The movie was wrong! That’s it, I’m anti-Solfa.

the sound of music

I should preface this rather verbose rant by stating that I am a music teacher, and spent nearly six years at university studying it and gaining Bachelor and Masters degrees. And while I know there are plenty of people who shall disagree with me, I hope they will grant me the space to air my opinion.

I began my musical training in Grade 3, around the age of 8, when my class began to learn the recorder. We learnt how to make a sound, where to put our fingers and what the black lines and dots were all about. I learnt Solfa from the movie The Sound of Music. I didn’t really understand what it was all about, I just thought it was a great, catchy song. For any readers unacquainted with the term ‘Solfa’, in the movie Julie Andrews describes it as “Doh-Re-Mi-Fa-So, and so on.”

Maria sings: “When you read you begin with A-B-C, when you sing you begin with Doh-Re-Mi.” Well, actually, no. I don’t think you should.

The line that is most meaningful to me now is from middle daughter Brigitta: “But it doesn’t mean anything.”

And there’s the rub. She’s right! Doh-Re-Mi-Fa-So and so on are little words that, by themselves, are completely meaningless. They must be learnt in connection to a scale (as far as I know people always learn Solfa as a major scale first) to be of any value. And, to further complicate things, there are two opposing ways of teaching it – Fixed Doh and Movable Doh!

Huh?

Movable Doh, to me, seems to make some sense. The tonic, or first note of any scale, is called Doh. Therefore, in any major or minor scale, Doh to Re is always a tone. Okay. But Fixed Doh, as I’ve been strongly told by a very confident young student of mine who’s been taught the following by her piano teacher, tells us that C is always Doh, D is Re, and so on. She’s even learnt to recite the seven pairs quickly, to help her figure out what’s what. If you need a sharp or flat, it’s Doh-sharp, Mi-flat…So while C major starts Doh – Re, E major starts Mi – Fa-sharp. Which to me makes the two scales seem like completely different entities, not related in the slightest.

Confused yet?

Um…*timidly raises hand*…Why can’t we just stick with letters and call the notes C, D, E, F#, Bb and so on? Why do we need to learn two names for the notes, especially names that are made up and not in any way sequential and don’t even relate to their relationships (like ‘tonic’, ‘dominant’, etc)? Just watch the faces of anyone new to Solfa to see that they must be learned anew. What comes after Mi? If I jump up two from Fa, where am I..? There’s nothing else in life to relate them to. The alphabet, on the other hand, well, I can think of a few other places one might use that in non-musical life…

(NB: when I asked my young charge why we couldn’t just use one set of note names – letters – rather than having to learn a second set, she answered me with a shrug.)

‘Ah, but -!’ I hear my critics holler, fingers a-waggling, ‘Solfa is so handy for teaching singing, especially to children, to help singers learn melodies and scales.’

And for my rebuttal…

Firstly, that argument only works with Movable Doh, where you can teach singers what a major or minor scale feels like to sing, and to be able to hear the tonic, et cetera. (Question: if you sing a minor scale in Solfa, do you sing ‘Doh – Re – Mi-flat… or just learn a minor version?)

But my response to that is still: why should music students have to learn two sets of names for notes? Its doubling up, it’s unnecessary effort, and it doesn’t bear any relation to anything else.

Okay, smartypants, so what does?

Numbers, I tell you, numbers!! Scale degrees!

When music students progress to learning intervals, do they learn Doh-So, or do they learn a Perfect 5th? Minor 7th or Doh – Ti-flat? Hm? Maybe it’s different in different countries, but in Australia we learn about an interval’s quality and number. Major 2nd. Augmented 4th.

I’m not a parent or early-childhood teacher, but I’m pretty sure most children learn to count to 10 at quite a young age. Before most start learning music, I’d guess. So therefore, if a child can confidently count to 8, why not teach scales using numbers? That way, students won’t have to learn a new system, because numbers apply everywhere in life, and it will be a much simpler process to stick the alphabet on top of it later on. Because they will have learnt the alphabet too, and both numbers and letters are sequential, and follow the same sequence in music as anywhere else in life! Woah!

It goes without saying that this system would be called Movable 1! Compare these two hypothetical conversations:

Teacher: Now we’ll have the Mi-flat major arpeggio, Jimmy.
Jimmy: So that’s…uh…Mi-flat . . . . . . uh…Soh . . . . . . Ti-flat…?
Teacher: Good. Now the Doh major arpeggio.
Jimmy: Okay. Doh – Mi – Soh.

or…

Teacher: Now we’ll have the Eb major arpeggio, Jimmy. What numbers, or scale degrees, do we need?
Jimmy: Uh…1…3 – 5 – 8?
Teacher: Correct. And what numbers would we need for the C major arpeggio?
Jimmy: 1 – 3 – 5 – 8?
Teacher: Correct! (goes home at day’s end with happy students and without palpitations)

Honestly, which of those seems the easier option?

