Singing with Solfege

History of the Solfege System

Solmization is the overall term for any system that uses distinct syllables to identify the various notes of a scale.

Solfege is a time-honored tradition that dates back to the eleventh century. The theorist and composer Guido of Arezzo introduced a set of syllables corresponding to the pattern of tones and semitones C-D-E-F-G-A. He noted that the phrases of the following chant begin on successive steps of the scale, and used the syllables that begin each phrase to indicate the pitch. This chant is atrributed to the monk Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon) in the 8th Century.

It has also been posited that this system was highly influenced by the Muslim (Arabic) musical system that was current during the same time period. Known as the "Separated Pearls", the system used the following notes to identify the scale: dal, ra, mim, fa, sad, lam, sin. Since the system was actually based around the Phrygian mode, the order of syllables, corresponding to letters in the Arabic alphabet, were:

Arabic letters ‎ﻡ mīm ﻑ‎ fāʼ ﺹ ṣād ﻝ‎ lām ﺱ‎ sīn ﺩ-‎ dāl ﺭ‎ rāʼ
Musical Notes ---mi ---fa ----sol---la -----si ----do ---re

It is highly unlikely that these two systems could have evolved independently of each other, given that each syllable begins with identical consonant sounds. Also, the Hymn of St. John does not contain the seventh step of the scale, the "Si", whereas the Arabic system does. (This makes sense, since the Arabic system is Phrygian, and thus would absolutely have the note B if we consider E to be tonic).

What is uncertain is which system influenced the other. It is known that Guido of Arezzo was aware of Arabic music theories, and there was a great deal of intellectual dialogue occuring between Arabic and Western cultures at this time. My personal prejudice is that the system originated in Muslim countries and made its way to Europe through the Arabic influence on the intellectual awakening in Euope after the dark ages. I tend to favor theories that bring to light what has tended to be surpressed until recently, that being the profound influence of Eastern ways of thinking on so-called Western systems of philosophy and thought. But I have no way of proving this one way or the other. There is a clear correspondance between the two systems; perhaps scholars will continue to unravel the various influences between the two.

Regardless of origin, the result of Guido's theory was the original hexachord system of six tones:

At some point, the ut was changed to do — probably to avoid the awkward ending syllable,and the seventh step of the scale was added, using the syllable si (again, possibly due to Arabic influence). In the 19th century, the "si" was changed to "ti" in English speaking countries, as it was prefered to have a different consonant for the beginning of each syllable when the system was used for sight singing. Thus resulted in the familiar major scale:


that many of us learned as children and features prominantly in many popular songs, such as "Do a Deer" from the Sound of Music. Far from being a system only for children, however, most major conservatories in the North America and Europe use the solfege system for training young professional musicians. It is the common tongue of all musicians educated in the Western system, and as we have seen, has many corresponances with non-Western systems as well.

Thus, learning solmization is a basic training for all musicians.

We can relate the solfege now to the scale steps as follows:

Placed as a major scale, we have:

Solfege and the Chromatic tones

The solfege system began as a purely diatonic system, useful for the singing of modal melodies based around a fixed tonic. As music became increasingly chromatic, the additional notes of the chromatic scale (think of the black notes of the piano) were added by changing the vowel of the diatonic syllable. Thus all "AH' sounds were changed to "AY" sounds (using the Romance language pronunciation of the letter "E") when lowered, and changed to "EE" sounds (using the Romance language pronunciation of the letter "I") when raised. This resulted in the following ascending and descending chromatic scale.


Movable Do.

For purposes of sight singing, the most common approach is to use the system of movable Do. In this system, the note for Do corresponds with the tonic of whatever key a particular composition or melody is placed. Thus in the Key of G major, G becomes Do, and in the Key of F major, F becomes Do. Here is the same folk melody, first in C, and then in G and F. Notice that while the pitch changes, the syllables do not.

Working with Solfege in Major

Learning to sight sing using solfege syllables is a tradition that dates back many hundreds of years and is still very much in use today. Anyone truly wishing to become a trained musician should gain some experience singing with solfege syllables. There are numerous exercises in Practica Musica which will help you in developing your skills for sight singing using solfege syllables.

Working with Solfege in Minor

There are two methods for learning to sing in minor keys using solfege.

Using the chromatic tones, with Do as tonic.

In this system, when we switch from a melody in C major to one in C minor, for example, C remains Do and we use "Me" for the lowered third, "Le" for the owered sixth and "Te" for the lowered seventh. The advantage to this system is that it preserves the sense of Do as Tonic, Fa as Subdominant, Sol as Dominant and Ti as leading tone, since the seventh is most often raised in the minor key. Here is a melody that begins in C major and moves into C minor, with the corresponding shift in syllables.

Using La as tonic

The other system considers any minor key as being the relative minor of a corresponding major key. Thus, we keep the Do of the major key, and use "La" as the tonic note in minor. This has its advantages for melodies that quickly modulate to the relative major, as do many classical melodies. But to me this system is more limited as it does not allow the sight-singer to appreciate the minor mode on an equal basis with the major. For our purposes, we will keep Do as tonic and learn to use "Me, Le, and Te" for the lowered scale degrees.

A Solfege Example

Here is an example of sight singing in solfege. The melody begins in C major, then modulates to C minor. Notice the shift in syllables when the flattened tones appear. For clarity, I notate the C minor section using accidentals, rather than with a key signature. Use this as a way to practice singing solfege—you will need to do this as part of the final exam.

Topics for this chapter

Assignments for this chapter

Musical Terms