Using Tonic Sol-fa in the Classroom

Here’s a great opportunity for UK teachers to find out about tonic sol-fa in class teaching: “Kodaly in the Klassroom” is a weekend course (14th – 15th May) set up under the auspices of the British Kodaly Academy. The website says that the course is suitable for

“Anyone interested in classroom music teaching (preschool and primary). There is no need to be a music reader. This workshop is also suitable for instrumental teachers who want learn the Kodaly principles. Very useful for “whole class” teaching.”

The Kodaly Approach is today’s most wide-spread tonic sol-fa based teaching ‘method’ and there are associations and music schools dedicated to promoting it in many countries. So, if you are not in the UK, the chances are that there will be a group offering similar ‘introduction to Kodaly’ opportunities in your own country.

Of course, the Kodaly Method is about so much more than sol-fa! It is, rather,  an holistic approach to music education through singing. ‘Method’ is a misnomer and the term is no longer used by Kodaly practitioners. It is extremely difficult to capture this approach and pin it down within the confines of a textbook but those seeking a brief introduction may find Susan Brumhill’s “First, We Sing! Kodály-Inspired Teaching for the Music Classroom!” helpful.

Sol-fa Syllables for Some Major Scales

Here is another screen capture from the free “Learn Tonic Solfa with GridPlay” software. This grid allows you to play the notes of four major scales on a modulator which is labelled with both letter names and sol-fa syllables:


The various grids included in the software present scales in different inversions for different learning situations. For example, simple songs often use a range from low ‘so’ to the ‘mi’ above the tonic.

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Teachers could edit these grids in the parent program, MIDIgrid, to add other keys or ranges.

Below is a PDF file showing both sol-fa symbols (Kodaly) and notation for several major scales:

Solfa and notation

Teaching Tonic Sol-fa and Standard Notation Simultaneously

Some years ago, a group of music educators who were great fans of John Curwen’s sol-fa method, developed in Victorian times, founded the Curwen Institute and one of them, William Swinburne, wrote a book, through which they hoped to renew the use of sol-fa in UK schools by teaching the method in parallel with notation.This was the “New Curwen Method”, published by Stainer and Bell. Sadly, it looks as though the venture wasn’t well supported and the Institute seems to have disappeared (as its founders have aged or died?). I believe that the book is now out of print but there are copies available from Amazon. It was based on the idea of teaching with a giant stave on a whiteboard against which the teacher would form the sol-fa hand signs. Doh (Do in Kodaly system) would be marked with a square at the beginning of the stave. Kodaly’s system was also a development of John Curwen’s ideas. In the Kodaly method, pupils initially learn to read from rhythmic stick notation with the first letter of the sol-fa syllable under it. It is possible to combine the two by writing sol-fa letters on a stave, with stems and dots to indicate rhythm.  “The Kodaly Method” by Lois Choksy, published by Prentice Hall. has  an appendix of songs in progressive order, in addition to examples of stick notation and hand signs.
In my  free software Learn Tonic Sol-fa With GridPlay, described on this blog, I try, in some grids, to parallel the New Curwen Method by writing the sol-fa syllables on a modulator which is as close as I can get to a musical stave. The pitches of these syllables can be ‘played’ with the mouse, so the user can check  pitch accuracy when singing from the syllables.
This example is in C Major but the layout of the grid could be used as a template for other keys.
 The software also includes fully chromatic C-based ‘notation’ grids in different registers.
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.

Learn Tonic Sol-fa with GridPlay

Tonic sol-fa is a way to aural recognition of the relationship between the various notes of a scale. This supports inner hearing, singing from solfa notation and, ultimately, sight-singing from music notation. It facilitates memorisation, playing by ear and transposition, and also makes it easier to learn scales and to grasp many aspects of theory. Because it is a matter of internalising aural impressions of melodic intervals, it is extremely difficult to master it without a teacher, unless one can already read music notation sufficiently well to play the intervals on an instrument. Frequent patterning and checking of the pitches is necessary before a ready aural recognition and identification can be achieved.

Nowadays, there are few teachers in Europe and North America who teach the system to adults. Children start with just two pitches and gradually extend their range, following a developmental sequence of pitches common in the spontaneous singing of children from an early age. Adults do not have the luxury of growing up in this gradual progression and generally find it quicker to follow the stepwise movement of notes in a scale, moving on to leaps between notes of the tonic (Key) chord, and then to leaps in the primary chords built on the fourth and fifth degrees of the scale.

Several years ago, I published printed resources for  those who can already play an instrument from notation which helped some people. However, some  readers of this blog, who are not instrumentalists, would like to learn sol-fa. I have now prepared some GridPlay resources which I hope will enable them to do that. With these grids, learners will be able to check their accuracy in reproducing the intervals by playing the notes on  ‘modulators’ and ‘staves’. They can also practise playing familiar tunes ‘by ear’. They are in the treble range, since most melodic material is written in the treble clef, but they can be sung by male voices an octave lower.

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GridPlay: Learn Tonic Sol-fa will probably also prove useful for classroom teachers who are learning with their classes. Several Grids in GridPlay: Creative Explorations Level 1 (ages 3-7) are suitable for Kodaly-based classes and, as an example, I have included one, LSMRD.GRD, in this sol-fa set. If you are a teacher and would like to create resources like this yourself, or customise my grids, you can do so with MIDIgrid, the parent-program in which I authored these materials. You will find a free download of GridPlay: Learn Tonic Sol-fa at the bottom of the website Software page: GridPlay: Learn 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.

