Why Sol-fa is a real musical tonic!

Posted by the edtapper on 3.06.2018



Those of us who have seen the popular 1960’s American musical drama-film ‘The Sound of Music,’ will recall the Von Trapp children singing their party piece ‘Do-Re-Mi." It was taught to the children by their governess, the enthusiastic and energetic Maria, (Julie Andrews) to help the children become acquainted with the notes of the major musical scale as they learned to sing for the first time.

Aside from the trained musician, few are aware that this melodic song is in fact a clever musical construction, built around the 8 notes of the basic major scale and represented by what is known as ‘tonic sol-fa’ - doh, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, doh. For purposes of a simple understanding, it could be said that this corresponds to or acts as a kind of ‘shorthand’ for what the music-theorists call - 1.Tonic, 2.Supertonic, 3. Mediant, 4. Sub-dominant, 5.Dominant, 6.Sub-mediant, 7.Leading-note and 8.Tonic.

Each line begins with a ‘sol-fa syllable’ not only linked with an English homophone in the context of the verse but also correctly identifying the pitch of the each sung note as the song rises through the major scale. The teacher, Maria assigns a musical tone for each child to sing through the second verse (a trick from the school of the Swiss bell-ringer tradition). The melody continues to blend over a prolonged holding of each note of the scale that emphasises the ‘sol-fa syllables’ and their related pitches as they make their way back to ‘doh.’

The clever use of the words and their associations can be seen below:


This system of musical notation was widely used in Europe and Canada as a method to teach singing to children based on movable ‘doh solfège,' (Solfège = French for Sol-fa). Without having to be knowledgeable about conventional stave notation, each tone is given a name according to its relationship with other tones in the same key: In short, the stave notation is replaced with 'sol-fa syllables' doh, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, doh. These can be written using their abbreviations - d, r, m, f, s, l, t, d with ‘doh’ (d) representing the tonic or the key-note as a starting point.


Where did such syllables come from or who invented this method of teaching singing? Interestingly, these are not some random set of syllables but they have been in existence over the last thousand years and in fact are still a true representation of their origins. The 11th Century monk, Italian music theorist and author of the musical treatise Micrologus, Guido d’Arezzo sought to devise a technique that would help young singers of his era to remember melodies. We cannot forget that in the Middle Ages there were no pianos, organs orchestras or accompanying instruments to support vocalists and furthermore, without any recognised method of notation, songs had to be memorised! The aural tradition was prominant and Guido wanted to find a way to help his singers to ‘sight-read’ as an aid to their memorisation.

In many ways he was a real trail blazer, who was later renowned as the inventor of musical stave notation. Without him, we would not be able to share music in the way that we have become so accustomed to in the modern age.

Whilst living at the Italian town of Arezzo, he developed new techniques for teaching, testing his method of stave notation and using "ut–re–mi–fa–so–la" (doh–re–mi–fa–soh–la) to represent certain pitches. Rogers and Ritmann were not the first to use the first syllable idea in the ‘Sound of Music!’ This was at the very crux of the initiative deployed by Guido d’Arezzo more than a thousand years ago. The ’ut–re mi-fa-so-la’ syllables are taken from the initial syllables of each of the first six half-lines in the opening stanza of the hymn ‘Ut queant laxis.’ In this actual melody, each of those those syllables where are all from Latin text was pitched at the next rising interval of the major scale. "Doh-re-mi" is an exact musical concept replica of its time.


The monk and scholar went further in his efforts to communicate the pitch of the notes. He also invented a system to indicate the sofa-note by a using an assigned hand-shape. He realised that by pairing hand signals and singing, children were helped to physically understand the differences between high and low pitches. In time, and with practice, they would discover that every song follows the same kind of patterns. Applying this to a standard Country & Western song today and we can see the ‘three chord trick,’ the 1-IV-V pattern is the basis for so many. A simple hand signal could well prompt a guitarist when to change the chord!

As time passed, ‘Ut’ was changed to ‘doh’ and the seventh of the scale was added as ‘si’ in Europe to complete the diatonic scale. Other developments in the system can be attributed over the years to Genevan Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who experimented with ‘cipher notation’ (the use of numerals to indicate pitch) in the mid 1700’s. French Mathematician, Pierre Galin (1786-1822) had a novel idea to use ‘meloplast’ (song-shaper) to point out notes with a stick where there were no clef’s but only a key-note as a fundamental reference point. The English teacher Sarah Glover (1785–1867) added her part when she switched the ‘si’ to ’ti’ thus ensuring every ‘note’ sounded on a different consonant. Her completed ‘doh-to-doh’ scale became known as the Norwich Sol-fa System. The Reverend John Curwen (1816–1880) was instrumental in the continued development, use and popularity of the ‘Sol-fa System’ in England.

