Solfege systems: why we use them, what their particular strengths are, and why you might pick one system over another. We even touch on that hot-button topic of perfect pitch. If you’ve got strong feelings on the Moveable Do vs Fixed Do debate, this is the episode for you! Join David Newman, Leah Sheldon and Greg Ristow for this lively conversation.
00:20 - Introductions and what is Notes from the Staff?
Greg: Notes from the Staff as a place to share ideas about how to teach music, music theory and ear training.
David: How we can leverage technology to give really practical advice for those of us teaching music who may have really pressing questions.
Leah: A music education degree comes with lots of coursework, but there's not usually a dedicated course in, say, "How do you teach intervals?" so this is just a great place for that.
02:30 - Topic of the day: Solfege Systems
02:50 - Favorite solfege method?
David: I don't initially use one for my own sight singing, but I use moveable Do with Do-based minor for my teaching
Leah: Scale degrees and moveable Do.
Greg: Scale degrees and fixed Do.
04:00 Why use a solfege system?
David: These provide a framework for hearing the music you're studying.
Leah: Without a system, you're relying on pure memorization and rote teaching, and that's very time consuming.
Greg: One goal of musical study is that students can move between sound and the page, and solfege systems are the best tools for helping us gain these skills.
06:30 "Six Stages of Solfege Mastery"
System gets in my way
Oh, yeah, the system sort of helps me, maybe there's something to this
Ok, I've got to go way slower when I use solfege, but I can get things right if I do.
I get it! I never want to sing on anything but solfege again!
Ack! I can't stop hearing the solfege in everything I listen to!
Ahhh, I know the solfege, it's there when I need it, but it doesn't dominate how I think about music.
10:00 Breaking down the systems
Moveable Do, both Do Minor and La Minor variants
Fixed Do or Letter Names
10:30 Scale Degrees
Numbering the pitches of a scale from 1 to 7.
In minor, the names don't change, so we sing 3 lower, but not without a different name.
Scale degrees presuppose the environment you're living in, be that a Major scale, minor scale, etc...
It's about establishing a heirarchy of where we are in a scale, how everything relates to a central tonic. So that even if we're singing a truly modal tune, we still call the first note of the mode one.
This can even be extended to some of the more colorful modes, phrygian major, octatonic, etc...
The words you sing don't change, this really forces the understanding of the relationship between each of the notes of the scale.
14:00 Moveable Do, and its two versions of minor
Same idea as scale degrees, but we're using the solfege syllables to name the degrees of the scale.
But they also have chromatic inflections
In Major, Do is always the tonic.
15:40 Chromatic scale in moveable Do
16:18 The two ways of doing minor. Do minor, or La minor.
18:00 The method we use will be more or useful depending on the repertoire you're looking at
19:00 David improvises a Hozier tune. Is it in Major or minor?
20:00 La minor works especially well for folk tunes that move freely between relative major and minor.
21:00 Do minor is helpful for recognizing similar harmonic patterns across Major and minor. For example: when using Do based minor, So-Ti-Re-Fa is always a dominant seventh. (If we use La minor, we have to learn Mi-Si-Ti-Re as well as Sol-Ti-Re-Fa.)
21:40 Reasons you might choose La minor or Do minor: Is your focus on melodic reading or harmonic understanding? If on melodic reading, you might prefer La minor. If on harmonic function, might prefer scale degrees or Do minor.
23:30 Fixed Do & Letter Names
Fixed Do are the letter names for most non-English speaking countries. For instance, in Spanish, the word for the note G is Sol, regardless of what key you're in.
In this way, it's sort of a non-system, it doesn't tell us anything about the function of the note, but it does tell us where we are in pitch space.
25:25 Greg sings "Do a Dear" (or "Re a Drop") in D Major, fixed Do.
Pedagogies of fixed Do tend to have one of two goals:
To build perfect pitch (especially pedagogies of fixed do that are designed to be started with very young children, i.e., ages 3-6), or
To gradually acquaint students with singing in different keys, so that they know instantly what the notes are associated with each scale degree in each key.
27:30 Can also be useful when you move into less tonal, or atonal music.
28:50 If I haven't taught solfege before, how do I start, what are those first things I should do?
Pick a system and start using it
Mimicry is a great place to start: I sing it, you sing it back to me.
Students who aren't familiar with solfege become familiar with it quickly.
32:00 Kodaly and Orff approaches: Start small, add on when you're ready.
