Solfège is a system for singing or sight-singing that uses syllables to represent pitches. Solfège works by associating the syllable with the sound of the musical pitch, the sign used to notate that pitch, the location on an instrument (if applicable), and the movements required to perform that pitch. The goals include, but are not limited to accurately singing music at sight, teaching and learning music quickly, imagining the sound of written music, memorizing music, and more. It is an effective and useful musical tool.
There are generally two types of solfège systems: fixed do and moveable do. Fixed do solfège systems assign the syllable do to the pitch class C. Moveable do systems assign the syllable do to the tonic of the given music. We at Sage Music strongly recommend fixed do for many reasons, our primary two are listed here:
- Association: Because solfège works by associating the syllable name with pitch, sign, movements, and note locations, the associations that are developed in movable do are less strong and can be confused when ‘do’ represents different sounds, or changes location on an instrument. In other words, there is not a one to one correlation between these elements. For example, the syllable do could represent the pitch G or the pitch C and would be played in two different locations in two different ways on the piano. When one hears or says ‘do’ in a fixed do system it always refers to the same sound and location on an instrument, thereby preventing unnecessary confusion.
- Modulation: music often modulates or changes key. When a piece modulates, the singer must change the pitch that is assigned the syllable do during the performance of the piece. Thus, in order to sight sing in moveable do solfège the singer must analyze the music and key changes before singing, which, in part, defeats the purpose of solfège being used as a sight-reading tool. In other words, moveable do would have to be treated as fixed do in sight reading complex music. Why then bother learning two systems?
The solfège syllables used vary slightly depending upon the country, and have undergone adaptions by various music educators and theorists. The most common solfege systems are 5 flats/5 sharps, Hullah, Siler, Sottorio. In considering these different system, I am proposing some slight adaptions to create a better system.
Sottorio bases his system on assigning one syllable per pitch class. For example, C, B♯ and D♭♭ are sung as ‘do’; F♯ and G♭ are sung as ‘jur’. This makes a simple system, but there are some inherent issues. With the exception of equal tempered instruments such as piano and guitar, F♯ and G♭ are not actually tuned the same. Neither are they written the same, or even played the same. The violin, for example, would use different fingers. Thus, if we are trying to associate sound, sign, and syllable, this system can create some confusion as the ‘jur’ of F♯ and G♭ are tuned differently, or played differently. Recall of the sound represented by ‘jur’ can thus cause problems of association. The 5 flats/5 sharps system has the same trouble.
Siler, however, proposes a system with more syllables. In his system all notes that are sharp have the same vowel sound (de, re, fe…), all notes that are flat have the same sound (do, ro, mo…), etc. In this way, each pitch has its own unique syllable, sound, and sign and eliminates most confusion by only associating unique variables. In addition, the vowels are ordered from the darkest to the brightest u, o, a, e, i and correspond respectively to the lowest to the highest in pitch ♭♭, ♭, ♮, ♯, .
I think that Siler has the best system yet, but my only concern is that Siler’s fi corresponds to the note F, whereas most musicians have already been trained to know fi as F♯. Thus, musicians would have to reassociate to learn Siler’s system.
As an alternative, I am proposing our system below. It does not suffer as much from the possible confusion from past association that Siler’s does, but it lacks the beautiful ordering of vowel sounds. I’m curious about your comments, as I’m hoping to refine this system as needed. We’ll be using either our system or Siler’s when we start publishing our method books and want to ensure that we’ve got the best stuff out there. If you don’t see the document below, click here to view it: Sage Solfege System
– double-sharp syllables end in ai, such as dai, rai, and mai. Use the vowel sound from the word ‘my’.
♯ – sharp syllables end in i, such as di, ri, and mi. Use the vowel sound from the word ‘me’.
♮ – natural syllables end in o, such as do, ro, and mo. Use the vowel sound from the word ‘low’.
♭ – flat syllables end in e, such as de, re, and me. Use the vowel sound from the word ‘day’.
♭♭ – double-flat syllables end in ah, such as dah, rah, and mah. Use the vowel sound from the word ‘spa’.
Sage Solfege by Sage Music is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://www.sagemusic.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/SageSolfege.pdf.