When Sarah Glover outlined her vision for teaching music in schools, away back in the 1700’s, we could do well to remember her words - "Let singing become a branch of national education, not only in schools for the children of labourers and mechanics, but in academies for young ladies and gentlemen, ...... A very little practice well directed, would soon produce a sufficient degree of skill, to render this employment highly attractive to the pupils." (Sarah Glover’s Scheme P7 -25)


So what are the benefits in teaching Tonic-Solfa in schools?

  • Flexible - The Sol-fa system is simple in that it uses a basic major scale with its seven “notes” returning to the tonic on reaching the octave. These “notes” can be set to any major key and also to the relative minor key as desired (La). It is especially useful when teaching scales and songs to children who have little or no theoretical musical training and who realistically will not have an opportunity to develop that theory in later years.
  • Easy - Once learned, sol-fa can be applied to any key or scale, i.e. ‘doh’ can be movable and become any note that you wish it to be. This ‘movable doh’ is in effect 'the tonic' and so determines the key! Sol-fa needs no key signatures, clefs or ledger lines. Unlike stave notation, there is no differentiation between tones and semitones, one does not have to be concerned about the complexities of key signatures where a change of clef turns the same symbol into a different note. The construction of a scale is always the same.
  • Adaptable - Because a syllable is associated with a particular degree of a scale, this is particularly useful when we have to change key. We hear and express the relationships between notes in the exact same terms when a tune is transposed, e.g. Major 3rd = Doh-Me, Perfect 5th = Doh-So etc.
  • Leveller - Sol-fa makes the experience of music available to everyone. In places like Wales, it allowed miners who sang in their community male voice choirs to quickly learn a strong basis for choral works. In other parts of the UK, members of brass bands, small town chorales and youth choirs who struggled to read sheet music all benefited from this common 'language of do-re-mi.'
  • Aural Training - Sol-fa enables singers to become better acquainted with pitch relationships and identify aural characteristics between notes, or the intervals at play. When used at an early age, Sol-fa practice facilitates memorisation and helps the musical brain to recall or identify the precise ‘distance’ between intervals. Sol-fa encourages active listening to motif-constructions and patterns, which in turn improves a singer's ability to pitch notes accurately and improves a musician's capacity to improvise with greater fluency.
  • Understanding - Children who learn through Sol-fa find that it is a good introduction to stave notation. Because the musical ear is involved in pitching and participating vocally in the movement from note to note, they learn quickly through repetition. This is useful too for instrumentalists abeit that many play a tuned instrument. The construction and composition of a melody is also better understood when moving through and recognising the placing of the tonic, dominant and sub-dominant (doh-sol-fa) as the 'strong' notes.
  • Intonation - Finally, by using the actual sol-fa syllables, one is furnished with a set of consonant and vowel sounds that are favourable to good intonation training.


We don’t hear much about Tonic sol-fa these days despite that fact that it was such a powerful tool in improving access to music for children in Victorian times. The Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály built his instructional method of learning music by ‘re-inventing’ sol-fa as the base principle of his popular “Kodály Method of Musical Education” in the 1940’s and 50’s. By the time it reached the UK in the 1960’s and 70’s, it was reprinted and published in English, hailed as a “new initiative” in the teaching of music and adopted in many Colleges of Education and Conservatoires of Music.

It is no surprise that the Kodály movement in the 21st century connects with many of Sarah Glover’s aims, beliefs and values: At its heart were the core beliefs that singing should be for all, as a part of national education and that everyone can sing - it is possible to achieve good results with regular appropriate practice. It saw musical literacy, that like linguistic literacy, should be available to all. It promoted music education as a discipline that should begin at an early age. Music, it said, provides positive, uplifting, recreational and unifying values. The movement also emphasised the importance of music teachers being well trained!

Kodály saw the system as the way to give every child a musical chance. Madonna in her song ‘Deeper and Deeper’ references "Do-Re-Mi" with the first line "When you know the notes to sing you can sing most anything." That is precisely what motivated an old Italian Monk all those centuries ago to discover what for many today remains the best and most simple way to learn how to sight-read a song.

Maybe it is time for us to encourage the curriculum authors to critique the current methods and support for teaching singing in our schools and even heed the words of Maria Von Trapp and her family. They offered the clue in their hit-song as to how this can be done  - something "that will bring us back to "doh-re-mi!"







Topics: Music in Education

Subscribe Here!

Recent Posts