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Music legend Julie Andrews and daughter Emma Walton Hamilton note history of 'Do Re Mi' in new book

Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton. (David Rodgers)
Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton. (David Rodgers)

From “The Sound of Music” to “Mary Poppins,” Julie Andrews has earned legendary status as a musician. Now, with the help of her daughter, author Emma Walton Hamilton, Andrews has translated her musical prowess onto the page of a children’s book.

The First Notes: The Story of Do, Re, Mi” hit the shelves Tuesday and tells the story of an 11th-century Benedictine monk named Brother Guido who invented a system of musical notation still used today. Written by Andrews and Hamilton, the book is illustrated by Chiara Fedele.

Though Andrews lost her crystal-clear soprano singing voice in 1997 after a botched throat operation, she still lends her voice to the screen — in movies like “Princess Diaries” — and the pages of more than 30 children’s books.

Interview highlights

On finding out about Brother Guido

Emma Walton Hamilton: “We first heard about Guido from my son’s music teacher about 15 years ago. My son was taking guitar lessons at the time, and we were chatting with his lovely music teacher and she said, ‘You may not know this, but the man who invented the solfège  — the do re mi fa so la ti da — was actually a Benedictine monk, a thousand years ago in a monastery in Italy.’ And it stayed with us.

“We kept sort of coming back to it and thinking, I wonder if there’s any further information to learn. I wonder if anyone’s written about him. Would this be a possible story for a children’s book? …. And at a certain point, we came back to it and realized that very few people were familiar with the story, including musicians.”

“The First Notes: The Story of Do, Re, Mi” cover. (Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company)

On how music was passed to others before the solfège

Julie Andrews: “Nobody was able to read or write music because there was nothing known about it. People just passed on hymns or other things to do with the church.

“If somebody is teaching it from memory, I don’t know how many monks and people like that were terribly reliable in terms of remembering a complete tune and the way it should go. So sometimes you’d get the same song sung in different ways.”

On how Brother Guido sought acceptance for his methods

Hamilton: “He not only invented do re mi fa so la ti do, but he also invented the musical staff and the idea of music notation. In his day he created them as little squares on lines. Today, of course, we know them as ovals, musical notes on the staff.

“When he shared his ideas with his fellow brothers at the Abbey, they told him that he should spend less time thinking and being creative and more time praying and being studious.”

On how Hamilton grew up around her musical mother

Hamilton: “When we sang, we sang together as a family and, quite often, it was around campfires when we were having picnics and things like that.”

Andrews: “‘You Are My Sunshine’ was one of ours.”

Book excerpt: ‘The First Notes: The Story of Do, Re, Mi’

By Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton

Excerpted from”The First Notes: The Story of Do, Re, Mi” by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton. Published by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2022 by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton. All rights reserved.


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.