When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!

When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!

Yep, Rogers and Hammerstein had the right idea: Solfeggio truly is the language of singing… and hearing!

The History Of Solfeg

Solfeg syllables were first written in an 11th century hymn/chant by a monk named Guido d’Arezzo. Interestingly enough, the notes of this  chant (which was a prayer to Saint John) followed the steps of what is  now the major scale:

Solfege scale notes

The notes of the solfeg scale

The Solfège 'Do' Major Scale

Variations in Solfège Naming

The term Solfeggio is Italian (which is the language used most often for music terms) but it is commonly translated to Solfeg, Solfège, or Solfa. These three terms are used interchangeably. Similarly, as the syllables have been translated, “UT” has become “DO”, “SA” becomes “TI” and “SOL”, though often spelled with the “L”, is pronounced “SO”.

The Purpose of Solfeggio Syllables

Solfeggio was brought back into  prominence as researchers and educators discovered the brain’s ability  to connect more easily with pitch relationships when a syllable was  attached. It is crucial to associate a placement of tone before ever  identifying its note name on the staff. Since solfège gives a name to  each note of the scale, children can learn the sound ‘MI-SO’ by singing  it without having to think about a written note.

A minor third ascending and descending in solfège: Mi-So, So-Mi

They can recognize the sound of this interval before knowing that it  is a minor third or that it contains three half steps or that it can be  written “e g” on the staff. So you can see that Solfeggio is a powerful ear training concept!

The Kodály Method

Zoltan Kodály (Hungary, 1882-1967) was a revolutionist who changed the attitudes of teaching music to children.

The Curwen Hand Signs Adopted By Kodály
The Curwen hand signs adopted by Kodaly

He incorporated John Curwen’s (Britain, 1816-1880) hand signs for notes,  going a step beyond solfeg syllables to visually and physically represent the function  of each note of the major scale.In this way, full body involvement is utilized because the hands can ‘feel’ the major scale. Thus, while singing in solfeg, the child is producing the pitch with  his voice, hearing it with his ear, and reinforcing that pitch  relationship with his hands.
When signing the solfeg syllables, the hands begin near the waist  with DO and each consecutive sign is slightly higher than the previous  one, with the octave DO being a height near your forehead. Hand signs  must always communicate pitch height to be completely effective in  training the ear.

 Training the ear through patterning

Another ear training method Kodály promulgated was that of pattern imitation, or patterning. This is the planned sequence of certain melodic motifs that are  presented to the children first in songs, and imitation exercises.  Through this presentation, the children would internalize these  patterns, which would then open the door for them to be identified,  labeled, and notated. In this way, Kodály sought to produce children who not only could read music, but who felt it and understood it.

 Inner Hearing and Tonal Center

Hand signs and patterning promote “inner hearing”: a term that Kodály created. Inner hearing is the ability to hear music in the mind without any music actually being present, and is the precursor to all musical skill.
One of the fundamental inner hearing skills is developing tonal orientation: a feel for the tonal center. Tonal center is the musical “pull” toward the tonic chord and the tonic pitch (DO).  A child who has developed tonal orientation can hear a piece of music in whole or part and accurately decipher where DO is – and can sing it. When this skill is acquired, it is then possible to hear a piece,  determine the pitch relationships, and then write down, transpose, or  compose a harmony to these notes. This is the power of solfeg; and ear training at its finest! So, let’s “start at the very beginning”… Let’s use Solfeggio and hand signs to develop the inner musician in every child!
-Shelle Soelberg, aka Shelle Solfege, Creator of Let’s Play Music *This post originally posted HERE.

1. There’s a Word for That

Can you imagine teaching your  child to identify colors without having any color words?  Not easy!  Similarly, as students learn to discern pitches and intervals  between pitches, using a system  for putting a name to the pitches  (solmization) facilitates the process immensely.  China, Japan, Korea,  India, and Indonesia all have solmization schemes for associating pitch  to a name.  When talking about fixed pitches, we use the alphabet (C is always C) and when talking about scales and relationships between notes in a scale, we use solfeg!

2. Whole-Body Involvement

Each of our young students (and even many of our toddler Sound Beginnings students) master the  hand signs and use them to experience singing, ear-training, and note-reading with their whole body.  As they hear the pitches moving up and down, their hands move up and  down through space accordingly.  As they recognize intervals and  relationships between the notes, they can feel the distance of jumps between pitches and grasp them with their hands.
Adding this kinesthetic mode of learning to an  auditory and visual skill heightens a child’s absorption of the  information, accommodates various learning styles, and facilitates  integration and long-term learning.  Solfeg is a popular tool for University students majoring in music fields;  it should be shared with young children, too, who adore and quickly internalize having a physical movement to put with their singing.  You already knew wiggly, active children enjoy having actions to accompany their favorite nursery songs, right?  If there’s a way to make teaching more physical AND more fun for them, let’s do it!

