Sol-fa, So Good!

Tonic sol-fa isn’t exactly fashionable in music education today , so many amateur musicians know nothing of it. To my mind, this is a great pity. Familiarising themselves with this system has the potential, I believe, to be the most effective form of self-help that they could undertake.

So, what is this sol-fa thing? Tonic, or relative, sol-fa is a notation system in which each note of a scale is given a single-syllable name – the first degree of the scale is “do”, the second “re”, and so forth. As a syllable is associated with a degree of the scale, the relationships between the various symbols remain the same when a tune is transposed. This is sometimes called the ‘movable do’ system of sol-fa. One learns to recognise the aural characteristics of degrees of the scale and the intervals between them.

Identifying notes by their sol-fa syllables facilitates memorisation, playing by ear and transposition. It also makes it easier to learn scales and to grasp many aspects of theory. The Kodaly method is probably the most well-known instructional system based on tonic sol-fa. It is essentially a system of aural development and, like any other developmental process, it takes time and nurturing to become established. However, some of the benefits listed above can be enjoyed by those who have familiarised themselves with the principles but are still in an early stage of internalising the aural impressions created by movement between the various degrees of the scale.

Historically, tonic sol-fa has been a powerful tool to improve access to music learning for disadvantaged groups. In the UK, it was adopted as the instructional system for singing in Victorian schools. This musical education provided a strong basis for a choral tradition and enabled the factory-workers and miners of the day to quickly learn great choral works, the performance of which gave a wonderful new dimension to their harsh lives. In Hungary, Zoltan Kodaly used it to roll out a nationwide system of high-quality music education that made the experience of great music available to rich and poor alike.

I, also, have found this a means of widening inclusion, as the following example demonstrates. A few years ago, I was directing regular sessions for a small ensemble of experienced players. A young Ghanaian, in the UK for medical treatment following a motor cycle accident, was sitting in on the sessions and it was clear that he would love to participate! We had a keyboard that could be made available to him but he was a complete beginner and didn’t read music. As luck would have it, the tea-break conversation turned to tonic sol-fa and Philip said, “That’s how we did music when I was at school in Ghana.” So, we had our way in! I added sol-fa syllables to his music and he quickly learned to identify the notes for C major and A minor on the keyboard (which had a transpose facility). Using the sol-fa syllables to further support his good aural skills, he was able to participate in subsequent playing sessions and, in the process, discovered a new interest that would help him in rebuilding his shattered life.

I envy those who have been brought up on tonic sol-fa, developing strong aural skills from an early age. There are some excellent pre-school music schemes incorporating it and these provide a marvellous start for a young musician. However, it’s never too late – go for it!

Update 6 March 2013: See my post Learn Tonic Sol-fa with GridPlay for details of  free Windows software for learning tonic sol-fa.

Several posts on my blog deal with aspects of tonic sol-fa, so if you don’t see what you want in this post, check the ‘Category’ menu in the sidebar for more on this subject.

High-School Band:Involving A Pupil With Special Needs

One of the most rewarding of my recent online activities must be an exchange of emails with an American high-schooler.This wonderful child was looking for a way to share the joy she experienced as a member of her school band with one of the school’s special needs pupils. She had some excellent ideas of her own and sought advice as to whether she was on the right track. She explained that the challenge was to find a way to involve him in the band without detriment to the performance of this competetive and advanced ensemble. A few weeks later, I was thrilled to hear that the school had put my suggestions into effect, to the general delight of pupils and staff. I thought I’d share these ideas here, as they may be relevant to other schools:

“It really brightened my day to hear from a young musician who has given so much thought to sharing the wonderful gift of music!

Providing a suitable instrument for a disabled player is a very individual thing but I can make some suggestions that have proved useful in similar situations. As you have worked out, any electronic instrument could be used with headphones, so that the band’s performance is not disrupted. I believe, though, that a more truly inclusive solution is to feed the sound output into a small keyboard amp, the volume of which can be controlled by the conductor or by the special needs teacher/facilitator. It may not be the case with this young man, but the contribution of people with severe disabilities is often surprisingly musical and appropriate. Even if this boy’s performance leaves much to be desired, he could have the satisfaction of joining in ‘live’ when the band’s going at ‘full throttle’ and could be easily silenced when his contribution is inappropriate. This would be educational for everyone. :>)

An electronic keyboard is an extremely versatile bit of kit for a lifeskills program and, if one is available, it could be used in the manner suggested. For the more physical experience that you are exploring for your friend, Yamaha drum pads are worth considering. Higher specification sets, like the DD35 and the DD55, are touch-sensitive and have a hand-percussion mode. The DD55 has two foot-switch inputs built in. Any kind of switch can be attached. This could be useful if the conductor wanted, for instance, for the pupil to use a single sound and he was unable to confine himself to one pad.  A MIDI facility makes it possible to attach a switch box, enabling several switch-users to play a variety of percussion ‘instruments’ through the drum machine.

Thank you for exploring this issue. I hope my reply will be useful to you and that you will let me know how you get on. Do get back to me if you have any further questions.

Happy music-making, everyone!

Best wishes,