Medieval Solfeggio within the Heptagonal Church of Rieux Minervois

This paper responds to Reichart and Ramalingam’s study of three heptagonal churches[1], particularly the 12th century church at Rieux Minervois in the Languedoc region of France (figure 1a).

image: The Church in situ

Reichart and Ramalingam discuss the close medieval association of the prime number seven[2] with the Virgin Mary, to whom this church was dedicated. The outer wall of the original building still has fourteen vertical ribs on the inside, each marking vertices of a tetraheptagon, and an inner ring of three round and four vertex-like pillars (figure 1b) forming a heptagon that supports an internal domed ceiling within an outer heptagonal tower. The outer walls, dividable by seven, could have represented an octave and in the 12th century world of hexachordal solmization (ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la [sans si & do])[3]. The singing of plainchant in churches provided a melodic context undominated by but still tied to the octave’s note classes. Needing only do-re-mi-fa-sol-la, for the three hexachordal dos of G, C and F, the note letters of the octave were prefixed in the solmization to form unique mnemonic words such as “Elami”.It is therefore possible that a heptagonal church with vertices for the octave of note letters would have been of practical use to singers or their teachers.

The official plan of Rieux Minervois

12th Century Musical Theory

In the 10th Century, the Muslim Al-Kindi was first to add two tones to the Greek diatonic tetrachord of two tones and single semitone (T-T-S) and extend four notes to the six notes of our ascending major scale, to make TTSTT. This system appeared in the Christian world (c. 1033) in the work of Guido of Arezzo, a Benedictine monk who presumably had access to Arabic translations of al-Kindi and others [Farmer. 1930]. Guido’s aim was to make Christian plainsong learnable in a much shorter period, employing a dual note and solfege notation around seven overlapping hexachords called solmization. Plainsongs extending over one, two or even three different hexachords could then be notated.

Hexachords conceptually overlapped (figure 2, left); another starting when the previous hexachord reached fa, the fifth, or when the melody again reached a given hexachord’s do of G, C or F. The Solmizations, prefixed with their note letters using Boethius’ Gamut system (Starting with our G (for Gamma ut G to e”) then A, etc., as we do today). For example, e’ would be uniquely called “Elami” since it was the note E, and the solfege la, for hexachord of G, whilst also mi, in the hexachord of C.

In contrast, the modern solfége of key signatures, without note letters, refers us to the major diatonic scale when equal tempered keyboards enable modulation of key signatures. By retaining the note letters, the hexachordal world could still reference the octave as a locational framework whilst also loosening the grip of do as tonic, as with modulation. The white notes of our keyboard were the basis of solmization with one exception: the minor hexachord starting at F had to impose the major diatonic T-t-s upon the T-t-T sequence of the diatonic scale by the solitary chromatic Bb.

Figure 2 The relations between Hexachords and the Octave of note names.
[on left, Willi Apel, 1969]

The solmization code created a namespace of unique composite words[1]. By combining note letters and hexachord positions, notes became unique words like Elami. Each note became linked to Beothius’ Gamut from G to e”, the solomised names explicitly identifying their context in the octave as well as the hexachords they belonged to (Figure 3).

Figure 3 The Solmization namespace combining Boethius’ note letters and Guido’s Solfeggio [Willi Apel, 1969]

When melodies exceeded the hexameter within which they were currently set; “In order to accommodate melodic progressions exceeding the compass of one hexachord, two (or more) hexachords were interlocked by a process of transition, called mutation”, since “in medieval theory the compass of tones was obtained not by joined octaves but by overlapping hexachords” and “tones of higher or lower octaves were not considered ‘identical’ within a Boethian scale of G to e””. [Willi Apel. 1969]

The Church as Octave within Solmization

If do of the “natural” hexachord (C) is placed on the (exactly) northern outer vertex of the fourteen vertices, then the three round pillars land, using Just intonation, in the midst of the Pythagorean tones of the major diatonic whilst the four vertex-like pillars coincide with the uniquely Just tones and semitones[1] (figure 4). The southern door marks the tritone between fa (F the minor hexachord) and sol (G, the hard hexachord). The walls of the church could therefore have usefully symbolised the intervals and note classes of the major scale[2] during the perambulation of the hexachordal plainchant, verbalized using Solmization. That is, if the church symbolized the successive octaves of the tonal world notated using hexachords, the building might have been a regional school for training singers, outside the customary cathedral and monastic schools of the 12th century. Guido’s method (staff notation and solfeggio and solmization) rapidly became famous and was widely adopted throughout north Italy and elsewhere[3]. When built, 12th century Languedoc and northern Italy was strongly populated by Cathars, so triggering the crusade from Rome and hence the subsequent confiscation of the church from its feudal owner.

