Chris’s Curiosities: A Medieval Helping Hand
Learning how to read music is, to my mind, akin to learning another language: there are symbols; those symbols correspond to certain sounds; and, in learning how those sounds are represented by the symbols, you can learn to replicate those sounds. With enough practice, that replication becomes second nature and — voilà! — you’re reading music.
Nowadays, learning to read music is aided by the fact that paper is readily available. Putting the printed dots and all their various tails on the five lines of the staff is no more difficult than printing out a boarding pass for a plane.
But what if having paper were a luxury? And what if everything written on paper was literally handwritten because printing, especially of music, hadn’t really been invented yet? How do you teach music then?
Enter: the Guidonian Hand.
WHAT WAS IT
The Guidonian Hand was a Medieval mnemonic device to help singers - mostly monks and nuns - in their learning and memorization of hymns and masses. Each knuckle-joint and finger-point on a hand represented a different note in the Medieval and Renaissance tone system (a system called the Gamma-Ut... more on that below). By pointing at any of these joints and points, you could quickly and easily impart music without needing to use costly and labor intensive sheet music. All you had to do was make sure the students had memorized what each knuckle and fingertip sounded like!
Here is Professor William Mahrt demonstrating how the system was used.
Pretty cool right?
Using this system, a teacher could, by simply using their hands, indicate what music was to be sung.
Even more astonishing, that teacher could in theory demonstrate music for one group with one hand, and different music for a second group, while singing a separate third set of music.
(There's a video at the end of the post that talks about this amazing feat in more detail.)
HOW IT WORKED
Remember, the Guidonian Hand was a way of representing the notes in the Medieval and Renaissance tone system. That system was quite different from our modern system.
Here you see our modern tone system, which has been in almost singular use in the Western Music from about the 1650s. It has twelve notes and is called the twelve-tone (or chromatic) scale.
Almost everything in our Western musical worlds today centers on those twelve notes.
By contrast, almost all the music written during the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe revolved around a 22-note system, called the Gamma-Ut.
Now, if you’re thinking “twenty-two notes?!” I completely understand. But not to worry! First, it’s not as scary as it sounds, and second, even if it is, perhaps you’re starting to see why a clever mnemonic device might come in… handy.
As can see here, each note from the Gamma-Ut is — moving in a spiral because why make it easier — designated a finger tip or knuckle.
And that is the Guidonian Hand.
The twenty-two notes of the Gamma-Ut system were divided into the seven groups of 6, or seven hexachords. And these hexachords - like the 12-tone system is for us today - were the basis of everything in Medieval and Renaissance music.
Each Hexachord followed the same pattern:
Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La
Since each hexachord followed this pattern, they sounded more or less the same.
However, they were further characterized as hard (durum), soft (molle), or natural (naturale), depending on whether it started on a G, and C, or an F.
Here is a color coded chart I have painstakingly put together to help illustrate this a bit further. It is read from the bottom to the top.
On the left are the twenty-two notes of the Gamma-Ut system, written out with modern note names.
The seven columns to the right further represent how those 22 notes were divided into seven hexachords. You will see that each hexachord follows the same Ut-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La pattern, just starting on different notes. You'll also see that the three hard hexachords are colored magenta, the two soft hexachords are pea-green, and the two natural hexachords are red.
All the way to the right is something we haven’t talked about yet: what medieval singers and teachers would have called each of the 22 notes of their Gamma-Ut system. And it is this that brings us back to the Guidonian Hand and its usefulness.
Now is probably a good time for an example, so let us look at the note 12 places up on our Gamma-Ut.
In today’s system, we call that note c’ or, more commonly, "middle-C" because of its position on the piano keyboard. However, back in Medieval and Renaissance times, they would have called that note “Cesolfaut.” This is because it is the only C-note in the system on which a Sol, a Fa, and/or an Ut might be sung, depending on which hexachord you were using at the time.
(The lower C would be called “Cefaut,” but without the ‘sol’, and the higher one would be called “cesolfa,” without the ‘ut’.)
Thus, when the teacher says “sing ‘Cesolfaut’” you know exactly which note to sing! Or even better...
… Using the Guidonian Hand system, the teacher simply pointed to the tip of their ring finger, and you would know to sing ‘Cesolfaut’ because that was the part of the hand reserved for that note.
And it was actually much less complicated than that even, because most of the time you would be singing within a single hexachord. So, say the teacher says, “We are singing in a hard hexachord today!” and then points to the tip of their ring-finger, you would know, having studied the system, that the note you needed to sing was a fa.
It's a good question.
The Guidonian Hand is largely a curiosity, and a fun "what if?" thought experiment. What if we had continued to use this system, using our hands to impart music? Imagine being able to meet a stranger and make music together by using a common sign-language!
The Gamma-ut system is a bit more useful. First of all, it gave us the expression "running the gamut", so that's cool.
Second, it allows singers and instrumentalists who perform Medieval and Renaissance music today, and who study it from the original manuscripts, to better understand really what it is they're looking at.
In other words, it allows them to be true to the music. And what's more important than that?
If you want to know more about the Gamma-Ut system, and the brilliance of the guidonian hand, watch this brilliant video from EarlyMusicSources.com