Solfège: An Introduction to Shape Note Singing

solfege

Welcome to the captivating world of solfège. More than just a collection of whimsical syllables, solfège is an age-old system that has shaped the way musicians—not just singers—understand and interpret the language of music.

What is Solfège?

Solfège is a music education method used to teach pitch and sight singing. It employs a series of syllables—Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do—for each note of the musical scale. 

Originating from the innovative mind of Guido d’Arezzo, an 11th-century music theorist, this system was initially conceived to help monks accurately chant hymns. Fast forward to today, and solfège has transcended its monastic origins, becoming a foundational tool for vocalists and musicians across genres and expertise levels.

Whether you’re a budding vocalist or an established artist, knowing solfège can dramatically improve your aural skills and your grasp of musical theory. Let’s delve into this fascinating topic to uncover its rich history, global influence, and lasting relevance in the modern musical landscape.

The Origins: From Monks to Musicians

Solfege isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan technique; it has a long, storied history that can be traced back to the early medieval era. The system was developed by Guido d’Arezzo, a medieval music theorist who wanted to make it easier for monks to memorise hymns and chants. Guido devised a set of syllables—Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, and La—that corresponded to specific pitches on the musical scale.

In time, the system spread beyond the confines of monastic life. The 17th and 18th centuries saw solfège adopted by classical composers and music educators, becoming a staple in the training of musicians across Europe. The system has continued to evolve over the years, with the syllable ‘Ut’ being replaced by ‘Do’, and the addition of ‘Ti’ to complete the diatonic scale.

By the 20th century, solfège had secured its place as an indispensable tool in music education, its applications extending from the classical genre to jazz, pop, and beyond.

Solfège in Pop Culture

Even if you’ve never had a formal music lesson, chances are you’re familiar with solfège thanks to the timeless classic, ‘The Sound of Music.’ In the iconic scene, Julie Andrews, playing Maria, teaches the von Trapp children the fundamentals of music using this very system with the song ‘Do-Re-Mi.’ It’s a perfect example of how solfège isn’t just for the music classroom—it’s entered into popular culture in a big way. Check out the scene below to see how effortlessly Maria introduces these age-old concepts to her young charges.

Solfège Around the World

While its roots may be steeped in European tradition, solfège has become a universal language in the world of music. Countries and cultures have tailored the system to fit their unique musical landscapes, making solfège a versatile and adaptable tool for understanding music globally.

In France, for example, the syllable ‘Ut’ was replaced by ‘Do’, a nod to the Latin word ‘Dominus’, meaning Lord. This change not only simplified the syllable but also brought a touch of spiritual significance to the scale. Likewise, the French introduced the syllable ‘Ti’ for the seventh note, completing the diatonic scale and streamlining its use in music theory.

Across the pond in America, solfège became intertwined with jazz and contemporary music education. Jazz musicians frequently employ a variation known as ‘movable Do’, where the syllables represent scale degrees rather than fixed pitches, to navigate complex chord changes and improvisational scenarios.

Even in non-Western musical traditions, such as Indian classical music, the essence of solfège shines through in systems like the ‘sargam’, which also employs syllables to denote pitches.

In essence, solfège has morphed into a musical Esperanto, a universal language that breaks down barriers and opens up new avenues of creative expression for musicians and vocalists alike.

Fixed-Do vs Movable-Do

As versatile as it is foundational, solfège isn’t a one-size-fits-all system. In fact, there are two primary approaches to it: Fixed-Do and Movable-Do. Each has its own set of merits and challenges, and the choice often boils down to personal preference or the specific requirements of the musical style you’re engaged with.

Fixed-Do

Fixed-Do anchors the syllable ‘Do’ to the note C, making each syllable correspond to an absolute, fixed pitch. This system is prevalent in many European countries and serves as the go-to approach for those invested in classical music, as it helps musicians quickly identify exact notes and intervals in complex compositions.

SyllablePitch
DoC
ReD
MiE
FaF
SolG
LaA
TiB
Fixed-Do System

Movable-Do

Movable-Do, on the other hand, allows the syllable ‘Do’ to represent the tonic or first degree of any given scale, making it movable based on the key signature. This system is particularly popular among jazz musicians and those involved in popular music genres. The flexibility of Movable-Do makes it easier to understand relative pitches and intervals, a skill crucial for improvisation and composing on the fly.

