Did you know that there are solfège hand signs? It’s true!
Solfège hand signs are real, and they’re super useful. Don’t know what solfège is? Take a quick minute to check out this Introduction to Solfège or our more in-depth discussion on why we teach solfège to all Hoffman Academy students.
Learn Your Solfège Hand Signs
In this week’s video, Hoffman Academy teacher Stephanie will take you through the major scale in solfège, introducing you to the hand signs. You’ll also get some helpful hints to remember which hand signs accompany each syllable. The hand signs may seem funny, but there’s a real purpose to them. For one, they provide a visual aid during singing exercises. The distance between them is also a good example of the size of the interval they represent. If you want to learn more about using solfège, check out Hoffman Academy Lesson 13, Chocolate. If you want to keep up to date on the latest video lessons and tutorials from Hoffman Academy, create a free account to join our mailing list.
What are solfège hand signs?
Each syllable in solfège has a hand sign. When a singer uses the solfège syllables together with the hand signs, it helps to reinforce the notes of the scale in the singer’s mind. Once a singer has learned the solfège syllables and hand signs, they can sight read more easily. It’s almost like turning their voice into an instrument that can be played at the right pitch simply by making a sign with their hand.
Another great advantage of using hand signs when sight reading is that a singer doesn’t have to be singing the solfège syllables. They can sing the actual words of the song and still use the hand signs to help them find the right notes.
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What is the purpose of solfège?
Solfège was invented about a thousand years ago by a Catholic monk named Guido who lived in Italy. Back then, there was no standard system for reading and writing music. The only way to learn a new song was to hear someone else sing it, over and over, until it was memorized. Guido decided to try naming each note of the scale so that the monks in his choir could learn new songs by memorizing the names of the notes. This allowed them to learn music faster. Guido’s system became so popular that it spread throughout the world, taking on a few different forms until it became the familiar Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do that we use today.
Where did solfège hand signs come from?
Solfège syllables have been around for about a thousand years, but the solfège hand signs are relatively new. They were invented by Reverend John Curwen, who lived in England in the mid 1800’s. He wanted to develop a better way to teach singing and sight reading, so he simplified the existing solfège system and created hand signs to make it easier to remember the relationships between the tones of the scale. Curwen also used a “moveable Do” system, which means that the syllable “Do” always represents the tonic, or the first tone of the scale, no matter what key the song is being sung in. The modern solfège syllables and hand signs that music teachers use today are based very closely on Curwen’s work.
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How do you teach solfège hand signs?
Curwen’s solfège hand signs are easy to remember if you understand a little bit about the role that each note of the scale plays in music.
The hand sign for the first tone of the scale, Do, is a closed fist. This note is the foundation of the scale, the firm rock that the scale is built on. Do is a power note, so it makes sense to represent it with a strong fist shape.
The next note, Re, is moving up from Do. To make the hand sign for Re, simply uncurl your fingers from Do and angle them up. Feel the upward movement of the note Re as you sing and make this hand sign.
After Re comes Mi, which is represented by moving the flattened hand so that the palm points straight to the floor. Imagine that Re is moving up, and then Mi settles into a stable position in the same chord as Do.
So far, each note of the scale has been a whole step up from the previous note. Next we come to the note Fa, which is only a half step up from Mi. This note is represented by a “thumbs down” sign. Pointing the thumb down reminds you that you’re not going quite as far up in pitch as you did to get from Do to Re and from Re to Mi.
The notes Do, Mi, and So form an important pattern in a scale. This triad of three notes makes up the I chord, or the home chord of the key signature. Most songs begin and end with notes in this triad. In the solfège hand signs, Mi is a flat hand, palm facing down and So is a flat hand palm facing toward the singer, reinforcing the relationship between Mi and So. Because Do, Mi, and So belong to the I chord, these notes feel more settled and stable than Re and Fa. You can see that represented in the hand signs, which are level and stable, like ladder steps climbing up and down the chord.
The note La is signed by lifting the wrist and letting the hand hang down. This note is gracefully moving up from the steady top of the I chord ladder where So rests, and floating toward the top of the scale. La is also the tonic note of the relative minor of a scale, and can give a melody a sad or longing sound, so a hand hanging down is a perfect sign to represent it.
The note Ti is the seventh tone of the scale. It’s often called a leading tone because it feels like it wants to lead into the next highest note, which is Do. It makes sense that Ti is signed by pointing diagonally upward, reminding us that when we sing this note we feel like moving upward to the next note of the scale. Also, when singing the scale downward, Ti is only a half step below Do, so pointing upward for Ti reminds us to stay close to the note, Do.
The solfège hand signs not only have hand shapes, but have positions in space in front of the body. Use both your left hand and your right hand to make the signs. This helps engage both sides of the brain as you learn and practice the music. The note Do is made at waist level, gradually moving note-by-note up to So at shoulder level, and then all the way up to high Do near the top of your head.
How do beginners learn solfège?
If you’re new to solfège, then it might seem like a lot to learn all at once. Practice slowly, singing up and down the scale while making the hand signs, until it feels comfortable. Next, take some songs you might use for sight reading practice on the piano, and try singing solfège while making the hand signs. If you need to at first, write the solfège syllables onto the page to remind you.
Another great way to learn solfège is to join a choir! Many school and community choirs teach singers how to sight read using solfège. Before you join, you can ask the choir director if they use solfège in their choir. Whether or not they do, singing in a choir is a great way to develop music skills that you can apply to your piano studies, or any other musical instrument you want to learn.
Solfège hand signs are a fantastic learning tool
Learning solfège syllables and hand signs might seem like extra work. Why not just learn to look at those notes on the page and sing them? The trouble is, looking at an unfamiliar melody line on a staff and being able to sing it is a very complex mental task. Learning solfège syllables and hand signs breaks that task down into manageable pieces. It helps you learn the positions and roles of all the notes in the scale so that you can step or skip to whatever note you see.