The Whole Gamut

There’s a nice article on at the moment about foreign words and musical notes, explaining why we use so many Italian words like piano, adagio, staccato and crescendo in our musical vocabulary. Another musical word that cropped up in my work recently was gamut, although it’s not a word you think of as having musical origins.

Nowadays, we use gamut particularly in the phrase the whole gamut, meaning ‘the complete range or scope of something’ but it is a very odd sounding little word.

It was first used in English in the 1520s to refer to the lowest note in the medieval musical scale. This medieval scale was made up of six notes: ut, re, mi, fa, sol and la. It was the predecessor of the tonic sol-fa system, Julie Andrews’ favourite, which consists of doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah and te.

It was a medieval monk called Guido de Arezzo (Italian, incidentally) who came up with the scale. He chose syllables to represent each note based on the Latin hymn to St John, ‘Ut queant laxis’.

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris

Mira gestorum famuli tuorum

Solve polluti labii reatum,

Sancte Iohannes

The lowest tone that was recognised in medieval musical theory at that time was bass G an octave and a half below middle C, which was also known as gamma. Put gamma and the first note in Guido’s system together and you get gamma ut.

Eventually, gamma ut merged into gamut and it came to refer to Guido’s whole system rather than just that one note. From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump before it came to mean scale or scope more generally.



While in Asia, do as the Asians and over here that means one thing: karaoke. Even in the most rural village in Vietnam, it’s almost impossible to walk down the street without hearing the distant sound of a tone-deaf k-pop aficionado, no Dutch courage necessary. Maybe it’s one of the better-known word origin stories but I couldn’t stay here without giving the continent’s favourite pastime a mention.

Karaoke comes from the Japanese words kara from karappo which means ‘empty’ and oke, a clipped from of okesutura which literally means ‘orchestra’. So karaoke is an empty orchestra because the songs are recorded without the voice of the singer.

The fad allegedly started when a singer failed to turn up to their scheduled performance in a bar in Japan. To solve the lack of entertainment, the bar owner played the backing track and encouraged the customers to sing along.

Others say that karaoke started in the 1970s when Daisuke Inoue, a Japanese singer, recorded his songs and recorded it for people to sing along too.

On the other hand, karaoke may come from Asia but the world record for the greatest number of people singing karaoke at one time, 120,000 people in fact, belongs to Robbie Williams in the UK and the record for the longest karaoke marathon of 1,295 songs, lasting 101 hours, 59 minutes and 15 seconds, was set by Leonardo Polverelli, an Italian. So it seems it’s not just Asians but the everyone else too who have a soft spot for a bit of a sing-song.