Both systems have their loyal proponents and serve different musical needs. Knowing the key differences between Fixed-Do and Movable-Do can greatly enrich your musical journey, providing you with the tools to excel in a variety of musical settings.

SyllableScale DegreeNote
Do1G
Re2A
Mi3B
Fa4C
Sol5D
La6E
Ti7F#
Do1G
Movable-Do System (Key of G Major for reference)

The Practical Applications

While solfège may have gained fame as a vocalist’s tool, its utility extends far beyond the vocal cords. Musicians of all types—from pianists to guitarists to orchestral players—can benefit from this age-old system.

One of the most immediate benefits of learning solfège is the development of a keen ear for musical intervals. By associating syllables with specific pitches or scale degrees, you’re training your ear to recognize the distance between notes, which is invaluable when it comes to understanding harmonic progressions and melodies.

Another advantage is the development of relative pitch. Especially for those using the Movable-Do system, solfège enables you to understand music in a more fluid, relative manner. This is crucial for genres that require improvisation, such as jazz or blues, as it allows you to adapt to new musical contexts swiftly and accurately.

Last but not least, solfège offers a convenient shorthand for musical communication. Forget about awkwardly trying to hum a tune or explain a musical idea in abstract terms. With solfège, you can convey complex musical thoughts in a language that’s universally understood by musicians, making collaborations smoother and more productive.

Other Variations: Tonic Sol-fa, Fasola, and Shape Note

While solfège holds the limelight as one of the most widely recognised systems for musical education, it’s essential to acknowledge other variations that have made significant contributions to the world of music.

Tonic Sol-fa

Tonic Sol-fa was invented by Sarah Ann Glover of Norwich, England, and later popularised by John Curwen. The system is based on movable do solfège, where each note is named according to its relationship with other notes in the key. Traditional staff notation is replaced with anglicised solfège syllables (e.g., do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do) or their abbreviations (d, r, m, f, s, l, t, d). The tonic of the key being used is designated as “Do,” distinguishing it as a “moveable Do” system.

Fasola

Fasola, also known as Sacred Harp singing, is a uniquely American phenomenon. Originating in the Southern United States, it employs a four-shape system (fa, so, la, mi) for its notation. Each shape corresponds to a particular syllable, making it easier to sight-read the music. The practice is often communal and has a rich history rooted in religious gatherings.

Shape Note Singing

Shape Note Singing is a system that uses unique note head shapes to signify different syllables, facilitating easier sight-reading, especially for those without formal music education. Though commonly associated with the American tradition of Sacred Harp singing, Shape Note can include more than the four syllables (fa, so, la, mi) specific to Fasola.

The Enduring Relevance of Solfège

From its humble origins in medieval monasteries to its modern-day applications in every genre under the sun, solfège has proven itself as an enduring and versatile tool for musicians and vocalists alike. Whether you’re a budding singer looking to hone your aural skills or a seasoned instrumentalist keen to deepen your theoretical knowledge, solfège offers a structured yet flexible approach to understanding music.

Solfege Books & Exercises

Dive deeper into the world of solfège with our recommended reading list, perfect for both beginners and seasoned musicians. These expertly curated books offer a range of exercises, theoretical insights, and tips to help you master solfège and fine-tune your musical skills.

Solfege, Ear Training, Rhythm, Dictation, and Music Theory:

A Comprehensive Course by Marta Arkossy Ghezzo Mel Powell – Univ of Alabama Pr (Txt)
consists of 51 lessons, starting from basic topics in theory and solfege, and gradually advancing to modern music. In each lesson, a different aspect of ear training, rhythmic reading, and theory is discussed.

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Solfege Teaching Guide

If you’re keen to delve into the world of solfège, we highly recommend Eileen Sauer’s “Solfege Teaching Guide.” This book, based on the curriculum of The French School of Music in Plainfield, NJ, offers more than just vocal exercises. It covers essential skills like sight-reading and ear training, and it’s built on a foundation that has helped countless students achieve both musical and personal success. What sets this guide apart is its emphasis on holistic learning, encouraging you not just to become a better musician, but also a more effective learner and leader. It’s a solid resource for anyone serious about understanding solfège and its broader applications.

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