Two basic approaches to starting small
Begin with a subset of the scale, e.g., in Kodaly's approach the notes are introduced one by one in the order Sol, Mi, La, Do, Re, Fa, Ti.
Begin with primarily stepwise motion through the full scale, gradually add leaps. (How those leaps are chosen varies widely in teaching approaches, some approaches focus on the size of the leap, others on what harmonic function it has.)
35:00 The Two "Key" Skills for Sight Singing And Dictation
Know the sound of each solfege/scale degree within the context of a scale. This is an aural skill.
Translate notes to solfege/scale degrees (and vice versa) fluently. This is a theory skill.
One advantage of moveable do is that you don't have to think much about the translation between notes and solfege as you're first learning. It allows you to skip past thinking "what is this note in this key," though of course we want students to build up that skill eventually, too, even if our chosen system is moveable do.
39:00 Perfect Pitch
Once your six years old, the chances of learning it are basically nill
Three overlapping theories
1. Critical period theory: The brain has enough plasticity up to age 6 to learn things like language and perfect pitch.
2. Unlearning theory: We all start with absolute pitch, but as we learn that things like scale degree function are more meaningful in music than frequency, we unlearn absolute pitch.
3. Genetic component: How do we explain students who did start before age 6 and did not acquire perfect pitch?
Perfect pitch sags with age, around age 40 things tend to start to sound lower. There may be a physical component on perfect pitch.
Some think of it as a mark of genius in the musical community, but if you talk with many professional musicians who have it, they'll often tell you it's not entirely a blessing.
Just knowing the frequency of a note doesn't tell us much of anything about what it's doing musically. But knowing where a note is in the scale tells us tons: how it moves, where it pulls, how to perform it.
Functional hearing, "Where am I in the scale?" can be taught at any age to anyone. Phenomenological (i.e., absolute pitch) hearing can only be learned up to around age 6, and it's possible that not all children can learn it anyway.
46:30 Final thoughts?
Leah: Find something you're comfortable with, and use that.
David: I've learned systems along side my students, and I've been really open w/ my own struggles learning them, and that's great too. Then they feel like you're in their camp. My first year of Takedimi was like that!
48:15 What do you want to hear from us?
Drop us a note at email@example.com.
And of course subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
Intro: (singing) These are the Notes from the Staff where we talk about our point of view, and we share the things we're gonna do, `cause the path to mastering theory begins with you!
Greg Ristow: Hi. Welcome to Notes From the Staff. I'm Greg Ristow, founder of uTheory and Professor of Conducting at the Oberlin Conservatory.
Leah Sheldon: I'm Leah Sheldon. I'm a former middle school band director and uTheory's Head of Teacher Engagement.
David Newman: I'm David Newman, and I teach Voice and Music Theory at James Madison University, and I do programming and content creation for uTheory.
Greg Ristow: And we're your hosts for Notes From the Staff. So, yeah. Welcome everyone to episode one. Pretty exciting for me. Maybe we should talk just a little bit about what Notes From the Staff will be or what we hope Notes From the Staff will be. Sound good?
David Newman: Yeah.
Greg Ristow: Great. So I guess the thing that I thought about ... First off, we have to give Leah credit for coming up with the brilliant name for Notes From the Staff.
Leah Sheldon: Thank you.
Greg Ristow: In my own music education training, I wasn't taught all that much about how to teach music theory, how to teach ear training. I learned a lot about how to teach performance, and there was a lot of focus on that side of things. But really there wasn't often all that much space for talking about how do we help students understand the music that they're performing or get to a point where they can create music themselves.
Greg Ristow: So I'm hoping that Notes From the Staff can be a place for us to share ideas around that, to pick each other's brains, to bring in guests and talk with them about that as well.
David Newman: And I know I'm personally really interested in the way that we can leverage technology and the reach of something like a podcast to help give really practical advice to people who may have really pressing needs.
Leah Sheldon: I think Greg nailed it. A degree in music education comes with a lot of coursework. You have your education classes, classes in psychology, method classes. And there's not usually a dedicated course in how to teach for example intervals. So this is just a great way to get the conversation going on that.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. We thought for our first episode, we'd start with a red hot topic, the topic of solfege methods. How do you choose a solfege method? What are the solfege methods? What are they good for? I know this is one that every musician I know has a strong opinion on.
