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The Use of Solfeggio in Sightsinging:
Fixed vs. Movable "Do" for People Without Perfect-Pitch

 
 
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The Use of Solfeggio in Sightsinging:
Fixed vs. Movable "Do" for People Without Perfect-Pitch
Dr. Jody Nagel

Revised September 23, 2005.
Based on an open panel discussion at the Music Theory Forum, which I conducted jointly with a fellow graduate student, Mary Hestor, while at The University of Texas at Austin (1985-1992); and also based on my own subsequent thoughts.
 
 
Musicians require both an absolute and a relative system for referring to pitch-class. In English-speaking countries, the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G, sometimes with an affixed accidental, are the absolute names for pitch-classes. Thus, "C" is always the same key on a piano regardless of how that pitch functions within a piece of music. The numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 are used to indicate the relative names for the tones of a 7-tone scale. So, therefore, "1" refers to C in the key of C-major and to D in the key of D-major, etc., while "2" refers to D in the key of C-major and to E in the key of D-major, etc.
 
The English-speaking world has, for better or for worse, inherited from France a third system for designating pitch, known as "solfeggio," and which employs the labels Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti. Guido of Arezzo (ca. 995 - ca. 1050) first introduced these "solfeg" labels (though he used "Ut" rather than "Do" and did not employ anything at all, in his hexachord-based system, for what we would call the seventh scale degree). He noticed that the six phrases of a hymn, Ut queant laxis, began on (what we would call) major scale-degrees 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, respectively. The first syllable of each of these Latin phrases was Ut, Re-, Mi-, Fa-, Sol-, and La-, and Guido used these six syllables to name the first six scale degrees. Later, scale-degree 1 was renamed "Do," and scale-degree 7 was named "Si." Even later, the English-speaking world renamed the 7th scale degree as "Ti." Also, the syllable "Sol" is now usually pronounced "So," and this allows all seven syllables to begin with a consonant and end with a vowell, which is ideal for singing. In Guido's time, pitch was not yet standardized (i.e., there was no "A-440"). Thus, the label "Sol" referred to the 5th scale degree of any "major" scale, but it also would have referred to the 4th scale degree of any "Dorian" scale, etc. If the English designations had been used at that time, it would essentially have been as if "G" referred to the fifth note of any transposition of a "major" scale and to the 4th note of any transposition of a "Dorian" scale, etc.
 
In the modern English-speaking world, there seems to be a desire to continue using these "solfeg syllables." This means that we must decide if we wish these labels, Do, Re, Mi, etc., to represent an absolute or a relative system of pitch designation. Those that use "Fixed-Do" have chosen to associate "Do, Re, Mi" with "C, D, E" and, in doing so, are attempting to employ these labels as absolute designators. Those that use "Moveable-Do" have chosen to associate "Do, Re, Mi" with "1, 2, 3" and, in doing so, are attempting to employ these labels as relative designators.
 
It is rather amusing, for the first-time observer, to overhear "theorists" arguing as to whether or not students should be taught Fixed or Moveable "Do" in their course of music study. Musicians need both an absolute and a relative system for pitch. For example, a clarinetist needs to know the correct "fingering" to produce the concert-pitch Middle C. If this pitch is scale degree 1 of C-minor, scale degree 3 of A-flat-major, or scale degree 6 of E-minor, etc., the clarinetist still must be able to produce the pitch Middle C. On the other hand, regardless of the key it is sung in, musicians should be able to recognize that the tune, "Happy Birthday to You," begins on the 5th scale degree. The absolute pitch-system seems to be more appropriate when operating a musical instrument, while the relative pitch-system seems to be more appropriate for perceiving how various tones function (i.e., where they are located) within a scale.
 
