We’ve all heard the syllables “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti” applied to the standard musical scale, especially if we like showtunes (which I do! “Doe, a deer . . .”). But where did we get these funny-sounding syllables from? I’ll give you a hint – it wasn’t Julie Andrews. Nope, not Rodgers and Hammerstein, either.
The syllables are called solfege syllables, used as an aid in teaching people to sing on sight. They were taken from the words of an old Latin hymn, “The Hymn of St. John.” They have changed slightly over the centuries, with the first and last ones different than originally employed. The scale used to be sung to “ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si.” You can see the origin of these note-names in the text of the hymn they were taken from:
Ut queant laxis resonāre fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum,
All this got me to wondering where we got “Fee, fi, fo, fum” from. I know it’s in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but did it originate there? Probably not. Like so many things, it may have its origin in the writings of Shakespeare, who used very similar language in his play King Lear several centuries earlier.