Solfa for ABRSM Aural Tests 4B, 5B

Aural tests at Grades 4 and 5 of ABRSM Grade Exams require that the pupil sing from score. Although at both these grades the notes will be in free time, singing at sight, even without the added complication of rhythm, is a skill that takes time to develop. Time is very much at a premium in instrumental lessons, so this test is often poorly-prepared. No doubt, the examining board hopes to encourage sight-singing from the earliest grades, even though it is not required in Grade 1-3 exams. However, if pupils come to the Grade 4 exam without previous experience, Test 4B is problematic.

A crash course in basic solfa can certainly help pupils, but the pitch-range required at Grade 4 does not correlate with the starting points of the more common solfa-for-beginners resources in this country. These start with the falling minor third, “so-mi”, next adding “la”, a tone up from “so”. Next comes “do-re-mi”, before adding the lower “ti” and “la” required by the Grade 4 test. This sequence is a developmental one, based on the singing of young children in British and North American cultures. Establishments which focus on solfa training for young children usually work on the premise that the youngsters will master the basics before they begin instrumental instruction.

The youngster preparing to take Grade 4 without a foundation in solfa-singing needs a different approach. Some years ago, I published several printed and pdf resources for beginner instrumentalists, encouraging them to sing, as well as play, the first five notes of a major scale Another resource “An Introduction to Solfa for Instrumentalists, Part 1” covered a major scale and the tonic chord. These were more suited to support self-help by the instrumentalist but they did not cover the precise requirements of the Grade 4 and Grade 5 aural tests. The need for instrumentalists to master these has now been made more pressing by the introduction of more advanced sight-singing tests at Grades 6-8, so I have prepared two resources tailor-made to the exam requirements. They can be found on the Resources for Instrumental Teachers page of The Grade 5 resource follows on from the material covered at Grade 4.

Update 4/1914: Introduction to Tonic Sol-fa for Instrumentalists Part 1 may prove  a useful starting point for those preparing for the Grade 6 test. I will add part 2 shortly.

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.

Pre-schoolers and Tonic Sol-fa

Someone commenting on my post, “Sol-fa, So Good” asked about materials for parents to learn sol-fa with their pre-schoolers.  I think a lot of people might be interested in my reply, so I’m putting it up as a new post and also posting it on my Family Music Forum. I’m figuring that more people will see it in these places than buried amongst the comments about sol-fa generally:

Any pre-school music group describing its sessions as based on “Kodaly” or “Colourstrings” principles will be using tonic sol-fa. Parents will usually be encouraged to learn with their little ones and to continue the fun at home.

Colourstrings Music Kindergartens began life as the pre-instrumental programme of the junior music school at the East Helsinki Music Institute. Everyone was astonished at the effect the programme had on the musical development of the young participants and the standards they went on to achieve in the Institute’s junior ensembles. There is now an excellent training programme for people who wish to teach the programme and classes are available in many different countries.

Songs in the “Singing Rascals” books and tapes have been selected from those which over the years have proved appealing and easy to learn. They are presented in child-size hardback books which are beautifully illustrated and children adore them!

Dr. Géza Szilvay, Head of East Helsinki Music Institute and Compiler of the “Singing Rascals” series says in his introduction:

The “Singing Rascals” books are intended as a means of helping parents, grandparents, kindergarten and nursery school teachers, and all those who have children in their care, to create stimulating and purposeful moments with them… …The series is supported by a parallel series of audio tapes on which infants sing and young children perform the melodies, but no cassette, however good, can replace the lap and guidance of the close relative or friend.

These same sentiments inform my own “GridPlay: Creative Explorations, Level 1” software resources, which owe much to my experience of using “Colourstrings” materials with pre-schoolers:


For more information about “Colourstrings”, visit I would recommend starting with the “Pentatonic” book. The audio is now available in CD format from I can’t recommend these resources too highly.

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.

Rethinking Music Notation

When Jim Plamondon left a comment on my posting, “Sol-fa, So Good!”, suggesting a visit to his site describing a new instrument he is developing, I clicked through for a quick visit. It was getting late, so I didn’t intend to stay long. Next thing I knew, though, it was well into the next day and I still hadn’t got round to reading about the new instrument!

What Jim presents on is not just a musical instrument but a whole new system of music notation, simpler than Common Western Musical Notation and one which sweeps away the inconsistencies and consequent stumbling blocks to musical literacy.

A few years ago this would have been an alarming prospect for music educators: how could a parallel system, however pupil-friendly, be integrated into the present musical scene and with the existing mass of repertoire in standard notation? Today, developments in computer notation make it possible to transpose easily between various systems based on equal temperament. In my current score-writing software, Sibelius 4, I can present a score in standard notation, solfa pitch symbols, solfa and rhythmic notation, guitar tablature and graphic score. Perhaps, in a few years time, ThumMusic will be added to the list.

The ThumMusic system combines tonic solfa with a visual representation that is consistent across clefs and octaves. It is totally compatible with CWMN, underlining the patterns of relationships between intervals. The ‘Thummer’ is the first instrument in which the layout conforms to the pattern of intervals – the layout and fingering are the same in any key or octave. You can see how it works with an onscreen layout linked to the computer keyboard. I think this, in itself, is a great little tool for learning major and modal scales – once the pupil has learnt the fingering for C major/A minor, they can play the scale from any tonic and read off the note names. There is constant aural, visual and tactile reinforcement of pitch concepts.

Just as harpsichord, clavichord, church organ, piano, celesta and synthesizer all share the same keyboard layout but each have their own characteristic sounds, appearance, playing styles and repertoire, ThumBoards could take many forms. Although the Thummer promises to be a really simple and highly motivating instrument for the beginner, the video demonstrations show it will have considerable expressive potential in the hands of a fine musician, and bear in mind that this is a prototype instrument.

Check out this project, which could conceivably be the biggest thing to hit the musical world in a long time! I’m sure Jim Plamondon would really appreciate your feedback.

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.