Have you ever tried to sing a melody to which you didn’t know the words, or that had no words? You probably used a syllable like “la,” “da,” or “ma” for every pitch; we call these “neutral syllables,” and while they can be useful, they can also make it pretty tricky to sing melodies correctly. Many musicians use a system called “solfege” to make the task of singing and understanding melodic lines a little bit easier. Solfege is used in conservatories and schools all over the world to teach music students to sing and hear effectively.
Solfege, also called “solfeggio” or “solfa,” is a system where every note of a scale is given its own unique syllable, which is used to sing that note every time it appears. A major or a minor scale (the most common scales in Western classical music) has seven notes, and so the solfege system has seven basic syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.
Let’s look at solfege in practice. A C Major scale, for example, is made up of these seven notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B (often continuing on to a C an octave above the first one). If we were to sing this major scale on solfege, the C would always be sung as do, the D would always be sung as re, and so on. The whole scale looks like this in solfege:
C D E F G A B do re mi fa sol la ti
In other octaves – for example, an octave above or below – the solfege syllables stay the same. That means that any C we sing is always sung on the syllable do – the same goes for the other notes and their syllables. That’s all there is to it!
There are two kinds of solfege systems: “fixed do” and “movable do”. In a movable-do system, the note to which assign the syllable do is the main note, or “tonic,” of the key and scale that we’re in. For example, if we were in D Major (instead of C major like before), D would be sung as do, with E being sung as re, F# being sung as mi, and so on. This system is most common in the United States and Canada, although it can be found in conservatories in other countries as well.
Most common in Europe and Asia is “fixed do.” In fixed-do systems, every note has a solfege syllable associated with it all the time, regardless of the key or scale. Each note’s solfege is pulled from the C Major scale, so they are sung using the syllables in the scale shown above. It doesn’t matter whether the melody is in F major, B minor, or any other key; C is always sung as do, F as fa, and B as ti. The original solfege system was a fixed-do system, and many musicians still believe strongly that it is a more effective system than the movable-do alternative.
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