Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Beauty of Solfege

How do keys and solfege relate?  Do is whichever note is the tonic of that key; in C major, C=do, D= re, E= mi, G= so, etc.  In A major, A=do, B=re, C#=mi, etc.  So if you have access to a piano or xylophone or any instrument, pick a key and get your do from that.  I often use C major just because it's easy (no sharps or flats), but try to move it around so your kids are learning the distance between pitches themselves, not just learning them in one key (if you want to do that, may as well learn the note names "A" "B" "C#" etc.).

Here are several children's songs that can be sung using the following pitches:

- so, mi- "Tell me Your Name," "Tick Tock/Cuckoo"
- so, mi, la- first part of "Rain Rain Go Away," "One Two, Tie My Sho"
- so, mi, la, do- first part of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore"
- so, mi, la, do, re- "Keep Inchin Along (score here:, "Baa Baa Black Sheep," "Let Us Chase the Squirrel" (game, more ideas), "Who's That Knocking At My Window?"
- so, mi, la, do, re, low so- "That's a Mighty Pretty Motion" (Dee Di Dee)
- so, mi, la, do, re, low so, fa- "Twinkle Twinkle,"  "Michael Row The Boat Ashore," "Allouette"
- so, mi, la, do, re, low so, fa, high do-  "Row Row Row your Boat"
- so, mi, la, do, re, low so, fa, high do, ti-  "Old MacDonald"

So, why would we ever want to start with solfege? Because you are well on the way to an extremely usable musicality once you have an internal memory of how "far away" two pitches are from one another, and how they relate within a scale.  Once you start practicing pitches in harmony (your sister sings do while you sing mi, or you sing so while Mom plays a do on the piano) you begin to internalize that do-mi-so make up a beautiful triad, that do-fa makes you think of an 'Amen,' and that hearing ti makes you very badly want to go up to do, especially when you hear ti & re together.  Add to that an ability to see the pitches and their "distances" from one another on paper, and you'll be a huge help to any choir or instrumental group you ever join!!  You'll also be able to sing a tune on sight once you know its solfege syllables, and transposing (as is often done in guitar) will be a snap.  I love the way the choral director of the Shenandoah Valley Children's Choir put it here.
A scale is like a musical ladder with uneven rungs, not even ones! Scales are made up of whole steps and half steps. (e.g. the intervals, mi to fa and ti to do are half steps. The other steps in the scale are whole steps.) The Curwen/Kodály handsigns are designed to emphasize where the whole and half steps fall. When singers learn solfege and handsigns, their ears learn where the whole steps and half steps are in the music, and it helps them to sing much better in tune!
In several settings I was required to first learn all songs in solfege; this makes learning the pitches & rhythms easier (the "notes") without the added burden of learning the correct words (especially when the words were in another language!).  My directors would at times make us bring out all sorts of emotion with nothing but solfege syllables, just to teach us how to convey emotion through our tones and facial expressions, not relying on the words.  I would strongly encourage you parents to take some of your children's favorite songs and learn them in solfege (you can use this website here-a cool resource that puts many familiar songs into solfege).  In teaching new songs, you may want to learn/teach the solfege first, then the words.  Start this young enough with your kids, and they just absorb the pitches and assume that's just how everyone learns new songs.  I love that Eowyn already tries to do the pitches & hand signs (she isn't 2 yet).

Here's a song that reinforces all the solfege hand signs-- you might need it for yourself more than for your children, since they will likely internalize them as they learn them!

The hand signs are great used in an echo game with little ones (you sing 3 or 4 pitches with accompanying gestures, and the children echo them-- you can specify whether you want them to use the gestures or just sing).  In every musical situation (choir, class, playing with your toddler), beginning with the "so-so-so, so-la-so, so-mi-mi, mi-re-do" sequence centers & anchors pitch memory, "wakes up" the voice, and warming up with songs purely of solfege syllables is often really good for establishing internal pitch.  Here's the familiar one from The Sound of Music:

(the solfege part starts around 2:15)

More videos: a really interesting solfege piece in the minor 'aolian' mode at the beginning of this video, an example of what a 5th grade choir can do, one music teacher's composition here (called 'New Year Carol'), and my favorite, the Tallis Cannon.

1 comment:

The Russells said...

Uhm, Christina, this is amazing! I love this! Thank you for posting it. Solfege is something that I definitely want Wilson to learn and know (especially since I didn't get started in it til high school) and this is a great way to begin introducing it and not letting it be this big scary thing. :)