Thursday, July 9, 2015

Solfeg: Part I: When You Know the Notes to Sing...

We just love Solfege.  Perhaps you know it by a different name?  With your best French accent, you might say Solfege.  If you're in Italy, it's Solfeggio.  In England, you might hear it called Solfa, but any way you pronounce it, we're excited about teaching the language of singing and hearing music. 

Ready to become bilingual with your child? Once you speak Solfege, your musical abilities (ahem, superpowers) will amaze and astound.
History of Solfege
Photo credit: Red Poppy Photo and teacher Nicci Lovell
Humans are hardwired to sing and create music.  At a certain point in history, a language was needed to talk about music and notes because musicians started to experiment and become sophisticated with sound. Hey, we invent words whenever we have new ideas, most recently we came up with "blogs" "tweets" and "hashtags".

So now you've sung the Solfege major scale in class (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do) and you might wonder why someone would choose such random syllables to be the new words of music . Well, it turns out that if you were at all musical back in the 11th century, then of course you knew the hottest pop song of the time: the chant-like Hymn to St. John the Baptist.  Check out this song (sing along if you like) and pay close attention to the words.  Can you figure out how the solfege syllables were chosen!?

Yes! Strong words in this hymn begin on each note of the major scale, so the first syllable of those words became important; they became the words that represent the notes in the scale!  There is still a little something missing to complete the diatonic scale.  Sancte Iohannes thought about it and added one more syllable, using his initials, and Si was added.  It is possible that Guido of Arezzo (creator of the hymn) and Iohannes were influenced by Eastern musical ideas.  Just take a look at the Arabic alphabet letters Muslims were using to represent notes in their musical system, and you'll see something interesting:

Arabic letters used for singing: ‎ﻡ mīm ﻑ‎ fāʼ ﺹ ṣād ﻝ‎ lām ﺱ‎ sīn ﺩ-‎ dāl ﺭ‎ rāʼ
Solfege used for singing:             mi ---fa ----sol---la -----si --(ut)do ---re 

Rogers and Hammerstein teach solfege in 'Do A Deer'
Right! Did Guido of Arezzo try to make his song fit in with the musical scale (an idea that Rogers and Hammerstein also employed in 'Do A Deer'), or did his random song become the musical scale? If you get a time machine, let me know.

Okay, you might also be asking: what about the Ut? In the 17th century, music scholar Giovanni Battista Doni rightly pointed out that it would be easier to sing if there were an open vowel.  Take a close look at his name…what syllable do you think he suggested? Do!  Or perhaps he, too, was influenced by the Arabic system.

In the 19th century, Sarah Glover suggested that each syllabic 'word' should start with a different letter, so Si was changed to Ti.  So there you have it- words were created and adopted so musicians could work with and communicate about language.

The notes of the solfege major scale today:

Did you wonder if EVERY note on your piano has a solfege word? You know, the chromatic scale, when you play each black and white key on the piano?  The answer is yes! This is the chromatic scale ascending:

And below is the chromatic scale descending.  In Let's Play Music class you'll hear us use me le and te (pronounced 'may' 'lay' and 'tay') when we teach students  to transpose their song into a minor key by finding all of the mi la and tis and lowering them. Re is a funny one, because it already sounds like 'ray', so if we lower it we change it to 'rah'.

Solfeggio in Education
Solfege was brought into prominence in education as researchers discovered the brain’s ability to connect more easily with pitch relationships if a syllable is attached. Solfege gives a name to each step of the scale, so students can learn, for example, the sound ‘MI-SOL’ by singing it (in any key) without having to think about a written note. I am confident that I could sing any note and YOU (after attending first year Let's Play Music) could sing a minor third above or below it, by imagining 'sol-mi' or 'mi-sol'.

Today, solfege is used at most major European and American music schools for training professional musicians. It is the common tongue of all Western musicians, and has many non-Western correspondents as well. 
Curwen and Kodály
John Curwen (Britain, 1816-1880) created hand signs for notes, giving us a way to visually and physically represent the function of each note of the major scale. In this way, full body involvement is utilized as the hands ‘feel’ the major scale. While singing in solfeg, the child is producing the pitch with his voice, hearing it with his ear, and reinforcing that pitch relationship with his hands.
The Curwen Hand Signs Adopted By Kodály
Curwen Hand Signs

When signing the solfeg syllables, the hands begin near the waist with DO and rise with each consecutive sign until the octave DO is at a height near your forehead. Hand signs must always communicate pitch height to be completely effective for training the ear.

Zoltan Kodály (Hungary, 1882-1967) was a revolutionist who changed the attitudes of teaching music to children. He incorporated hand signs as a teaching tool.

Another ear training method Kodály promulgated was that of pattern imitation, or patterning.
This is the planned sequence of certain melodic motifs that are presented to the children first in songs, and imitation exercises. Through this presentation, the children would internalize the patterns, which would open the door for them to be identified, labeled, and notated. In this way, Kodály sought to produce children who not only could read music, but who felt it and understood it.

Your Musical Superpower
Hand signs and patterning promote “inner hearing”: a term that Kodály created.
Inner hearing is the ability to hear music in the mind without any music actually being present, and is the precursor to all musical skill.

One of the fundamental inner hearing skills is developing tonal orientation: a feel for the tonal center. Tonal center is the musical “pull” toward the tonic chord and the tonic pitch (DO).  A child who has developed tonal orientation can hear a piece of music in whole or part and accurately decipher where DO is – and can sing it. When this skill is acquired, it is then possible to hear a piece, determine the pitch relationships, and then write down, transpose, or compose a harmony to these notes. 

All Let's Play Music students have the diatonic scale so strongly patterned in their mind's ear that they will intuitively be able to recognize and identify (sing) DO, the tonal center in a piece of music. 

Once the diatonic scale and the diatonic center (DO) are internalized, the ear understands each scale step and can hear pitch relationships (intervals) more easily with practice.  Here is one fun way YOU can start practicing pitch relationships.

By the end of Let's Play Music training, students can sing in tune, hear in tune, and identify if someone else is singing in tune or not (watch out, Mom!).  It is because we have a language for labeling and recalling the pitches and relationships of music that we can easily hold on to sounds in our mind and practice these musical skills.

This is the power of solfeg; and ear training at its finest!
So, let’s start at the very beginning. Let’s use Solfege to develop the inner musician in every child. The sound of DO, the melodic patterns from class, and the pitch relationship exercises students experience now will stay in their aural memory for life!

Continue Reading:
SOLFEGE: Part 2: 7 Reasons We Love It!

SOLFEGE: Part 3: Learn the Handsigns


  1. Thanks Shelle for posting this, very helpful… I have always wondered the history behind "Solfege!"

  2. This is really interesting history! I love how you also answer the question of why it's important to teach and use solfege. Thanks!

  3. I love this so much! I love solfege! This is so interesting and informative! Everyone should learn this!

  4. Thank you for taking the time to share this! I found so many answers to a lot of the questions I had about Solfege, but this was also a fun & fascinating read!