Frank Pesci raised an interesting question on his interesting blog today. I wanted to comment, but his site doesn’t allow comments from non-“Blogger”-ers. The basic question is:
Why is “do”, “C.” Meaning, why has the default understanding of the solfege syllable “do” become synonymous with the English character “C” (and not “A”)?
And some related points are:
A few things need to be sorted out before we begin. First is the fact that only English speaking countries use the English alphabet (A through G with accidentals) to delineate pitches. Next, we will forego the initial usage of Guido of Arezzo’s system of, essentially, movable “ut,” and focus on the common acceptance of the fixed “do” system, with “do” corresponding to the note associated with the English letter “C.”
First, a correction: It’s not true that only English speaking countries use letter names for pitches. They do so in Germany and in Central/Eastern Europe as well. You may sometimes see “B” for what we call “B Flat” and “H” for what we call “B”.
As for the main question, I don’t have all the answers, but I suspect it has something to do with the letter names system being based on the minor scale (in movable do, the minor scale starts on “la”). If we equate “la” to “A”, the relative major is “C”, or “do”. There’s no real significance to the letter “C”, and the answer lies not in fixed “do”, but actually in movable “do”. So, whereas Guido d’Arezzo’s system of syllables uses the major scale as a basis (do [ut], re, mi, etc.), letter names use the minor scale.
I’m no musicologist; this is just a guess. Please comment if you have a more thorough explanation.
By the way, the origin of those solfege syllables is explained pretty well here.
If you know Frank, please pass this along. Meanwhile, I’m adding him to “Other Blogs”.