Monday, September 9, 2013

The Mysterious and Wonderful World of Solfege!

by Hannah Hoyt
Doe, a deer, a female deer,
Ray, a spot of golden sun,
Me, a name I call myself,
Far, a long, long way to run...

Sew, a needle pulling thread,
La, a note to follow Sew,
Tea, a drink with jam and bread,
That will bring us back to Doe.
Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do -- so, do!

When I was growing up, I always struggled with music theory. I had a learning disability in math, and there just seemed to be an impenetrable barrier between me and the advanced mathematics behind how music theory worked. And it is hard. There are scales, chords, key signatures, and time signatures, beyond that there are melodic and harmonic minor scales, strange chords like the N6,  Dominant 7, the tritone, picardy third, polychords and polyrhythms,  it just makes your head spin! 

I heard my friends talk about these things, and felt like they were equations of Advanced Calculus beyond my understanding.

Music theory was impossible for me to understand until I learned it through solfege. Suddenly the world made sense. I had the building blocks to understand whatever weird chord or scale I saw. My understanding of music skyrocketed and I grew enormously as a musician: composing, transcribing, arranging, improvising, sight-reading better than I ever had before. But despite its reputation for being the ABCs of music, there is not much public information on solfege available.

Almost everyone has been introduced to solfege through Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” She says it’s the musical ABCs. But unlike ABCs, music is made up of half steps and whole steps, changing patterns depending on what scale is being used. In “The Sound of Music,” the children learn a basic major scale:

Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do

But this scale is not a bunch of whole steps. It is whole steps mixed with halfs.
There is a half step between Mi and Fa, and between Ti and Do. In fact, that Ti NEEDS to be a half step so our ears can hear the note and WANT it to travel upwards a tiny bit to finish the scale and become Do. It’s how a major scale works. You can see (and hear) this best on a piano:

But solfege can be used not only in a major scale but other scales as well. Each solfege syllable can move a half step lower or higher. The common vowel for a syllable that’s been lowered by half a step is an ‘e’. Like “Me, Le, Te, Fe.”

So how do you sing a minor scale? A natural minor scale, involves moving the 3rd , 6th, and 7th notes down a half step. So instead of Mi, you sing Me. Instead of La, you sing Le, and instead of Ti, it’s Te.

Do Re Me Fa Sol Le Te Do
1    2   b3   4   5   b6   b7   8

Before we called a scale a scale, it had another name. The Greeks called scales “modes” and had seven of them that musicians still use today. Each of these modes have their own solfege syllables to remember them by. We already know Ionian. Here is it’s closest relative, the Lydian scale.

Do Re Mi Fi Sol La Ti Do
  1  2   3  #4   5   6    7   8

See, it’s JUST like a major scale, except for ONE note. You move Fa up a half step, and sing “Fi.”

Because the 4th note in the scale is sharp, I place it ABOVE a normal major scale (Ionian) in the list of modes. The other modes use flat notes. Here is a list of them all, as well as the notes that are altered:

Lydian                        Do Re Mi Fi Sol La Ti Do
                         1   2   3  #4   5   6    7  8

If you go to the piano and play this, you’ll notice it sounds like a 90s film score. Like Titanic, “Back to the Future,”  or "E. T.” The raised 4th brings a sense of comfort and beauty. To me, it brings more inner peace than an Ionian major scale. This is why composers like James Horner used it to give a sense of childlike innocence and safety in kids movies like “An American Tail,” and “Balto.” 

I know you're confused right now, but read the article through a couple of times. You'll catch on!

Ionian                        Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do                        (a normal “major scale”)
                         1    2    3    4   5   6   7  8

This is the scale everyone learned in “The Sound of Music.” Notice how I left the numbers at the bottom alone, because these are our default “scale degrees.”

Mixolydian            Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Te Do                       
1    2    3   4    5   6   b7   8

Te is a useful syllable in an otherwise major scale. If you use the notes Do Mi Sol Te (instead of Ti) in a chord, you get a perfect barbershop 7th chord. This is called a Dominant 7th Chord, and is an essential part of music theory. (Actually, all atoms vibrate the notes Do Mi Sol Te. Your atoms do too. It is theorized that if atoms vibrated the note Ti instead of Te, something weird would happen like they would explode or disappear or something. So this chord holds the universe together. No big.)

Dorian                        Do Re Me  Fa Sol La Te Do                       
                             1    2   b3   4    5     6   b7   8

Just like our normal major and minor scales go together, Lydian has a minor scale to go with its major one: Dorian. Dorian is like a natural minor scale without a flat 6 scale degree. That “La” in a Dorian mode is just as beautiful as the “Fi” in the Lydian mode. (would it blow your mind to know they are the SAME NOTE? Start on the note Me as your 1, and work your way up on the piano, There is La, the #4.) 

