Why do I have to sing in Solfège??




Good Question! I suspect that if you’re a student (or even if you aren’t one), you won’t be satisfied with my answer, but here goes:



The shortest answer is that if you don’t sing in solfège, you won’t pass Aural Theory at Temple (no matter who teaches it).


Okay, so that answer’s a bit weak.



A short answer is that people who use some kind of solfège system (solmization), ANY kind of solfège, tend to gain fluency with pitch faster and more thoroughly than people who use no system. So, the first “rule” of ear training is that one should pick a solfège system and stick to it.



The long answer is that solmization is used in all parts of the world. Europe, China, Korea, Japan, India, and Indonesia all have solmization schemes. For example, the syllables in India are:


sa  -  ri  -  ga  -  ma  -  / /  -  pa  -  dha  -  ni  -  (sa)


The old syllables in Japan are:


i  -  ro  -  ha  -  ni  -  ho  -  he  -  to  -  (i)


In most cultures solmization is a way of naming pitches, identifying relationships between pitches, representing a modal scheme (an arrangement of the different sizes of musical steps), or a combination of these. People who use solfège syllables are associating a “word” with a pitch, or with a place on a scale, or with a relationship (interval). Though we can certainly learn to hear these relationships without a solfège system, most cultures have found that solmization is a way of becoming facile with pitch, of rationalizing sound. Imagine trying to represent colors to yourself and to others without words for those colors. Solmization gives words to pitch.



Learning solfège can be frustrating, especially in the beginning of aural skills. In Aural Theory I the melodies are so easy at first that the solfège just seems to get in the way. The ease with which you can sing these early melodies, though, gives you time to practice thoroughly the syllables that go with them. With time you will begin to associate those syllables with the pitches and intervals in these early melodies. It is important, therefore, that even if you CAN sing these melodies perfectly without the syllables, you should practice the syllables until they are fluent.



Fixed Do, Moveable Do, Numbers:


In schools of music in the United States and Canada there are primarily three systems of solfège: Fixed Do, Moveable Do, and Numbers. Each of these systems offers advantages and disadvantages.




Fixed Do makes the syllable “Do” always equivalent to C, no matter what the key, no matter what the accidental. Cb, C, C# are all “Do” in every key. Db, D, D# are all “Re” in every key, etc.


Do = C,  Re = D,  Mi = E,  Fa = F,  Sol = G,  La = A,  Ti = B



The fixed-do system is used in France, Italy, Spain, and much of Central and South America. In addition, Asian countries like Korea and Japan, which have been imperialized by Western music, have adopted the fixed do system. When the system is used in schools in the United States, it is often the case that the school in question once hired French, Italian, or Spanish instructors to teach ear training.


The advantage to the fixed-do system is that students who use it consistently begin to attain something close to acquired pitch (perfect pitch), the ability to identify pitch names without being given a reference pitch. The disadvantage of the fixed-do system is that students who use it often fail to hear the relationships between pitch that are so crucial to understanding tonal music. For example, I once had a student with acquired pitch who absolutely could not transpose a melody into another key. She literally could not hear the intervals between pitches.


Students fluent in the fixed-do system often exhibit remarkable musical abilities, including an advanced capability to sight-read. However, consideration must be given to the fact that in countries where the fixed-do system is in use, musicians often learn solfège at a very young age and frequently are required to sing pieces in solfège before they learn to play them on their instrument. When I was an undergraduate at Eastman, there was a piano professor from Italy who would not allow her students to perform a piece until they could solfège that piece by memory. As you might expect, her students were very solid performers. However, few of the students I have encountered have the patience to endure the types of solfège exercises this professor demanded of her students.



Moveable Do makes the syllable of the tonic pitch “Do” in every key. In addition, chromatic pitches are reflected in the system with different syllables. So, in C major, C = Do, and C# = Di. In F major, F = Do, and F# = Di, etc.


Do = Tonic,  Re = Supertonic,  Mi = Mediant,  Fa = Subdominant,

Sol = Dominant,  La = Submediant,  Ti = Leading-tone



The advantage to the moveable-do system is that it enhances the student’s ability to hear tonal relationships.  Do is always the tonic, and intervals within a key can always be measured from Do. In addition, the chromatic syllables allow for measuring distances within the chromatic scale. The disadvantage is that students often struggle with moving Do around from key to key. Also, in highly chromatic music, it is not always easy to change Do quickly with each change of key.



A Note on Do/La Minor:


Within the moveable-do system there are two ways to sing in minor keys. In the Do-based minor, Do is always tonic, even in a minor key. In the La-based minor, La is the tonic in minor keys.


La-based minor is particularly good for singing certain folk-song repertoires and certain modal music. For this reason, Music Education departments in the U.S. tend to use this system for their students and advocate its use in the public schools. On the other hand, theory departments tend to use the Do-based minor system, leading to tension among departments in many schools of music.


Theory departments favor Do-based minor, because it reinforces many of the ideas studied in harmony courses. Though La-based minor is good for certain repertoires, it quickly becomes unwieldy when used for harmony. For example, a tonic triad in La-based minor is either Do-mi-sol, or La-do-mi, depending on the mode. A tonic triad in Do-based minor is Do-mi-sol, or Do-me-sol: the tonic triad in this system gets basically the same solfège in major or minor. As more complicated harmonic progressions become the focus of study, La-based minor impedes close connection between written and aural theory.



Numbers assign scale-steps to each tone of the major or minor scale, beginning with the tonic:


1 = Tonic,  2 = Supertonic,  3 = Mediant,  4 = Subdominant,

5 = Dominant,  6 = Submediant,  7 = Leading-tone


The numbers remain the same in major or minor. The numbers remain the same regardless of chromatic inflection.  Like moveable do, the number system reinforces tonal relationships, since 1 is always the tonic. Like fixed-Do, numbers fail to reflect any chromatic inflections. In the key of C, F is 4, and so is F#. Numbers are often used in schools with a large population of foreign students, for whom Do literally means “C,” and Re literally means “D.” These students often have great difficulty learning the Moveable-Do system, and so the numbers system is a good compromise.




Back to the top of this page.






Michael Klein
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
Esther Boyer College of Music and Department of Dance
Temple University
Email: Kleinml@aol.com

Revised -- 5/16/03