Solfege: Building The Aural Framework

This is the first of a series of articles dedicated to Solfege and how it can improve your ears, sight-reading and overall musicianship. It’ll also serve as a very practical and thorough way to learn the Modes of not only the Major scale, but also the Melodic and Harmonic minor scales.

In this first installment I hope to answer the following 3 questions:

  1. What is Solfege?

  2. Why should you learn it?

  3. How do you practice it?


What is Solfege?

There’s actually two systems of Solfege:

1) Fixed Do

2.) Movable Do

You can read about the differences here.

I don’t find Fixed Do useful at all for tonal music and will therefore focus on the more practical Movable Do in this series.

There’s some debate regarding which system is the “best”. All I can say is that ever since going through Dick Grove’s courses where he applies Movable Do to very dense jazz harmony and modulations, I’m convinced in the strength and practicality of this system. So when I say Solfege in the article I’’ll be referring to  Movable Do.

Solfege is a method to easier and faster learn to hear music in what I consider the most important way: Structurally.

The basic idea is to assign syllables for each note of the tonality you’re in at the moment instead of using note names or scale degrees. As you can see in the figure below you have the C-major scale with a unique Solfege syllable under each note:

Pronounced: Doh-Ray-Mee-Fa-So-La-Tee-Doh

Pronounced: Doh-Ray-Mee-Fa-So-La-Tee-Doh

Solfege consists of monosyllabic syllables which is important since it’s impractical to sing anything even remotely challenging, if you have to use more than one syllable per note.

Why not use scale degrees instead? 

Try singing the above scale using scale degrees, in other words 1-2-3-4-5-6--7-1.

As you probably noticed it worked fine until you got to the 7th degree where you have to use two syllables: sev-en to sing the last note b. Now try it with Solfege instead.

How did you do?

Even though the syllables might be new to you, I bet it felt pretty natural all the way through the scale, even that pesky 7th note. (You probably felt a tiny bit like Julie Andrews there for a moment.)

You might think it’s a bit overkill to use some weird two letter words, just to overcome that last note which you could easily sing as only sev instead. The problem is that once you start getting into scales with flats and sharps it tends to get pretty tricky.

For example, singing b3 (flat three),  #4 (sharp four) or a real tongue twister like b7 (flat sev-en) is no one’s idea of a good time even at a slow tempo.  

But what about just singing the note names?

Singing C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C is indeed simple enough, but by just changing one note you’re in the same predicament as with the scale degrees. Start changing more notes and it quickly gets really difficult. For instance, try singing the E-major scale: E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E

Not a lof of fun huh?

Now let’s try it with Solfege instead:

As you can see it’s exactly the same syllables as the C-major scale. In fact, it’s the same syllables for each of the 15 keys (7 sharp keys, 7 flat keys and C) you can notate the major scale in. This means that once you learn the syllables for a new scale, chord or melody you essentially know it in all keys straight away. That’s pretty powerful stuff if you ask me.


Why should you learn it?

Besides the fact that it’s easier to sing Solfege compared to note names and scale degrees as explained above, it has several other even more important benefits.

Solfege helps you build an aural framework that will enable you to transcribe and compose music without the aid of an instrument. This is accomplished by learning to hear the tonic of each key you’re in and using that note as an anchor to measure the other notes against.

Just singing the note names would not tell your ear anything about the structure of the music. Singing C-D-E in C-major sounds exactly the same structurally as singing E-F#-G# in E-major. With solfege you only have to practise Do-Re-Mi and you’ll be set in all keys instead of confusing your brain with all the different note names.

For example, Mi will always be the sound of the major third in whatever tonality you are in. Whereas by using note names you have 15 different names for the same sound.

To my mind this seems crazily overcomplicated compared to learning one label for each sound and be done with it. You’ll be surprised how simple music theory and ear training really is once you start understanding these concepts.

What about learning Intervals?

When I started out learning about ear training as a young hopeful (and a bit obsessed) guitarplayer I came across the Intervallic approach. This is where you focus on learning to recognize each pair of the 11 (12 if you include the octave) ascending and descending intervals (within one octave).

While this was beneficial in some aspects, it didn’t help me to reach my goal of hearing something and being able to understand and visualize it on my instrument.

The main problem with this approach is that the intervals are out of context. For example, there’s 6 different perfect fifths in the major scale, with the intervallic system they’re all equal since it only measures the distance between any 2 notes.

