

We gained a new sol-fa syllable, si, from Italian in 1728; it was followed a quarter-century later by do. It wasn't 'til the mid-1800s that ti was developed as a variant of si. And at some point along the way, so became an accepted variant of sol.

Jim, Melissa R, and Jay suggested a few months back the intriguing notion of making words out of notes -- specifically, forming other words from combinations of the sol-fa syllables. They quickly discovered that there weren't many interesting words that could be formed with those, so they moved on to phrases, adding spaces and punctuation where necessary. They came up with these items, among others:

red ore
DOS, o DOS, o la la!
Tim is of a mire
lad of adored ore
'Tis Odo's odor, Emi.

and my favorite:

Remit if a lad, omit if a dodo.

Here are some longer phrases (more or less), displayed as sol-fa syllables; if you can't figure out how to respace and punctuate these from the given clues, click the links for answers.

Be a pal, driver; refund Sol's money.
do so la fa re re mi ti fa mi

Very sleepy.
ti re do so ti re do

Sun-worshippers should get angry.
so la do re re mi ti re do so

Olaf, buddy, your clothing reeks (yet again) of trendiness.
ti re do do re mi ti so fa fa do la fa mi

I travel a great distance before my friends' birds get big.
so fa re re do do so fa do re do ti so re mi la re fa ti fa re

(You could try actually singing these phrases if you like, but don't expect them to make any more sense musically than in prose.)

When forming the above words and phrases, I kept wanting to produce words like solace, salad, attire, otiose, familiar, and sorrel, none of which are quite possible. Eventually it occurred to me that a computer could aid in the search. I wrote a Perl program to sort through a couple of word-list files and output all the words that could be used in do-re-mi phrases (even though not all the words can be used adjacent to each other, since many of them start or end in the middle of a sol-fa syllable). The result was a list of over 150 words, though that includes proper nouns and foreign terms. If you want to try your hand at sol-faing, feel free to use the list as a resource. (Note that this list uses do rather than ut, so rather than sol, and ti rather than si.)


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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>