Greg Ristow: So just to get the ball rolling, why don't we each just say what our favorite solfege method is? What the solfege method that we hear music in is? David, do you want to start us off?
David Newman: Well, I could ... I'm going to sabotage myself by saying that I probably don't initially use a solfege method in terms of the way I hear music. But having been teaching aural skills for over a decade, I use Moveable Do with Do-based minor.
Leah Sheldon: And I was taught in scale degrees. So I hear and think in scale degrees. But when I was teaching in the classroom, I mostly taught Moveable Do.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. I hear music in scale degrees and Fixed Do. If I know what key it's in, I hear it in Fixed Do. Otherwise, I hear it in scale degrees. And I have at this point taught just about all of the systems, Fixed Do, scale degrees, Moveable Do, Do-based minor, Moveable Do, La-based minor. And frankly, I have found in doing that, that each system has its own strengths and teaches you different things about music that makes it possible to hear music in kind of cool different ways.
Greg Ristow: Well, let's just talk a little bit about each of the systems, or even before that, why would we want to use a solfege system? What's the point?
David Newman: I know that when I'm teaching aural skills, I mean, if we don't use any system at all, there's sort of too much latitude to try and figure out how to convey ideas. So for me, I'm trying to build a framework, and I think that's what all of these provide, is a framework to think about the music that you're hearing. And the reason why I've used Moveable Do, aside from the fact that it's what we already taught at JMU, is that it creates a functional system where you're hearing how notes function in a scale.
Leah Sheldon: Yeah. I think without a system you're relying on peer memorization and rote teaching, and that's very time-consuming.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. I think for me, I want ... I think one of the prime goals of musical study is that if a student hears something, they understand what's happening in it. Or if they have imagined something in their ear, they should be able to take that to an instrument or to the page. And they should be able to look at the page and hear what they see on the page. And solfege I think is really the best tool. And when I say solfege, I mean, scale degrees or Moveable Do or Fixed Do, or letter names, ways where we're verbalizing something that you couldn't just hear from the pitch about the note.
Greg Ristow: Solfege helps get us between sound and the instrument or the page. And without it, you're kind of shooting in the dark. If you're trying to figure out how something you've heard goes on the piano, if you're just sort of guessing and hitting notes, yeah, you're eventually going to figure it out. But something, a solfege system gets you there much faster. So for me, that's why solfege.
Greg Ristow: I don't know. Have any of you had this experience of asking a student to sight sing and they do it terribly, and then you say, "Hey, have you done any solfege? Would you try it again?" And they say, "I'm terrible at solfege." But then they try it again and it goes better?
David Newman: Yes.
Leah Sheldon: Oh yes.
Greg Ristow: I feel like that's the classic. I joke with my ... I joke? I mean, it's not even a joke. I talk with my students about what I call the six levels of solfege mastery, where like, inevitably if I'm introducing solfege to a group of students that doesn't know it, the first time we're doing it, they're like, "Oh my God, this is so hard. Why can't ... " Especially if we're reading something together. "Why can't we just sing it on the words? Why can't we just sing it on La, La, La?" And that's level one. That's like, "Oh my God, the system gets in my way. I'm better off without the system."
Greg Ristow: And then level two is this like, "Oh, yeah. Okay. I can sort of tell that that sounds like a Do and that doesn't sound like a Do. And maybe there's something to it."
Greg Ristow: And then level three, is this sort of like, "Oh, okay. I've got to go way slower when I do solfege compared to just La, La, La. But, you know, I actually get things more right."
Greg Ristow: And then level four is like, when the buy-in really happens of like, "Oh yeah. I always want to sing on solfege because then I do it right. Don't make me sing on anything else."
Greg Ristow: Level five is this hideous phase where you can't not hear the solfege. You're driving your car. You've got the radio on. And the pop music is no longer text but solfege.
Greg Ristow: And then level six is fluency where when you want it, the solfege is there, but you don't have to consciously think about it. I don't know. For me, it's just such a joy to help get students from whatever level they are to a level or two farther along that continuum.
Leah Sheldon: And it gives them independence.
Greg Ristow: Totally. Yeah. Do those levels resonate with you, David? You teach so much aural skills at JMU.
David Newman: Yeah, they do. I mean, I guess what's funny is that you get ... you can have a classroom full of students and have people at all of those levels at the same time. And so differentiation becomes a challenge.
Greg Ristow: For sure.
