For musicians who are new to singing, learning to use solfege effectively can be frustrating. Especially if you’re primarily an instrumentalist, it can be hard to work up the motivation to learn and practice syllabic singing; after all, you won’t use it in performance.
Taking the time to learn solfege is well worth it, though, and the benefits of knowing it extend to not just singing, but to understanding harmony and other aspects of written music. The better a musician’s ears – whether he or she is a guitarist, a drummer, or just a GarageBand junkie – the more he or she will be capable of in performance and composition, and solfege is an important step in improving aural skills.
As with most areas of music, if you’ve never used solfege, the trick is to start slow and start small. Slow and small mean, among other things, being honest about your singing abilities up front. When I’ve worked with non-musicians who are just starting out, this has sometimes meant spending time matching single pitches at the keyboard using a neutral syllable like la until they were ready to tackle solfege. If you’ve had some experience with music, and especially with singing, your starting point can be more advanced. In any case, the prerequisite to learning solfege is knowing the voice well enough to match a pitch and sing a melody; if you need work on that, start there!
Once you’re ready to tackle solfege through singing, simple exercises are the key. Choose a do that is at the low end of your comfortable range, and begin by slowly singing the first half of the major scale: do re mi fa sol fa mi re do.
Let’s look at that pattern in a bit more detail: we start on do and go up to sol, then back down. On the way, we encounter three tones that are stable, and might feel “at rest” when we sing them: do, mi, and sol. We also encounter two tones that are unstable, and feel like they’re wanting to “pull” to other members of the pattern: re and fa. As you sing through this simple exercise, take note of how each note feels either stable or unstable. When you reach an unstable tone, try to imagine to which note it might be leading. For example: when you feel comfortable enough with the descending part of the half scale, stop for a moment on fa as you go down. Consider how much it feels like the note fa “wants” to pull to mi, the next stable tone. These tensions and releases are an important part of music, and learning to recognize them can help greatly when we discuss more complex concepts.
Once you’ve grown comfortable with the lower half of the major scale, we can move on to two other exercises. First is the full “do to do” major scale, up and then down. Here it’s important to start with a low do that’s comfortable, but which you can also sing comfortably an octave higher. Next is a series of jumps between the three “stable” tones of the scale: do, mi, and sol. Start with the pattern do mi sol mi do, and when you’re ready move on to do mi sol do sol mi do. You might recognize this pattern as an “arpeggio,” a series of intervals (usually thirds) outlining the members of a chord. We’ll discuss more about what that means later; for now, go practice!
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