The Solfege system is one of the oldest resources used for learning music, specifically how to sight sing. Developed in the 11th century by Italian theorist Guido D’Arezzo, the system began using the lyrics of a Latin liturgical hymn to help singers hear a pitch in their head before singing. While the system and syllables have been modified over the centuries, the value of the exercise remains the same.
The Syllables & Signs
If you’ve seen The Sound of Music, you can probably already sing the Solfege syllables without even realizing it! The instantly recognizable song, “Doe Re Mi”, from the musical movie is one of the most famous uses of the syllables. Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti are used to sing each note of a major scale. In the picture above left, you can see the syllables arranged for a one octave C major scale. Hand symbols, shown in the picture above right, are also used to add a physical element to the mental task of remembering note sounds. A musician will sign each syllable as they are singing to help internalize the progression of the musical intervals. Zoltán Kodály further developed this element of Solfege by instructing students to begin the first Do sign with the hand lower in front of the body and slowly working up as the notes increase in pitch.
Solfege is one of the best ways to train the mind to hear the sounds of the notes on a page without playing them first. Musicians, especially singers, train their mind to remember not only what sound corresponds with each syllable but also the pitch distance, or interval, is between each syllable. Once musicians are comfortable with these intervals and the relationship of the syllables to the scale, they are able to apply these principles to a melody in any key or mode.
Moveable vs. Fixed Do
It is important to note that some teachers and schools practice fixed Do. Using this system, middle C is always Do, D4: Re, E4: Mi and so forth up the C major scale. Moveable Do does not keep Do at middle C, instead Do is the tonic note of the Key (in G major, Do would be sung on each G note, Re on each A, Mi on each B, and so on). While both schools of thought have shown benefits in music education, Moveable Do is perhaps most common in the United States.