Every once in awhile, we receive a translation project that has to do with one of my favorite hobbies: music. And although anyone familiar with music may think, “Easy! All music is in Italian!”, it’s not quite so simple. It is true that during the renaissance, Italian musical invention revolutionized Western music and more or less established modern conventions, including using Italian words in scores, but it is also true that the art of music can be perceived and its workings understood regardless of language. Naturally, different cultures may have different names for its elements. This is an excellent model for explaining how translation works: there is a melody, a scale, a mood, understood by all, and two or more different names for it.
Those of us who live in English-speaking countries know the natural notes as C, D, E, F, G, A, B. This order came to be thanks to the use of a major scale to organize them “naturally” (spoiler alert: you should know a little bit about music to get this). This major scale came to oppose the minor scale commonly used in the past, when the arrangement would be A, B, C, D, E, F, G, commonly known as the “A” minor scale. Modern musical convention recognizes 12 major and minor scales. The most commonly used in modern music is the C Major scale. This is because it is the only major scale made of all natural notes. So eventually, as time went by, the reorganization of the notes changed from A, B, C, D, E, F, G to C, D, E, F, G, A, B. This combined with the development of craftsmanship into making instruments and tuning them, gave way to the use and standardization of these scales, which made it possible for a “fella” commonly known as Bach to write his music. Some say, with a solid base, that Bach, owing a great debt to his Italian forebearers, marks the beginning of modern music.
According to some, the alphabet-represented nomenclature derived from to the monks, who preferred “Aeolian-like” sounds when making music and decided to name its first note “A.” Another theory goes back to the VI Century and claims the philosopher Boethius used the the first letters of the alphabet to represent musical notes. A third theory states that the Catholic Church intervened in the medieval ages in order to standardize chants so that they could be sung throughout the known world.
The origins of this English notation remains unclear. Unlike English, many countries around the world use the notation Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si. The names of notes carry with them an interesting history that harkens back to Italy in the Middle Ages. This nomenclature comes from the first syllables of a hymn by Guido d’Arezzo written in honor of St John the Baptist back in the XII Century. It was, of course, written in Latin: UT queant laxis, REsonare fibris, MIra gestorum, FAmulti tourom, SOLve pollute, LAbii reatum, Sancte Ioannes. Originally, the first note of the scale was written as UT, but Italian musicologist Giovanni Battista Dóni replaced it with “Do” to make Solfeggio (singing the notes) easier. Others state that it changed to “Do” from the beginning of the word Dominus (Lord).
Since we are mentioning Italy, we have to say we owe a great deal of credit for modern music to the inhabitants of the boot. Most people associate classical music and opera to the Italians; and, even though composers from other European countries were involved, Italy takes the podium. But we don’t just owe Opera to Italians, we owe them Jazz as well! Not many people know that Benito Mussolini, whose fame and controversy precede him, was a big fan of Jazz. Without making any ideological or political claims, we can recognize the growth of this genre experienced during the troubling times of WWII. Mussolini was able to capitalize on the widespread excitement about jazz to foster its growth by encouraging playing and even granting political protection to some groups, for example the famous Trio Lescano. These musicians, along many other Italian jazz musicians were able to flourish after the war,eventually influencing American music. Italians are all about jazz, and their own style even influenced many musicians and singers, such as Frank Sinatra. Not only Mussolini Senior was into Jazz, but also one of his sons, Romano, who became an internationally renown keyboardist and even played with some of greats, like Chet Baker, Duke (The Duke) Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.
So, if you ever get to work with projects related to music, be aware that there’s an entire language ready to welcome you, move you and captivate you, on and off the sheets.