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Solfege in music – What is solfege and how can you use it?

solfege in music

“Do re mi fa so la ti da” is an instantly recognizable refrain. This is especially true if you have ever watched “The Sound of Music”. This is an example of solfege patterns being used to help teach a musical scale.

For most musicians who take up an instrument, one of the first things you will do is learn how to play a major scale. 

For other musicians who are singers, or learning to sing, it can be very difficult to sing a musical scale in tune, because the voice does not have any physical keys we can press to make the notes in tune. The intervals are consistent on a piano and we have the physical representation of this in the keys.

Solfege is a system to give a little helping hand to musicians, both singers and instrumentalists. But who invented solfege and why does it help? 

The solfège system was invented nearly a thousand years ago by the same man who invented the note system commonly used in music. He was the Italian Guido di Arezzo (ca. 995-1050). After many years his method was altered, syllables were changed and methods were adopted. This then led to the creation of the solfege hand sign system, solfege syllables, and the wide acceptance of solfege in music education. It is a way for musicians who do not play keyed instruments to represent major and minor scales accurately, by using hand symbols to coordinate a physical and mental connection and to use solfege practice and solfege singing to better learn the relationship between the notes.

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What is solfege in music? 

The solfege system is easier to understand once you know the reason it was developed. The Solfege hand signs and syllables assigned to each note represent the physical keys we can play on our instrument, and they are a way we can represent pitch movement and intervals in the voice, or our ear because each syllable definition corresponds to a note written in the music. Solfege for piano is also useful as it allows us to assign a new way of learning and understand the scales.

While learning what is solfege in music, you must understand it is a big part of music education for singers, but over the years musicians have learned the great effect it can have on other types of musicians. Solfege syllables are an incredible tool to increase your ear training and relative pitch and learn to mentally hear music without having to play the notes with an instrument. This, of course, leads to better sight reading, improvisation, sheet music interpretation, and pitch recognition. 

This skill has been integrated into western music, and almost all musicians learn solfege. You can refer to our solfege chart below to see the exact symbols used in sight reading training, these are the same syllables used for every instrument. 

Solfege syllables and Solfege hand signs

We often think of solfege by using the sounds we have assigned to them, but all solfege syllables also have a specific hand sign, one for each of the scale degrees in each key. 

The solfege hand symbols can represent the notes of the piano, or you can say the name of the solfege syllable while playing the key on the piano instead of using the solfege signs. 

These solfege hand signs are paired with each of the solfege syllables. The solfege sign is meant to be shown by your hand, as you play or sing the corresponding note. Each of the solfege symbols refers to a specific note. 

A musician who is adept at sight singing can sing any note, imagine that the sung note is “Do”, or scale degree one, and then can sing the rest of the pitches in the music relative to this imaginary Do. It is a pattern that can be replicated in different pitches.

This is called sight singing with Movable Do (movable because the starting pitch can change) and it is the corresponding skill for vocalists as piano sheet music sight reading for pianists. There are two types of solfege sight reading musicians can use, and both will be covered below, but it is important to remember that each note in the key signature in the sheet music has one specific hand sign. 

History and origin of solfege 

As already mentioned, Guido di Arezzo is the name of the man credited with inventing solfege. In the 11th century, he created a system of music based on the six notes of a hymn called, “Ut queant laxis, or, “Hymn to St. John the Baptist”. He then proceeded by giving spoken or sung syllables to each scale degree in the song. The syllables themselves are just the first two letters of the words in the lyrics. 

If you look at the syllables and the original piece of music you will see that many different syllables sang the same note represented as Re or Sol but, he decided that for the Solfege system, we would only use one word for each of them. Later these syllables were altered to be easier to pronounce, and hand signs were added to further a kinesthetic relationship between the ear, voice, and body. This very clever use of solfege would prove to be useful for thousands of musicians.

The forms of solfege 

There are two main forms of solfege currently and commonly used by musicians all over the world. These systems may sound complex when reading about them, but they are both useful for very specific types of situations. 

It may help to think of the solfege itself as a pattern to show you intervals, but whether it is “fixed” or “movable” impacts the actual pitch of the song.

The two systems vary depending on their use of the basic syllables, and whether or not they are always representing the same pitches, or if they’re able to be moved around, relative to each other. Both are useful for specific situations, but many musical education cultures teach either one or the other. 

Fixed Do

Fixed Do means that like a piano can play only the note C, and we call it the note C, “Do” refers only to the absolute pitch, C. C will always be called Do, in the Fixed Do system of solfege note names. This means that if you were going to be singing or referring to a different musical scale using Fixed Do, you would need to alter the syllables and hand signs to represent flats or sharps. 

Many musical education systems in the world use “Fixed Do” as their only musical pitch system, and they use it as other systems would use letters. In general, these are non-English-speaking countries, but not always. You may collaborate or work with musicians who speak only in Fixed Do, or in the Alphabetical System. 

Here is an example of the C major scale using Fixed Do. All of the notes are represented, and it is typical for learning solfege training. This is the C major diatonic scale. However, if we move to use a different scale other than C major we need to alter the syllables. Here is a G major scale using Fixed Do. Notice how the syllables begin and end on a G, which is Sol, and that Fa which represents F, must now be read as “Fi”, or F#. 

