The Solfège system is one of the oldest resources used for learning music, specifically how to sight sing. Developed in the 11th century by Italian music theorist Guido D’Arezzo, this system was created by 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 Solfège syllables without even realizing it! The instantly recognizable song, “Do-Re-Mi”, is one of the most notable 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. Typically, 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 Solfège 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.
Solfège is one of the best ways to train musicians to audiate, or mentally hear, the sounds of notes in sheet music without playing them first. Musicians, especially singers, train their mind to remember not only what pitch corresponds with each syllable but also the distance, or interval, 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 Do vs. Fixed Do
There are two notable approaches to the Solfège system: Moveable Do and Fixed Do. In the Fixed Do system, middle C (C4) is always Do, D4: Re, E4: Mi and so forth up the C major scale. The Moveable Do system, on the other hand, does not keep Do at middle C. Instead, Do is the tonic note of the key [for example: 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.