To be honest, when I hum through a new piece of sheet music, or sight-sing a song, I don’t use letter names, numbers or blasted solfa, I just La my way along. But that’s probably because I was trained as a wind-player and spent years playing, and listening to the sound of scales.

But I really don’t believe that singers need a secret mystery-language to help them sight-sing. What would be so horrible and unmusical about sight-singing with numbers?

Ode To Joy would be sung something like this (major scale, of course):

 “3 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 3 — 2-2—“

 Keep your mouth open and tongue free, and it sounds okay.

So I propose that the world just does away with Solfa altogether and sticks with letters and numbers.

But . . .

There’s something else, that I’ve so far neglected to mention. European editions of symphonies tend to use Solfa names to label them. So we might see Beethoven’s 5th in Doh moll, or Brahms’ 2nd in Re.

So if we just scrapped Solfa, what would we label them with, huh? Well, I won’t be so arrogant as to suggest that the musical world should just use English letters – although I think Italian, the traditional language of music – would be the same. But it wouldn’t bother me if publishers just used their native language. It’s not like amateur and professional musos don’t already have to learn various names and words in different languages at some point.

Is there anyone who hasn’t even once teased a bassoonist for playing a fagott? I play mostly flute and clarinet, which have very similar non-English names. But what about trombonists? They must also learn to identify themselves as posaune players, and percussionists must learn the difference between gran piatti and gran casa to avoid the conductor’s wrath. And then there’s the ludicrous, confused state of the  ‘horn’ instruments. The French horn’s name is written in English, but the English one is generally written cor anglais. Whose naughty prank was that?

So my point there is that Solfa to name pieces is unnecessary as well. Let the composer call it whatever they like, and publishers do what suits them, and teachers will translate for their students who are mature enough to be learning sonatas, concertos or symphonies. But for new students, in my opinion there is no room for Solfa. There’s already plenty to learn without doubling, tripling, quadrupling up on what notes are called.

What do I want? No more Solfa!
When do I want it? Oh, whenever…but it won’t be a feature of my teaching, that’s for sure.

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5 thoughts on “The movie was wrong! That’s it, I’m anti-Solfa.

  1. MJ says:

    Um…quite a few holes in your write-up, I’m afraid.

    Solfa is the most AMAZING singing tool. Now, just to be clear, I’m talking about Solfa (moveable do) as opposed to Solfege (fixed do). As a wind player who has obviously achieved a high level of playing and understanding, you have different strategies (and that’s fine) but you must not underestimate the incredible power of Solfa. The Kodaly method capitalises on this amazing aural training tool. It is all about the relationships between notes within keys. The only place it falls down is in sight-singing atonal/open key pieces. Singing in numbers is fine for ‘Ode to Joy’ (ie. Major keys) but how about for a minor key? By the way, a minor scale begins ‘la ti do’ not ‘do re me’ (mi flat). As you know, C and Am share a key signature, and A is the 6th degree of the C major scale (see, I know my numbers, too!). If you know your modes, you have Ionian (major), Dorian etc. Then on the 6th degree you get to Aeolian (natural minor). Natural minor is “la ti do re mi fa so la”, raise the 7th for harmonic minor and you get “si” instead of “so”. Melodic minor would be “la ti do re mi fi si la so fa mi re do ti la”. You learn the patterns and it makes it so easy to sight read, transpose and transcribe. And your intonation improves out of sight. Ugh, I could go on. No one is going to make you use Solfa for your students but to obviously not understand it and disregard it is foolish 🙂

  2. Conina says:

    On reading your thoughts, I realised (very belatedly, about 30 years after the fact) that I did think of the notes in a scale or arpeggio not as numbers but in numerical relation to each other. Melodies became a progression of intervals to which you could add the prefix major-, minor-, augmented-, diminished- etc.

    It helped greaty when doing harmony writing for theory examinations and also when attempting to learn blues progressions and accompaniments. It also helps if you ever try following guitar chord notations and even when transposing from different clefs!

    My kids have a little electronic “piano” stuck on the front of a book which contains music written with each note numbered corresponding with the numbers on the keys so they get the right notes in the right order and it looks like they can read music!

    • Thankyou for your comment, Conina. I think I consider melodies in the same way, often, although I perhaps hadn’t identified it as clearly as you have. I definitely think like that when doing arrangements that required transposing and have varing clefs.

      The book your kids have sounds interesting. Is it successful?

      Here’s to the championing of numbers in music!

  3. Carol says:

    Man, Lyla, you are good.Maybe a musician is the man for you!

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