Ever wonder who came up with those funny words Do, Re, Mi? It’s an interesting story that brings us back to a time long before Rogers and Hammerstein wrote their famous “Do-Re-Mi” song for “The Sound of Music.”
Where Did It Come From?
About a thousand years ago, there was an Italian monk named Guido who had a serious problem. He was in charge of the choir at his abbey, and was having a hard time helping the other monks learn new chants. Back then, music wasn’t written down like it is today, and the only thing Guido could do was sing a new melody over and over until the other monks got it.
Guido wanted a faster way to teach new chants, so he decided to name the notes of the scale. He used a chant that began each line one note higher than the line before, and took the first syllable of each line, Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, So, and La. When he wanted to teach his choir a new chant, they would learn the notes using these syllables. It worked so well that Guido and his method became famous all over Italy.
Over the centuries, Guido’s system of naming the tones of the scale evolved to the familiar Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti that Rogers and Hammerstein celebrated in “The Sound of Music.” This system of naming tones, called solfège, helps musicians develop a sense of the relationships between notes in a scale.
How Does It Work?
In the United States and many other countries, we commonly use Solfège with a movable Do, just as Guido did a thousand years ago. That means that Do is always the first note of the scale, the “home base” note, no matter what the key signature. In the key of C, Do means C. In the key of G, Do means G. It sounds a little confusing, but it actually makes transposing songs very easy. Once you know the solfège for a melody, you can set any note as Do and reproduce the same melody in whatever key you want.
Why Is Solfège Useful?
Solfège is great for identifying relationships between different notes in music. It helps the learner understand and recognize patterns. A pattern in music you hear very often is So-Do. Music students who are trained in solfège can hear that interval and know what it is. They have a name for it. If you don’t have a name for something, it is less obvious to the brain when that pattern shows up.
Every note has a certain function in the scale, and solfège helps you know what each note’s job is. For example, Do is the home base note. I’d say more than 99% of songs end on Do. It’s the note that makes us feel like the song is done. For each key signature this special note will have a different letter name, but it always has the same job, and you can always call it Do in solfège. If you don’t give it a label you don’t become conscious of those functions.
Patterns and Relationships in Music
So why do we need to know the relationships between notes, rather than just understanding their absolute position on the scale? Imagine you’re the new CEO of a company. The financial guy walks in and says, “Our profit in quarter three is five million dollars.” You have to wonder if that’s good or bad because you don’t know what the profit was in quarter two. But if instead he says, “Our profit is up 38%,” then you know that’s probably good news.
Similarly, in music, I could tell you that a song starts on F#. That’s nice to know, but if you don’t know what key you’re in you don’t know what that note’s function is. You don’t know how far you are from home base. On the other hand, if I say the song starts on Mi then you know exactly where you are in the scale. You’re the interval of a third up from Do.
Once you’ve learned solfege you can hear patterns in music and reproduce them. It’s helpful for both sight singing and music dictation. I’ve heard the pattern Mi Re Do so many times, if I see it I know how it will sound. Also, if I hear a pattern I know, then I can easily write it down by remembering the solfège. Solfège gives us a way to name patterns in music, talk about them, and get to know them. That way when we see them on the page we know how they should sound, and when we hear them in music we know how they’ll look on the page.
Fixed Do Versus Movable Do
In some countries, a fixed Do system is used, where Do always means C. However, I find it most helpful as a teacher to teach using both a fixed system (ABCDEFG) and a movable system (Do, Re, Mi, etc). Some kind of fixed system is essential to provide structure and certainty. D is always a D on the piano or on any instrument. However, a movable system is best for helping students easily hear and recognize the function of each note in a scale and relationships between each note in a melody, no matter what key the music is in. So, I try to give my students the best of both worlds by actively using letter names as a fixed system and solfège as a movable system.
Part of the Language of Music
Solfège is a great tool for learning music, for sight-reading, and for understanding music theory. It’s been part of the language of music for many centuries. To tap into the power of solfège, have your child sing the solfège syllables to the songs they’re working on as part of their daily music practice. If you want to learn or review solfège, check out Lesson 14. If you’re a premium member, you can also print out these solfège flash cards from our Music Learning Resources page.