[1] The practical scale of the day would have been the major diatonic since its three major thirds (between do and mi, fa and la and between sol and si) are achieved using the fifths and fourths of Pythagorean tuning in combination with the major thirds. This automatically generates the different tones and semitone found in Just intonation: T = 9/8 and t =10/9 form, in combination, the major third of T × t =5/4, short of the perfect fourth by the new Just semitone, s = 16/15.

[2] the natural scale for Just intonation when tuned using fifths, fourths and major thirds

In numerical tuning theory, the Virgin Mother would be the perfect symbol for an heptagonal church since the world of music springs from an octaval womb (whose number symbol is 2); only the male numbers (3 and 5) can reach into and divide the octave to create octaves of Pythagorean and Just intervals, then symbolic of Christ’s birth. The seven intervals and the notes of the diatonic scale provide a framework within which the magic of hexachordal singing expresses melody with a suppressed Ego or tonic. Hexachordal music strays across many tonic contexts. Numerical harmonists may have viewed tonics as titular deities of the limiting numbers required to theoretically generate Just Intonation[1], like the demiurges creating worlds but becoming an enemy of melodic freedom within them, by seeking to reference everything to their tonic. Arguably the natural tension, between static tonics of the octave and developmental movements like those found in hexachordal music, manifested the Classical traditions of sonata, concerto and symphony.

Drawing the intervals within the Church

If the two types of tone are each given a span of two or three sides of the tetradecagon, and the semitone a span of only one side, the total would be 3 + 2 + 1 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 1 equalling 15 sides rather than 14. But if one respects the natural symmetry of the tone circle about Re, as the (modern) Dorian scale, then one can make the initial tone of 9/8 symmetrical with the following tone of 10/9. In practice, nothing is lost since the church is only loosely a tone circle, with no imposition of logarithms except for those native to the ear, that hears intervals of the same size as the same size irrespective of pitch. Modes other than major could then have similarly been expressed by choosing other starting notes and vertices explicitly given within the fixed solmization words as the note letter prefix[2].

Figure 3 The encoding of intervals within the church

In the arrangement proposed, the disposition of round pillars coincides with the disposition of Pythagorean tones (of 9/8) on the outer wall, whilst the vertex-like pillars face the Just tones of t = 10/9 and s = 16/15. Pythagoras saw these now-eponymous tones of 9/8 as divinely perfect and hence a circular form is appropriate: The pure tones 9/8 are born (in numerical tuning theory) only by the divine male prime number 3 and the female octaval number 2 seen in 9/8[1]. In addition, Just tone 10/9 and semitone 16/15 require the humanly-male prime number 5 to birth them within the womb of the octave’s tone circle. The northern round pillar would also identify the necessarily shortened whole tone as Pythagorean, despite its being shortened, thanks to the association of pillar shapes with either type of whole tone.

As stated above, one can imagine that in a church, designed to represent an octave in the round, one could conduct the choir in Solfeggio.

My book on the role of musical theory in terms of both the number involved and ancient cosmological thinking is called The Harmonic Origin of the World. It came about through a virtual apprenticeship with Ernest G. McClain whose books The Myth of Invariance and The Pythagorean Plato revolutionized the subject (both books can be read in pdf at his posthumous website.)


Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music. 1969.

Farmer, Henry George. Historical facts for the Arabian Musical Influence. 1930.

[1] Three Heptagonal Sacred Spaces by Sarah Reinhart and Vivian Ramalingam, pages 33-50 in Music and Deep Memory: Speculations in ancient mathematics, tuning, and tradition. in Memoriam Ernest G. McClain. ICONEA Publications 2018.

[2] which cannot join with any other number below ten or even twelve.

[3] then known as Ut–re–mi-fa-so-la-Sa-Io after the mnemonic “Ut queant laxis, resonare fibris, Mira gestorum, famuli tuorum, Solve pollute, labii reatum, Sancte Iohannes”: So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.

[1] Ernest G. McClain, The Pythagorean Plato 1978.

[4] a namespace arises when each name is unique whilst shared elements common to the other words, such as note letters and the solfege within hexachords.

[2] This transpositional modality is reminiscent of our later key signatures to which solfeggio is now applied.


[1] Ernest G McClain The Myth of Invariance, 1976