3. Understanding Scales and Key Signatures

Would you love  to be able to quickly and easily sing every major scale?  You can do it  today! You don’t have to memorize the notes of every single scale, just  memorize the 7 solfeg syllables and start singing on whichever pitch you wish to  be DO.  That’s part of the power of the moveable DO  (read more here): the relationships within each scale will remain the same.
‘Do’ corresponds with      the tonic of whatever key a particular composition or melody is placed.      Thus in the Key of C major, C is Do, and in the Key of F major, F is Do.  You can see those two scales already engraved on your Let’s Play Music tone bells!  Truly, any bell or piano key could be Do.  Of course you’d have to add some black keys to your scale to get it to sound like a major scale, but now after a few months of Let’s Play Music training, your child could pick out (by ear) which black keys were needed.

Do is the note that the music rotates around and pivots back to. Whatever key we sing in, Do really is home!  Most songs end by bringing the melody back to Do.

4. Intervals

I recently wrote about the powerful ways that mastering intervals will help you improve musicianship in your reading, singing, and composing music.
Solfeg is a handy tool for students wishing to master interval training.  The  goal is to instantaneously recognize the precise intervals when heard,  and having solfeg words to identify them can be very helpful in this process.  “The  notes I just heard sounded like…Do-Fa! It’s a 4th!”
Here are just a few relationships I think my Let’s Play Music students can hear and identify: Do – Re : major 2nd  Do – Mi : major 3rd  Do – Fa: perfect 4th Do – Sol: perfect 5th Mi – Sol: minor 3rd  : In class we sing this as Sol-Mi more often than as Mi-Sol, but they are the same interval of course.

5. Sight Reading Music

Choir class  is a very common place to find solfeg at work; students are  taught to rely on solfege for sight-singing melodies.  Singers can quickly read and sing the written melody if they interpret it in terms of solfege because they have learned the relationships between each solfege note and don’t need to be retaught those relationships for whatever key the music is written in.
Here are some videos of students performing 4-part vocal music they have never rehearsed, using solfeg syllables and hand signs.
At the piano, sight-reading music in the same way and hearing it with our inner voice helps us to self-correct as we play.  Solfege allows us to be able to play a tune in another key (transpose) by choosing a new DO and playing the same solfeg pattern (see an example here.)  We will practice singing and transposing this way in Purple and Orange semesters!

6. Sharps, Flats and Minor Keys

Now that we know having a way to sing the steps of a scale makes it easier to learn music, some folks have wondered why we don’t prefer to sing numbered steps (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) instead of the solfeg syllables.  The word ‘seven’ is already less-than-popular because it is not a monosyllable, but all of the numbers become problematic if we ever want to introduce sharps or flats.  ‘Raised-seven’ is definitely not an easy-to-sing monosyllable!
With solfeg, for a note that is lowered a half-step, we sing it with an A sound (like in the word “nay”) but spell it with an e. Thus mi becomes me (may), la becomes le (lay), ti becomes te (tay), etc. This works for all scale steps except re which is already an e sound, so re lowered a half-step become ra (rah!).
For a note that is raised a half-step, we sing it with an ee sound, but spell it with an i. Thus, fa becomes fi. This works for all steps except mi and ti, but they are almost never raised anyway.
Here are the syllables for the chromatic scales (play every single key on your piano, both black and white, as you sing): ascending: do di re ri mi fa fi sol si la li ti do descending: do ti te la le sol se fa mi me re ra do
In Let’s Play Music class, we won’t spend much time teaching the raised and lowered syllables, but it is a beautiful and simple system to grow into as your child takes interest in further musical skills.  Each year I have one or two Orange students wanting to compose in minor keys, and I do help them master me, le, and te so they can be sure to write an appropriately minor melody.

7. Solfeg Works

The final, and perhaps best, reason I want to share about why Let’s Play Music teachers love solfeg is simply that it works.  Students wanting to become better musicians (and get passing-grades in their college-level music classes) find that having the right tools will get the job done.  There’s no need to wait until college; solfeg can help your very young child improve musicianship right now.
– Gina Weibel, MS Let’s Play Music Teacher


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