Movable Do

The second type of Solfege system is more common for musicians who study jazz music or play the music that must change keys very often. In this system, the first scale degree is always called Do, no matter what the key is. 

Then we alter the other syllables to fit the measure of the scale we are in, for instance using solfege minor scale techniques to play the natural minor scale, harmonic minor scale, melodic minor scale, major keys, or pentatonic scales. 

Then we can play in almost any key, but we look at all the music using relative pitch, rather than a specific key that the melodic lines live in. Below will be two scales, a D Major and an E Major Scale. Notice the notes in the sheet music change, but the solfege syllables are the same.

Because the starting pitch can change, the first note is different. However, since they are both major scales they both begin with “Do”. In this Movable Do, each solfege syllable represents a scale degree, not an absolute pitch. 

In solfege exercises, the solfege syllable stays the same but not necessarily in this order, you may need to play “Ti Do Fa Mi Re” in a melody for instance, but the solfege sounds are the same, helping you to learn solfege intervals and the difference between the notes.

Accidentals in solfege

Since the systems need to be able to represent all of the different major and minor keys in music theory, Solfege needs a lot of flexibility. Solfege also must be able to change the music represented in the sheet music. 

These symbols and syllables are how we create a chromatic solfege scale. When we alter the notes we must alter the corresponding solfege hand symbol and syllable, to play the solfege sharps and flats.

The chromatic scale in solfege is difficult to learn. It uses different symbols for Flat Symbols and Sharp Symbols, which also have different syllables. 

When using solfege hand signs chromatic scales, the symbol itself will still be similar to the original unaltered pitch symbol, but often it will be tweaked a little bit. 

Examine the symbols Fa and Fi. The hand sign Fa is a “Thumbs Down” symbol. When the note is sharped, it changes to a thumbs-up symbol. This is how we represent piano accidentals in music but by using solfege. 

Minor scales and solfege

When we play minor scales with solfege we need to first decide whether or not we are using Fixed Do or Movable Do, and then we need to adjust our scale accordingly. Each minor scale is relative to a corresponding major scale, so that can be made very easily as long as we are using the correct formula for our relative major scale. 

Minor scales with Movable Do

It is very simple to convert Major Scale to a Minor Scale as long as you understand how they relate to each other. Every major scale is thought of as scale degree 1 and each relative minor scale is scale degree 6. 

We can relate this to solfege. If we begin each relative minor scale on La, we can play with the relative minor and major scales with ease. 

Below is an image of the D minor scale, relative to the key of the F major scale. Musicians call this La Based Minor since you are keeping the relative major scale, “Do”, the same pitch. 

You can use either of these techniques to play a natural minor, harmonic minor, or melodic minor scale.

Minor Scales with Fixed Do 

The scale below will be the same as the previous scale, using the same pitches, and the same seven notes. They also will be the same pattern of whole steps and half steps. But using “Do Based Minor”, instead of “La Based Minor” as in the example above. 

Notice that we use a combination of some of the chromatic notes and some normal symbols. We flatten the 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degrees, and change the corresponding syllable and hand sign. 

Solfege for the natural minor scale is very helpful and useful for understanding the comparative nature of musical scales. Minor scale solfege syllables are a very important skill to learn and can help understand the differences of all your minor scales. 

Solfege helps to recognize that the notes are being changed, by naming pitches differently in the context of which key those pitches are representing. “Do Based Minor” allows us to use the power of how solfege works, and sight singing anything in any key. 

Piano practice with solfege melodies

It is easy to integrate this practice with your piano practice by simply finding some major scales that you would like to play every day and then making sure that you say the correct symbol along with your playing. Since major scales often only use one hand at a time while practicing this is a great chance for you to integrate the hand symbols or speak the syllables as you were playing the notes. 

Feel free to leave off the left hand of this piece and make the hand symbols while you play, or play both parts and speak the syllables as they go up and down. 

Go to the lesson

Another great way to practice your piano solfege is by playing a song that you’re already familiar with the melody of and then converting it to solfege. Once you have done this, sing along or speak the syllables along with yourself as you play it. 

Many young musicians get stuck asking themselves why they are not improving. Musicians who aim to improve only their technical skills, forget that it is more important to practice new music and play songs than it is to just work on technical skills. 

Take this simple melody from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and sing and play the piano along with the melody, practicing the solfege along with it. Be careful as this song is in the key of C major, but does not start on Do. Instead, the melody starts on scale degree 3, or Mi. 

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Continuing to use solfege in your piano playing

Though solfege at first only looks like it will be used for singers, that is not the case. Whether you are using it to learn solfege minor scale or solfege major scale methods, you can use the handy syllables to work out the intervals and relationships with notes. It can improve your “ear” and how well you hear and understand music.

Often musicians all over the non-English speaking world will use solfege as a way of reading and speaking to each other about music, as they replace every group of notes we refer to alphabetically with solfege symbols. It also increases so many parts of your musicianship and ear training. The benefit of learning solfege cannot be overstated for musicians on any instrument. 

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Author of this blog post:


Alvin Shipp is a Multi-Instrumentalist Composer, Performer, Producer, and Educator from Portland, Oregon currently based in Berlin, Germany. He’s worked extensively in the USA and Germany, has released Over 15 Albums. He has been teaching upper-level students for over 15 years, and currently lives as a Freelance Composer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer and Teacher.

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