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.

19 thoughts on “Sol-fa, So Good!

  1. You are right the sol-fa system can be quite useful for learning music what people need are a practical context for using it in their lives.

    I’ve been introducing new families to simple songs and games that use some of these concepts in participation based music programs.

    I love you blog. Keep up the great work!!

  2. Thanks. I was needing to reflect on this overview of the recent history of ‘solfege’- (do you have to say ‘sol-fa’ to distiguish it from fixed do?)- anyway, the idea of music being made more accessible to regular folks is my thing, what I am about. I don’t think solfege is the whole answer, though, right now in the marketplace. I have been writing songs that use only two syllables to develop a sense of pitch relationships. These will suppliment the use of sol-fa, hopefully, especially at the infant, toddler and preschool stages, if I can get them published and recorded.

  3. Wow songs with just two syllables! That does sound interesting. Great for young children who can’t yet speak.

    I would really love to hear some.
    I might have a use for some of your songs I work with young children and music.

  4. Many thanks, Mike and Scott, for your comments! I’m delighted that this topic is evoking some exchange of ideas. I had a quick look at your websites – both brimming with interest! – but I haven’t had time, as yet, to get my brain around the content.

    The idea of Scott’s two-syllable songs being useful for children who have yet to develop speech is interesting to me. I have experienced some success at teaching music to the developmentally young through tonic sol-fa. As an experiment, I was teaching daily 10-minute slots of Kodaly-based material to 10-13 year olds who were poor readers. At that time (early 1980s), I was reading claims that use of the Kodaly music education system in Hungary improved literacy rates. Well, it made absolutely no difference to my group’s reading scores but, to my astonishment, two very slow-learning, entirely illiterate, pupils learned to sight-sing simple songs from rhythmic and sol-fa notation. I hate the idea of music being provided solely as a ‘utility’ to bring about extra-musical benefits – it’s much to important for that! – so I’m quite happy that my group’s growth was in musical and personal development. :>)

  5. Thanks guys for a great site & information . I’m a member of a National youth choir of our church in Zimbabwe , Africa and I’ve more than 17 years expereince singing in tonic sol-fa.

    Tonic solfa is particularly very useful for a society like ours and it has gained wide spread use in almost all churches, in schools and community choirs alike .

    Tonic sol-fa is indeeed an easy and fast way of= introducing children & adults alike to the basics of= music theory especially if the intention is of= only building a choir with no accompanyment.

  6. Maureen also contacted me through my Contact page and I think a lot of people might be interested in my reply to her about pre-schoolers and sol-fa, so I’m putting it up as a new post and I’m putting it on my Family Music Forum. I’m figuring that more people will see it in those places than buried here amongst comments about sol-fa generally.

  7. Very intersting site. I use the kodaly ‘method’ in my classroom teaching through the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s resources and love it. I only wish that I had discovered this earlier then maybe I wouldn’t be struggling to get a good mark for the sight-singing in my forthcoming singing exam!

    Jeanna

    • Hi Marion,

      It’s very interesting to hear about your childhood experiences with sol-fa and how you are using it today. The chart to which you refer is called the ‘modulator’. There are some images of modulators to be found online, including Curwen’s Modulator on the Highland Council website at http://www.ambaile.org.uk/en/item/item_photograph.jsp?item_id=39453
      . I don’t think this woul;d be the one used in your school, though, because there’s just too much information on it. There is an image of a simplified modulator on the BBC History of the World site at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/zrP9fk4cTiSsD6M79g5pvg Perhaps you would be able to create your own chart using these images as guide?

      You might be interested in “The New Curwen Method” by William Swinburne, which is published by Stainer And Bell. This attempts to present sol-fa teaching in a manner suited to the contemporary classroom. Instead of using a modulator, the teacher makes the hand-signs on a giant stave, which can be drawn on the board. Instead of a key signature, the position of ‘doh’ is marked at the beginning of the stave. This is a brilliant way of combining sol-fa and staff-notation.

      I hope this will be of some help to you.

      Audrey

  8. I was born in Scotland. Music was compulsory in our school, but coming from a musical family, it was an enjoyable time for me. We were taught and trained in Sol-Fa in those singing classes, and many of us in our Church Choir actually used a Sol-Fa Hymnal during services. Because I took weekly piano lessons, I could read both manuscript and Sol-Fa. Iam a Music Director at a Church and wish to be able to find one of those Huge Wall Charts that my teacher used in the old days to teach Sol-Fa to his students. It would be a great learning tool for me as I could teach my choir how to understand the flow of music as it pertains to the manuscript. Any idea where I could purchase a chart like this? Thanks.

  9. Tonic solfa is very useful.I really like it! I teach piano music in tonic solfa and students are improving more and more. They start to learn and play Hymnal in their own church. I composed my own practical in Tonic solfa in my Agape Music Academy Imphal, Manipur , India.

  10. This ‘RILEY’S PIANO CRASH COURSE’ is compiled and prepaired to learn piano music with a simple technique that will allow you, progressively to master and embellish the chords within a short term of 2-3 months.

    The selected practical are composed and printed in tonic sol-fa to meet the present day need for church hymnal, contemporary choruses etc. and which will be more helpful to play and compose your favorite popular songs and music in your own unique style with quick systematic way.

    I believed completing this practical course will encourage and enhance the advancement for the young generation who are interested in Songs and Music.

    -RT Achoung koren

  11. I am a singer but a beginer. I know nothing about tonic solfa notation, but i want to know. You said it is not late, how do i start?

    • Learning solfa means internalising sounds in order to be able to imagine and reproduce them. This necessitates hearing them many times. Singers usually learn solfa with a teacher but, if you are able to play an instrument, you will be able to pick them out yourself. On the Instrumental Teacher’s page of The Full Pitcher website, there is a free download of “An Introduction to Tonic solfa for Instrumentalists -Part 1″ This applies solfa syllables to the various degrees of a major scale, singing up and down sections of the scale by step and leaps between notes of the tonic vhord. There are also two priced resources geared to candidates for the ABRSM Graade 4 and 5 , with lots of exercises and
      practice tests.

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