Dorian is the scale used in Ralph Vaughn-Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” Listen to the piece and see if you can hear the La  instead of Le.

Aeolian            Do Re Me Fa Sol Le Te Do                       
1    2   b3   4   5   b6   b7   8

Aeolian is the name of the natural minor scale that you’re used to. Like Dorian is related to Lydian, Aeolian is related to Ionian (our natural major) in the same way. Use Me as your 1, again, and travel up on the piano. You’ll find 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are all normal like a major scale. This is because all minor scales start three notes below their major scale counterparts. Some teachers like to teach solfege using a “fixed do” system, meaning that your Do stays the same and you start a minor scale 3 notes below that on La. A fixed Do minor scale will go: La Ti Do Re Mi Fa Sol La.

Phrygian            Do Ra  Me Fa Sol Le Te Do           
1    b2  b3   4   5   b6   b7   8

Phrygian is an Aeolian (natural minor) scale with its 2nd note flatted.  This makes it sound a little gypsy like. It can also make for a really cool theme in a film score. The “Men in Black” main theme by Danny Elfman is in Phrygian, as is the track “Nice to Meld You,” from Michael Giacchino’s “Star Trek” score.

Locrian            Do Ra  Me Fa  Se   Le   Te Do
1    b2  b3   4   b5  b6  b7   8

No one ever uses Locrian. The addition of a b5 to a scale that already has a b2, b3, b6, and a 7b makes it sound very unstable, like it could collapse into random dissonance and tone clusters at any minute. Sorry Locrian, but no one likes you.

Now that a whole new world of musical possibilities has been opened up to you, lets try solfeging something a little more complicated than Do Re Mi. You can use the piano to help you out. How about the theme to “Men in Black” that I talked about earlier?

Do Do Ra Ra Do Do Ra Ra Do Do Me Me Re Re Ra Ra   (it just repeats like that.)

That was in Phrygian. How about something in Lydian, with the #4?

Do Fi Sol          Do Fi Sol La Fi Sol La   Fi Sol

Recognize it? Now you can solfege West Side Story!

How about Dorian?

Do Me   Fa  Sol   La Sol Fa   Re Te   Do Re Me   Do Do Te Do Re    Te Sol…

This is probably pretty difficult right now since you JUST learned all these new syllables. Don’t worry about it, I had to take 4 semesters of Ear Training at Berklee to get all these modes and syllables in my head! It’s all a matter of practice. But hopefully now you see how solfege really is an alphabetical tool in the language of music, and how it can be used to understand complicated things like different scales and complex chords. I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the world of musicians and composers, and that it wasn’t too confusing. This topic can be really hard to explain, especially on paper. But I encourage you to try this stuff out. Find out which mode is your favorite (Lydian is mine, and my husband’s is Dorian.) And explore the new world of music at your fingertips!

~Hannah Hoyt

As an afterthought, yes, there are hand signals that go with each solfege syllable, but I’ve only learned the ones in Ionian. The hand signals are fun and useful when trying to visualize each sound, but as a person struggling with dyslexia, they’ve been pretty confusing and hard to deal with as well. 

If you do want to learn them, though, scroll back up to the beginning of this article and look to your right. There's a link to Kodaly's "Hand Signs" book there and a couple of other music books Charlotte Mason recommended, too. 

Don't forget to click on the highlighted words and listen to all the great music in different modes!


  1. Wow, this is a great resource! I played piano and sang for years without understanding any of this. Not that I understand it *all* after reading this once, but its a start :)

  2. There is an even simplier way of explaining the different modes. Like this: The major scale starts (and ends) on do. Dorian on re. Phrygian on mi. Lydian on fa. Mixolydian on so. Eolian (or natural minor) on la. (and Locrian if you choose to teach it as a mode on ti.) This way you don't have to learn new names. (And save the harder names like me and ta, for more advanced tonal or even free-tonal music. Though you will need fi and si for melodic minor and si for harmonic minor.) Some find it hard though to "feel" that re is the "tonic" of the Dorian scale etc. When working with children I find this simplified way the easiest. While older students often benefit from learning the difference between the scales and thus needs to know that Dorian has minor 3rd and high 6th, while Phrygian has low 2nd, minor 3rd, low 6th, low 7th etc. I do agree whith you that solfege makes music theory so much easier! Especially with the hand signs.

  3. I only learned basic Solfege .Thank-you for the explanation.Now to learn the hand signs for sharps and flats ! Kathy S.

  4. I only learned basic Solfege .Thank-you for the explanation.Now to learn the hand signs for sharps and flats ! Kathy S.

  5. Thank you so much for this post. Where are the links to the books? I can't seem to find them.

  6. There is a Hal Leonard book link in the right sidebar -- near the top of the page.