David Newman: And inevitably, I also have experienced the reverse of what you have said, where someone comes and does a sight singing exam and does it on solfege first and then says, "Well, the solfege is messing me up." And I say, "Okay. Well, try it without," and then it's much worse.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. It's much worse, but they think it's much better. Right?
David Newman: Right. Because they don't have any system calling them into compliance.
Greg Ristow: I call it playing darts blindfolded. Or it's like walking a tight rope without a net. It's just ... If you're going to sing something without some sort of system going on, how are you going to know? It doesn't have to necessarily be a verbalized system. I mean, I think there are a lot of people who sing La, La, La just great, but they're totally aware of where they are in the scale, et cetera, so.
David Newman: Yeah. And I have actually found that I've started to use solfege much more when teaching voice, because, yeah, there where maybe the system is more commonly that people learn it on the piano or because no one told them they couldn't. And so they learn what they think they heard. Solfege is really great no matter what system you use for honing in and seeing if you really heard what you thought you heard.
Greg Ristow: Yeah, totally, totally. So shall we dive into the systems a little bit and just talk through them? I think the ones that we would call the major systems are scale degrees, Moveable Do, including Do minor and La minor, Fixed Do, and it's sort of sibling letter names, which are basically the same thing, but in different languages. So yeah, scale degrees. Leah.
Leah Sheldon: Yeah. So scale degrees, quick overview here, are just simply numbering the pitches of the scale from one to seven. So if you're thinking of a C major scale, the first note C would be one, D would be two, E is three, F is four, G five, A six, and B seven. And then instead of going to A to C we would repeat that one again and so on.
Greg Ristow: If we were to sing it, then it'd be like one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, one.
Leah Sheldon: Exactly. And what I was going to say is sometimes seven is shortened to sev, so that it's only one syllable. It's easier to sing.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. Now what do you do when you're in minor?
Leah Sheldon: The names of the scale degrees do not change. So three stays three. The challenge is differentiating that major three from minor three. So that is maybe where some teachers prefer the strength of Moveable Do and having a different pitch for a different scale, major or minor.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. Yeah. Cool. David, do you want to take us through Moveable Do a bit?
David Newman: Sure. I was just going to comment on the scale degrees thing though. I mean, I love scale degrees and I think I often do think in scale degrees. And the only thing is, and the useful thing about them is that they presuppose the environment that you're living in. So if you know you're living in a minor key and one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, one, or one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, one. But you still know what ... And we kind of need to know that as one of the things that we ... if we want to advance in our music theory skills, we certainly need to know what scale degrees we're on.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. So scale degrees really is about establishing a hierarchy of where we are in the scale, of saying where all the notes are in relation to a tonic and whether that tonic be a major tonic or a minor tonic. I don't know about you all, but when I'm doing scale degrees, if I'm doing a true modal tune, I will stay with calling the fundamental note of the mode one. So if I'm in Lydian, one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, one.
David Newman: Right.
Greg Ristow: Yeah.
David Newman: And even if you're in a mode that we don't ... not one of our seven named modes, but if you're in one of those modes, it's still scale degrees, unless you're doing something octatonic or adding extra notes.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. And I mean, I think that's one of the beautiful things about scale degrees is that the words you sing don't change.
Leah Sheldon: Don't change.
David Newman: Right.
Leah Sheldon: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I mentioned that as a challenge, but honestly it really forces the understanding behind the relationship of each pitch in the scale based on what kind of scale you're singing.
Greg Ristow: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, whether it's major, minor, one of the modes, or as David started to play the friggin' major scale. Yeah.
David Newman: So when we do Moveable Do, we're just using the same thing, but we're using the solfege syllables to name those degrees of the scale. But they also have inflections. And one of the really, one of the things that people love about them is that they're easy to sing, that they all have one syllable and they can help show us some other things.
Greg Ristow: Could you sing a major scale for us on Moveable Do solfege so just so we-
David Newman: Sure.
Greg Ristow: Maybe pick a key other than C major so that we just ...
David Newman: Right. So here's A. And so Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do. Do, Ti, La, Sol, Fa, Mi, Re, Do.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. So the Moveable Do we're calling the first note of the major scale Do?
David Newman: Right. Right. So Do is always the tonic. Well, actually it depends. It depends on which kind of Moveable Do you're using.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. But in major, but in major Do is always the tonic.
