“How miraculous is the effect of music! As if someone pounded on the door of our soul from outside, from the world of Beauty and Reality; but we no longer understand the voice. It is this language they speak in Faremido.”

So begins Frigyes Karinthy’s Voyage to Faremido: Gulliver’s Fifth Voyage, originally published in Hungarian as Utazás Faremidóba: Gulliver ötödik útja in 1916. When his combat ship strikes a mine, Gulliver escapes by hydroplane and eventually lands on a planet whose inhabitants are sentient machines, one of which (whom?) befriends him: “Now and then it turned to me its gleaming, golden metal head; a bluish light shone upon me from the brilliant eyes; then it started to sing, and now I felt clearly that it was addressing me with these sounds; that in this country the language was made up of music, and that the words consisted of musical phrases. As soon as I realized this, I tried to make it understand that I would like to learn the language. Pointing repeatedly at the palace, I mimed my desire to know its name. The machine immediately caught my meaning and replied: mi-fa-re — which I repeated at once. … I now started to point out various objects, identifying each by its name, and I continued to repeat the sounds. It pointed to itself and sang: so-la-si. Then with a sweeping gesture that embraced the whole horizon it told me: fa-re-mi-do — the phrase I had already heard when I first landed in the place. Now I knew that the country was called Faremido. (I must ask the reader to sing these words rather than read them silently or pronounce them aloud; this is the only way they make sense.)”

Frigyes  Karinthy (1887-1938) was not the first to envision a language constructed from the seven tones of the major diatonic scale—think the white keys of the piano starting on C—named (or, solmized as) do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si (or ti), though he could legitimately claim to have been the first to translate Winnie the Pooh and Gulliver’s Travels into Hungarian and to have originated the theory of “six degrees of separation,” which posits (in the short story “Chains” http://djjr-courses.wdfiles.com/local–files/soc180%3Akarinthy-chain-links/Karinthy-Chain-Links_1929.pdf) that any two people on earth will share a common acquaintance no more than five intermediate acquaintances away. For precursors, we need search no farther than Jean-François Sudre (1787-1862), whose posthumously published [1865] Langue musicale universelle inventée par François Sudre également inventeur de la téléphonie [‘Universal Musical Language Invented by François Sudre, Likewise the Inventor of Telephony’] lays out his proposal for a “universal musical language,” which he introduces as follows: “I have thus enclosed all ideas within the seven notes of music; I have expressed them as combinations that are easy to remember, and I have formed of them a language that is accessible to all minds [intelligences] and all peoples of the world. It is by no means a translation of the French language that is to be looked for in this work, since ideas belong to the domain of all languages.”  (http://www.labirintoermetico.com/12ArsCombinatoria/lingue_universali/Gajewski_B_Grammaire_du_SolReSol_Sudre.pdf) Basically, what Sudre had in mind was a language in which all human thought could be expressed by various sequences of the seven notes of the major scale. He dubbed this language Solrésol, the musical sequence sol+re+sol signifying ‘language’ in his system.

 Solresol evolved from an earlier system devised by M Sudre for which he coined the term téléphonie (‘telephony’). An editorial in the Supplement to the Musical Library of March – Dec. 1834 refers—somewhat disparagingly—to “the telephone of M. Sudré,” about which the writer says, “By the sounds of a violin, a pianoforte, a trumpet, &c., he proposes to accomplish what the telegraph does by figures or colours. Hence the word Telephone, from τηλε, far, at a distance, and φωνη, sound, which however is not quite appropriate, in whatever way considered.” Sudre’s “Telephone” was essentially aural semaphore, a system for encoding alphabetic letters as notes of the dodecaphonic (twelve-tone) scale over multiple octaves. The subsequent notion that musical notes could be used for the encoding of a universal semantic system was an inspired (if perhaps overly ambitious) leap forward. 

Mindful of the criticism raised against téléphonie that its successful employment presupposed at least minimal musical ability on the part of the conversants, Sudre and his followers provided a variety of nonmusical way of representing the canonical seven tones on which the language was built. Couturat and Leau in their 1903 Histoire de la langue universelle list these as “1. One can utter or write  the international names of these notes, or just their initials (s = sol, so = sol); 2. One can sing them or play them on whatever musical instrument; 3. One can write them on a musical staff; 4. One can represent them by seven special stenographic signs, whether written or drawn in the air with a finger; 5. One can represent them by the first seven Arabic numerals, or by corresponding numbers of sonorous beats, of tactile pressures, etc.; 6. One can represent them by the seven colors of the spectrum (lights, lanterns, flares, etc.); 7. Finally, one can designate them by touching the index finger of the right hand to the four fingers of the left hand or the spaces between them (which thus represent the musical staff).” Thus:

Solresol Manual

There is some disagreement as to where to locate Do on the hand. Some illustrations show it near the wrist, though elsewhere (e.g., http://faculty.las.illinois.edu/csandvig/classes/solresolpdf) it’s in the fist. In any case,  Sudre was not the first to associate the notes of the diatonic scale with different parts of the hand. That particular honor is generally considered to have gone to Guido D’Arezzo (ca. 990 – 1050) who is also credited with inventing do-re-mi-fa-sol-la solmization—originally, ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la, the initial syllables of the words Ut, resonare, mira, famuli, solve, and labii in the hymn to St. John the Baptist sung at Vespers as part of the Divine Office on the saint’s nativity day (June 24):


The ascending notes on which the syllables ut (later replaced by the more mellifluous do), re, mi, fa, sol, and la fall in this hymn constitute a hexachord, a basic building block in medieval Western music consisting of a sequence of a whole tone plus a whole tone plus a semitone plus a whole tone plus a whole tone (T-T-S-T-T), e.g., C-D-E-F-G. By overlapping the hexachords starting with G, C, and F and working your way up the pitch ladder, you could derive all the tones needed for modal (“white-key”) music (with “black-key” b flat thrown in for good measure). Guido D’Arezzo proposed the following mnemonic for this system:

The Guidonian Hand

The bottom note (called the gamma ut) is at the tip of your thumb. (Gamut eventually came to be used as a term for the whole range of notes; to run the gamut was to traverse the whole system from bottom to top.) The Guidonian system proceeds from the gamma ut down the thumb, then along the first joints of fingers, up the pinky finger, across the tips of the fingers, down the index finger to the second joint, across the second joints of the middle and ring finger, across the first joints of the ring and third fingers, and off into the ozone. Feel free to try this at home.

Finally, before calling it a day, Guido D’Arezzo seems to have invented the musical staff (originally four lines) and two moveable clefs (basically a paper-saving device that allowed the notes to stay within the staff), one to signify the location of C and the other the location of F:

Guidonian Fa-re-mi-do