Blog > A Helping Hand with Music
by Maureen Buja | June 2nd, 2015

standard A Helping Hand with Music

unlined notation

unlined notation

Guido of Arezzo (991-2 to after 1033) was a famous music teacher first at the Benedictine Abbey of Pomposa then in Arezzo, where he moved around 1025. At the time when Guido was teaching music, he came up with some radical new ideas, including the use of lines to show the height of a pitch. Before that, music was written on empty space above the words, with each writer attempting to show how the melody went. The recording is of a slightly more decorated version of this melody.

Gregorian Chant: Jubilate Deo universa terra (Vienna Hofburgkapelle Choir ; Josef Schabasser, Conductor
Then, a single guiding line in Red to indicate the pitch C was added to help keep things in order.

Single-Line

Single-Line

Later, a yellow line was added to indicate the pitch F. Even later, more lines were added to All of this helped musicians who could read. But, for musicians who couldn’t read, a much more personal way of training was developed.

The teacher could stand in front of his singers and point to various places on his hand and teach the singers the notes associated with that place.

Guidonian hand in action

Guidonian hand in action

Using the hand as a guide, 20 different pitches could be mapped. Starting with your thumb, you make a circle through your fingers: down your thumb, across the top of your palm, up your little finger, across the top of your fingers, down your index fingers, and so on, with the very last pitch being on the nail of your middle finger:

Here’s how the hand looked in music books of the 12th and 13th centuries:

Guidonian hand directions

Guidonian hand directions

Although the image is always called the “Guidonian hand,” it actually pre-dates Guido and may simply have been used by him when he trained singers. The syllables you see assigned to each part of the finger (Ut – re – mi – fa, etc.) are the same syllables we use today when we sing songs such as “Do a Deer” (the old-fashioned ‘ut’ of Guido’s day turned into ‘do’ for us).

Guidonian hand

Guidonian hand

And, although the image above shows someone teaching this using two hands (using one to point to the other), you can actually do this with just one hand: use your index finger to point to the syllables on your thumb, otherwise, use your thumb to point to all the other syllables. This also makes the last syllable, on the nail of your middle finger, more understandable, because you can only touch that spot with your thumb.

Ok – fingers limbered up – try and finger-singing a bit of Rogers and Hammerstein!

Rodgers: The Sound of Music, Act i: Do-Re-Mi (Rebecca Luker, Broadway Revival Cast Orchestra; Michael Rafter Conductor)

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