David Newman: In major, the Do is always the tonic. And that does simplify a number of things. It makes it easier to ask about key signatures. You can just say, "Where's Do?" And you don't have to clarify what mode you're in or whether you're in major or minor. It's just Do is there.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. So David, you talked a little bit about inflections. We have Do, Re, MI, Fa, Sol, Ti, Do. But then would you sing something slightly chromatic?
David Newman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do, Di, Re, Ri, Mi, Do, Mi, Fa, Fi, Sol, Do, Sol, Si, La, Li, Ti, Do, Sol, Do. Do, Ti, Te, La, Le, Sol, Do, Sol, Se, Fa, Mi, Do, Mi, Me, Re, Ra, Do is how I do the chromatic scale.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. So that we have alterations of the vowel, the same consonant for each of the chromatic notes.
David Newman: Yeah. And so every, at least every common function that you might hear has a one syllable name that you can connect to it.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. So you mentioned already that there are kind of different ways of doing minor. What are those?
David Newman: So the most common ... Well, there are two common ways of doing minor. And one is to use Do-based minor, which means that you'll alter the other ... you'll alter the scale degrees that are different. So you have Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, Le, Te, Do. Or if you have melodic minor, Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do. However, many people advocate also La-based minor where you leave Do as the major tonic and use a rotation of the scale for minor, which would give you La, Ti, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La.
Greg Ristow: Mm-hmm (affirmative). [crosstalk 00:17:20] recognizing it.
David Newman: It's sort of stop and think.
Greg Ristow: Yeah, because that's not the system that you live in most often. Yeah.
Greg Ristow: So La-based minor is a lot like ... is closely related to relative minor, right?
David Newman: Right.
Greg Ristow: We're saying that effectively, if we're in C Major and we started on A and sang from A to A, we'd have a minor scale, right? And that's effectively our La-based minor. Whereas Do-based minor kind of is much more like the parallel minor. Where in C major, if we switch to C minor, now we have three flats and we're going to alter those. We're going to alter our Mi, our La, and our Ti to be half step Le, Me, and Te.
David Newman: Yeah. And there are, in some ways I think that the method you use will be more or less useful depending on what kind of music you're looking at. We had talked earlier about how a lot of pop music, really, if it's in minor, you really should analyze it as starting on six. And ...
Greg Ristow: And also, I mean, there's so much pop music that kind of lives in this ... Are we in minor? Are we in major? That's sort of drifting between that relative major, relative minor.
David Newman: We find this phenomenon all the time with this artist, Hozier ... Hose ... How do you say his name?
Leah Sheldon: Hozier.
David Newman: Hozier. So we should write a song alla him that of how to pronounce his name, like (singing). And then we can, yeah. That way we'll remember.
Greg Ristow: And it's like, are we in Do or are we in (singing) or (singing), right?
David Newman: Right. It's this key for two chords maybe, and then you're in this key for two chords maybe, and it just goes back and forth.
Greg Ristow: And you're freely, freely flowing between those within the collection of diatonic quiet notes, yeah. Totally. This is true in a ton of folk music as well. Right? That just there are so many tunes. I think even, here we are just at the start of the new year's and so I've been hearing Christmas carols. God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is one of (singing). David, why did you put us in A minor, which is very low for me.
David Newman: I'm sorry.
Greg Ristow: So this, right. 155, sorry, switch La minor. La, La, Mi, Mi, Re, Do, Si, La, Sol, La, Si, Do, Re, Mi. La, La, Mi, Mi, Re, Do, Si, La, Sol, La, Si, Do, Re, Mi. Mi, Fa, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Mi, Re, Do, La, Ti, Do, Re, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Mi, Mi, Re, Do, Si, La. Right? And it's like, you hear those places in there that feel so great singing, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Mi.
Greg Ristow: It's so clearly this little brief, major turn, and having done that in La-based minor, that little shift to the relative major is totally taken care of for us. We don't have to think about shifting to ... moving our Do to a different note or anything like that. And that's really, really lovely.
Greg Ristow: Maybe a little stranger for where we have more parallel motion. And so I think a lot of, especially Austrian-Viennese School of classical music works a lot more within parallel major and minor. And so maybe Do minor suits that better.
David Newman: You know I've advocated at times for thinking in Do-based minor with things that are, especially when things have similar patterns. I mean, for one thing, Sol, Ti, Re, Fa is always a dominant seven than in any key you're in. And I don't ... I can't even tell you what it is in La-based minor. I'd have to stop and think.