If English-speaking musicians used only "1, 2, 3" for perceiving musical relationships and only "C, D, E" for operational purposes, then there would be no argument whatsoever over "fixed" vs. "moveable" Do. At the other extreme, however, if beginning musicians were forced to learn both "fixed Do" and "moveable Do" at the same time, it would produce psychological dissonance since the same signifier would be used to signify two different concepts that are both within the same field of study: music. If solfeg is to be used at all, it is essential that either fixed Do or moveable Do be initially used for quite some time, but not both.
 
We will now focus specifically on beginning sight-singing.
 
The use of fixed-Do implies that the teacher wishes to emphasize the operation of reading notes on the staff. The student must be able to accurately identify the name of the note that he or she is singing. The name of the piano's white-key immediately to the left of a group of two black keys, and also the first ledger line below the treble-clef staff or above the bass-clef staff, for example, is called "Do" (or "C").
 
The use of moveable-Do implies that the teacher wishes to emphasize the perceived relationships between pitches as they occur within scales. The name of the first note of the scale, in this case, is called "Do" (or "1").
 
The "debate" between fixed-Do and moveable-Do is essentially a debate between whether or not to emphasize the operational or the perceptual requirements of music. It is actually an absurd debate, since professional musicians require both operational and perceptual skills.
 
Let's take a step back and compare the English-speaking musical world to countries where music is taught in another language. In contemporary France, for example, this debate could not take place, since the absolute names of their pitches are "Do, Re, Mi" and the alphabet letters are not commonly used to refer to pitch. French music students, by default then, learn a form of "fixed-Do." However, when an English-speaking music student hears a French music student rattling off long lists of solfeg labels, it should be realized that this is equivalent to an American student rapidly naming the successive notes of a melody using the designators "C, D, E, etc." Indeed, many non-English-speaking countries follow the example of France. Conversely, to a person without "perfect pitch," the interval between two pitches can be recognized perceptually, while the two individual pitches cannot be absolutely named without an external reference. In France, such a person would refer to the two pitches using numerical designators, 1, 2, 3, etc., based on where the two pitches reside within a scale. This would also be possible for an American student.
 
If American music students avoided solfeg syllables altogether, they would never encounter the slightest pedagogical problem when learning 1, 2, 3 and A, B, C. And yet, those little labels, Do, Re, Mi, have become such "musical-sounding" words that many teachers continue to desire to use them. For such teachers, please do not use the syllables for both absolute and relative pitch designators; choose one or the other of the two systems. If you choose to use fixed-Do, please also teach the use of 1, 2, 3 for naming relative pitches. If you use moveable-Do, please also teach the use of A, B, C for naming absolute pitches.
 
Some of the variations of the two basic solfeg systems in use are listed below.
 