With Solfege (and how our ears actually perceive music) it’s a huge difference between them since each pair is using different degrees of the scale. For instance,  C-G (Do-So) and D-A (Re-La) are both perfect fifths but they sound completely different when you put them in the context of a key.Take a look at the following example:

(The tonic is added as a pedal in the bass to establish the key more clearly)

(The tonic is added as a pedal in the bass to establish the key more clearly)

Even a non-musician would most likely hear the difference between the two fifths even though they wouldn’t be able to articulate it in musical terms.

Another problem with the Intervallic system is that you can get off track while transcribing something if you make even one mistake. Let’s say you’re transcribing something easy like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”:

If you were to rely on the Intervallic system and you make a pretty common beginner mistake like hearing a perfect fifth as a perfect fourth, every note after your mistake would be wrong. Even if you transcribe the rest of the notes perfectly you would end up with a pretty weird version of the tune because of that first little misjudgement:

 In this version every note after your mistake is off by a whole step.

If we add the Solfege to the above version, it becomes clear that you would quickly realize that you’d made a mistake somewhere:

(Me and Te is the syllables for a b3 and b7, we’ll look at those in more detail in an upcoming article.)

(Me and Te is the syllables for a b3 and b7, we’ll look at those in more detail in an upcoming article.)

By practicing Solfege, you are learning the material in all keys at once aurally speaking. You’ll still need to practice reading/notating and playing/visualizing it on your instrument in every key, but this is actually a good thing since by doing this you’ll program the sound of each syllable in your ear by sheer repetition.

I will show you how to do this in more detail in a later post, but for now we need to focus on internalizing the sound of the major scale.


How do you practice it?

The most important thing when starting out is to really nail the sound of the major scale and learn how to keep the tonic or Do firmly in your ear. The following 3 exercises were really helpful to me when I started learning this:

1) The first exercise puts your Do in between each of the other notes of the scale and helps you not only to internalize the tonic, it also gets you used to singing larger intervals right away.

Choose a note that will be your Do and sing:







Do-Do*-Do                             *octave higher

Next start on the same note you had earlier but one octave higher and sing:







Do-Do*-Do                             *octave lower


2) This one builds the scale one step higher for each repetition and is really helpful to getting used to the whole steps and half steps in the scale.

Choose a note that will be your Do and sing:








Start one octave higher and descend instead:









3) The last exercise combines the previous ones in the sense that we start out with smaller intervals (scale up) and then descend in larger intervals (C-major arpeggio down. As usual the second part of the exercise is the same thing reversed.

Choose a note that will be your Do and sing:


Start one octave higher and sing:


Some points to have in mind while working on these 3 exercises:

  • Start out in the key of C until you feel comfortable with each exercise.

  • Play each exercise on the piano while singing along at first. Focus on good intonation and singing the correct syllables.

  • Concentrate on the unique sound of each degree/syllable, this is where the real strength of the system lies. In other words, try hearing the “flavor” of each note against the tonic.

  • When that gets comfortable, try removing some of the piano notes and just check yourself at certain places in the exercise.

  • Once that feels ok you can try using just the low Do as a drone (repeating the note so it keeps ringing in the background as I did in the examples) and sing the exercise over that.

  • Speed is not important, go as slow as you need to go. The main thing is to get the notes and the syllables right.

  • Try the exercises in different keys when it starts to feel boring in C. Boredom is a really good sign that whatever you’re working on is starting to get to easy.

  • The quality of your voice isn’t important at all, just make sure that you hit each note as cleanly as possible. (I’m no singer by any stretch of the imagination and that’s why I’ve spared your ears by not singing in the examples, you’re welcome)

  • Since any pitch can be your Do/Tonic you’ll eventually be able to practice these exercises even when you’re away from your instrument. Just sing any comfortable note and let that be your Do and try each of the exercises without any “backup”. This is challenging at first but once you get it I think you’ll realize the potential of this system. In time you won’t be dependent on having your instrument near to be able to compose or transcribe music.


What's next?

In upcoming articles I’ll cover more exercises and also extend our musical framework further since there’s a vast musical universe out there in the form of different scales and modes. If we want to be able to hear and understand tonal music we need these under our belts as well.

The next post will go deeper into the construction of the major scale and a closer look at each of it’s scale degrees as well as more exercises to help you internalize the sound completely.Until then I’d suggest you to work on the 3 exercises as much as possible so you’ll be in great shape for the upcoming lessons.

If you have any questions or suggestions please post them below or send me an e-mail through the contact page.