“When you know the notes to sing, you can sing ‘most anything,” concludes Maria, after teaching the Von Trapp children her famous “Do–Re–Mi” song in The Sound of Music. While the thought of “Do, a deer” may seem elementary, Maria was right. In fact, solfège–the proper term for the syllables she sings–is not only useful for vocalists, but for any musician who wants to develop a good ear.
Solfège dates back to the 10th century, when the Italian music theorist Guido d’Arrezzo attached syllables and hand signs to various notes. Because there was no standard system of music notation at that time, the syllables and hand signs made it easier for him to teach the monks how to sing church hymns. The system later underwent several transformations, including standardization of the syllables in France, and further development of the hand signs in England. In the early 20th century, Hungarian composer and educator Zoltán Kodály popularized the method for use in music education.
The beauty of solfège is that it helps develop what is called “relative pitch.” You may have heard of “perfect pitch,” a skill some people possess that allows them to hear a pitch and, without any frame of reference, name the note. But for those of us not blessed with that ability, relative pitch can be very useful. A well-developed sense of relative pitch allows you to hear and recognize relationships between notes (intervals), even if you don’t know the note names. Interval recognition–that is, being able to hear in your head what notated intervals should sound like–is extremely helpful in the task of sight reading and the constant challenge of intonation (playing in tune).
The basic solfège syllables correspond to the notes of the major scale. As you probably know, a major scale can begin on any pitch, but thanks to the use of sharps and flats, the sequence of intervals in the scale is always the same: whole step–whole step–half step–whole step–whole step–whole step–half step. So, no matter what key you are in, you can sing up a major scale on “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do,” and back down in the reverse order.
Try it for yourself! Sing major scales in solfège, starting on all different notes. Use your instrument or a tuner to check every so often that you are in tune. Next, add the hand signals (shown above) as you sing. For the bottom “Do,” your hand should be about waist level, and gradually get higher as you move up the scale, ending about shoulder level when you reach the top “Do.” The physical acts of singing out loud and using hand signals reinforce the pitch relationships in your memory.
To take it to the next level, work with the notes out of scale order. To start, sing “Do–Mi” back and forth. Then, add “Sol” to the sequence. Finally, add the top “Do” to form a full arpeggio. In note names, this is equivalent to C–E–G–C in C major, D–F#–A–D in D major, etc.
Now, try making up your own patterns using just those few solfège syllables. Remember to continue to use the hand signs! Once you feel that you have a solid grasp on singing “Do,” “Mi,” and “Sol,” in all different keys, add “La” and “Re” to your patterns. “Fa” and “Ti” are the last notes you should add, when you are ready. Practice singing solfège in a variety of sequences, so that you become comfortable with every possible interval.
Another great exercise is to take a simple song (such as nursery rhymes) and use your new-found relative pitch to figure out the correct solfège syllables. Keep in mind that in almost any song, the last pitch is “Do.”
Before long, you’ll begin to recognize solfège intervals in commercial jingles, in your cell phone ring, in your doorbell chime … everywhere! Most importantly, you’ll be more tuned in to intervals to listen for when it really counts: in your playing.