Fixed-Do:
(1) Non-chromatic syllables.
C and C-sharp are both named "Do." The voice must inflect up or down the actual pitch while saying "Do." D, D-flat, and D-sharp are all named "Re." Etc. In this system, the ascending pitches of a C-major scale are named Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La Ti, Do. An ascending E-major or E-minor scale (or an E-scale in any other 7-tone mode) is always labeled Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do, Re, Mi. Etc.
(2) Chromatic syllables.
C is named "Do." C-sharp is named "Di." The names of sharp pitches are based on the names of natural pitches with the final vowell altered to "i" (pronounced as a long "E"); this has the advantage of causing raised notes to rhyme with "Ti," which stretches the mouth open wide, and physically as well as musically leads to resolution on the pitch a semitone higher. The names of flat pitches (except for Re Flat) are based on the names of natural pitches with the final vowell altered to "e" (pronounced as a long "A"). The exception, Re Flat, is designated "Ra." The ascending chromatic scale from C to C, then, is labeled Do, Di, Re, Ri, Mi, Fa, Fi, Sol, Si, La, Li, Ti, Do. The descending chromatic scale from C to C is labeled Do, Ti, Te, La, Le, Sol, Se, Fa, Mi, Me, Re, Ra, Do. The pitches of an ascending E-major scale are named Mi, Fi, Si, La, Ti, Di, Ri, Mi. Etc. In this system, E-sharp and B-sharp are named "Mis" and "Tis," respectively. A double-sharped note is named by adding an "s" to the name of a sharped note, and a double-flatted note is named by adding an "s" to the name of a flatted note. Thus, G-double-sharp is called "Sis," G-double-flat is called "Ses," and D-double-flat is called "Ras."
Moveable-Do:
(3) Non-chromatic syllables.
Scale-degrees 1 and sharp-1 are both named "Do." The voice must inflect up or down the actual pitch while saying "Do." Scale-degree 2, flat-2, and sharp-2 are all named "Re." Etc. Thus, the ascending pitches of any 7-note scale are named Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do.
(4) Chromatic syllables.
Scale-degree 1 is named "Do." Sharp-1 is named "Di." The ascending chromatic scale from 1 to 1, then, is named Do, Di, Re, Ri, Mi, Fa, Fi, Sol, Si, La, Li, Ti, Do. The descending chromatic scale from C to C is named Do, Ti, Te, La, Le, Sol, Se, Fa, Mi, Me, Re, Ra, Do. [See (2) above for a description of these naming conventions.] Thus, the ascending pitches of any major scale are named Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do. The ascending pitches of any natural minor scale are named Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, Le, Te, Do. Note that, in the key of C major or in "atonal" music, the chromatic moveable-Do system converges with the chromatic fixed-Do system. Of particular importance to those music students from France or other non-English-speaking countries that use non-chromatic fixed Do: in those countries, the syllable "Si" is still used to indicate the pitch "B." In countries such as Korea, where non-chromatic moveable Do is often used, "Si" refers to the 7th scale degree. However, in the moveable-Do system with chromatic syllables, "Si" refers to a raised fifth scale degree, and "Ti" is used for the leading tone!
(5) "Moveable Do-La."
Scale-degree 1 of any major scale is called "Do." Scale-degree 1 of any minor scale is called "La." Scale-degree 1 of any Dorian scale is called "Re." Etc. In the case of altered-scale tones, the conventions of either Non-chromatic syllables or Chromatic syllables might be used. Incidentally, this system (with non-chromatic syllables) is closest to the one Guido used in the 11th century, since, at that time, there was no defined A-440 and, by definition, the system was more or less "moveable."


 
It is my opinion that contemporary American music students already get much exposure to an operational (absolute) system from their studio and ensemble teachers while learning to play an instrument. Thus, in sightsinging and ear-training classes, I prefer using moveable-Do to emphasize the perceptual (relative) system of pitch identification. I prefer the use of chromatic syllables because they seem to make the student more consciously and rigorously aware of modal differences and of chromaticism. I once used the "Moveable Do-La" system and I acknowledge that it increases students awareness of relative keys (i.e., keys with the same key-signature such as G-major, E-minor, A-Dorian, etc.). However, in my music classes, I now prefer to name any tonic pitch "Do" [the system given above as (4)], as I feel that the large majority of an individual's perception lies in comparing individual pitches to a tonic reference pitch, and not in comparing entire passages with other entire passages in a relative key. For myself, I have mastered fixed Do, moveable Do, and moveable Do-La (in each case using chromatic syllables) and choose, in my own mind, sometimes to employ one or another of the three systems.
 
It should be noted that the moveable systems require one additional technical problem; when music modulates to another key, a decision must be made concerning the point at which "Do" shifts from one pitch to another. However, if a perceptual emphasis is desired, then having students perceive when modulation takes place (by having them make the decision as to when to change the "Do" reference pitch) is itself another positive feature of the system.
 
For those trying to decide which system to use for themselves or in the classroom, I must stress that, whichever type of solfeg (if any) that you employ, you must ultimately master both an absolute and a relative system for referring to pitches if you wish to excel in the musical universe.
 
Dr. Jody Nagel
Copyright © 2005 by Jody Jay Nagel
 
 
 

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