Hexachords, solmization, and musica ficta

Foreword: Why learn hexachords?

When I asked Margo Schulter to write an article explaining medieval hexachords and the issues underlying their application in performance, one of my primary motivations was obvious: In order to understand how medieval music was constructed and performed, in order to determine what in modern notation become required accidentals, one must understand hexachords. From the time Guido d'Arezzo developed the hexachord syllables (ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la) in his Epistola de ignoto cantu (c.1029-33), following closely upon his magnum theoretical opus Micrologus (c.1025-32), they became the basis of Western musical education and persisted as such until the dawn of the modern era. For someone accustomed to modern musical notation, hexachords may seem to be so much baggage, begging a question: Isn't the practical modern musician better off ignoring them, leaving to scholars the arcane task of supplying accidentals in modern editions?

When evaluating what may seem to be the convoluted & quaint aspects of Guido's system of hexachords and solmization (whether Guido himself supplied the incipits which would make his syllables a proper solmization system is an open question), the reader should be mindful of three facts: 1) It was Guido who developed and described staff notation in Micrologus; 2) Guido's contemporary fame was first as a teacher with an unprecedented ability to teach chants quickly; and, 3) Solmization systems of various kinds are found around the world. It is only too easy to view the hexachord system as a pointless medieval exercise in sophistry, as the debate regarding angels on the head of a pin or the endless syllogisms of Peter of Spain replaced today by a few simple rules of logic. Yet, it was first of all the sheer practical relevance of the system which demanded its introduction. If Guido could envision the staff, an innovation we certainly feel no need to mock, might not we grant him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to hexachords as a concomitant of his system? Moreover, can we profitably use hexachords today?

Guido is known first for "the hand" - although he did not describe it in writing himself, even if it is firmly attributed to him - but he was by no means a one-dimensional writer. Along with the solmization syllables (and let us not forget that they are still used today, if in modified form), along with the staff notation, Guido discussed the emerging discipline of polyphony and how it was constructed, and perhaps even more significantly he discussed phrasing extensively in Micrologus. The latter is the key to understanding how hexachord solmization is, together with staff notation, an integral part of Guido's system. Far from being arcane theoretical constructs, hexachords reflect the real physiology of the human vocal apparatus and where its register breaks are located. Although octave solmization may seem more logical, it does not reflect the actual physical constraints of the vocal "instrument" as well, and so came into use only after instrumental ideas began to dominate musical composition. Given that they reflect physiology, hexachords and their mutations reflect the way vocal music was phrased in Guido's time. It was this realization, combined with solmization syllables to more thoroughly internalize specific physical positions, which made hexachords a powerful bio-feedback tool for learning to sing.

As much as one might lament that the fine art of phrasing is so often neglected today, one can argue that the sheer multiplicity of possible notations dictates that musicians learn early music from modern transcriptions. In many circumstances, this may be unavoidable, but an awareness of hexachords can still lend insight into phrasing. Moreover, an awareness of hexachords is essential when supplying accidentals; not by mechanically invoking a sometimes-applicable axiom such as "mi contra fa," but rather by using hexachords as a guide to phrasing, and from phrasing a decision on musica ficta. Whether one prefers to sing directly from original notation or through the mediation of a scholarly edition may be largely a matter for philosophical debate, not to mention the real constraints involved in developing scholar-performers, but I must suggest that in order to capture the living historical fluidity of medieval music in performance, its accidentals must be chosen by performers based on their own phrasing. It is hexachords which, as a practical tool for singers, allow this phrasing to be deciphered, as it is hexachords which supply some missing bio-feedback, helping performers to discover and internalize the structure underlying this music.

It is my hope that the present discussion of hexachords, explained and illustrated in such a clear and admirable manner by Margo Schulter, will serve as a step toward an increased appreciation of the details of medieval music by the general performer. Fundamentally, I believe that medieval notation and medieval musical constructs are good, and so capable of contributing directly to our understanding of the music of any era.

To Section 1 - The basic hexachord system and its origins.

To Table of Contents.

Todd M. McComb