David Newman: Yeah. And I'm sure that if you're fluent in La-based minor, then you already know that.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. So I think, now we're really, now we're starting to get at one of the key differences between La minor and Do minor or reasons you might choose one system or another.
Greg Ristow: And scale degrees is very much like Do minor in that, whether you're in major or minor, you're calling the tonic of the scale the same thing.
Leah Sheldon: The same thing, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Greg Ristow: So we're talking about this choice between scale degrees Do minor or La minor. Then part of the question I think is, is your focus on melodic reading or on harmonic understanding? Because David, as you point out, if your focus is on harmonic understanding, then one of your goals is going to be to acquaint students with each chord within a scale. And the words are going to stay pretty much the same in scale degrees in Do minor, but they're going to change if you're using La minor. So that's one of the things you might consider.
Greg Ristow: On the other hand, if your primary goal is quickness of site reading, then it may not be as much concern. La minor might in fact be the better choice because you don't have to worry so much about those two. And I think that's probably why in my experience talking with teachers at the middle school and high school level versus teachers at the college level, teachers at the middle school, high school, elementary level tend to refer La-based minor. And those at the college level where they're starting to work on harmony and Roman numeral and chord function tend to prefer Do minor or scale degrees.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. So we haven't talked about Fixed Do and letter names. I have to say these are two of my favorite systems. In a way they're kind of non-systems. They're just ... So basically Fixed Do is in many countries what they think of as their letter names, so that if you were in a Spanish speaking country or a French speaking country, then you don't ... they don't say C, D, E, F, G, but they say, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, A, La, B, they actually say Si, S-I. And those are just their letter names.
Greg Ristow: So for someone who's grown up in a culture where those are their letter names, to call a note other than C Do feels really weird. Right? It's like if I said, "Okay, great. Let's all sing a C major scale starting on ... " Let's do this again. "Let's sing a D major scale starting on C." Right? Like it would just feel very weird for us to sit there and sing those C, D, E-
Leah Sheldon: Don't do that-
Greg Ristow: ... as we get to F#. Right? So yeah. So Fixed Do as a system is just a system of naming the letters, in the same way that if we were singing something on letter names, we're just saying, it's this letter, it's that letter. And generally in Fixed Do we don't sing sharp or flat when the notes are sharp or flat. We just sing. We just sing Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Sol, La or Si. David, would you play D Major just so I get the key?
Greg Ristow: Great. So if I were to sing Doe deer in Fixed Do in D major, right? Re, Mi, Fa, Re, Fa, Re, Fa. If I could do it on words, that would be really fun. Ray, a drop of golden sun, me, a name I call myself, far, a long, long way to run, sew, a needle pulling thread, La, a note to follow sew, tea, a drink with jam and bread, doe, a deer, a female deer, that will bring us back to Re. Right?
Greg Ristow: Which if you grew up in Moveable Do land feels so wrong. But you know, for me, that feels right living in Fixed Do land. And most of the pedagogies of Fixed Do, their goal is either to build perfect pitch or to gradually acquaint students with singing in the different keys one by one. So they grow familiar with what the solfege sounds like in the different keys.
Greg Ristow: So effectively, most Fixed Do pedagogies, like if you look at solfege is solfège, which is the French system, they start, you spend forever in C major and then they introduce one flat, and then you spend a time in F minor or in F major. And gradually they introduce one key after another so that it really, what you're learning is what the notes are for different scale degrees and all the different keys.
Greg Ristow: I think this is often ... when people say, "Fixed Do, that's not ... it's not a system." It's not a system if you just throw everything in right away with Fixed Do. But if you limit the introduction of keys and introduce keys one by one, then in Fixed Do effectively makes very quick that connection between scale degrees and note names.
David Newman: We've also used it at JMU. We use it in our fourth semester of aural skills when we get to non-tonal music. And then we do use inflection names. We use the same inflection names that we learned for Moveable Do. But then we're using it partly, just so that students have a way of navigating our notation system, which is tonal. And if you're navigating non-tonal materials in a tonal notation system, it really helps to have that reminder of where the half steps are on the staff.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. I mean, I think when I'm working with my students on first singing atonal music, I often have them, yeah, pick their tonic and literally sing tonic between every note of the melody before they sing the melody sequentially so that they're keeping all those tonal skills they have, those references to a home pitch as they do it. Totally. Yeah.
Greg Ristow: Okay. So those are the basic solfege systems and there are other ones. There are the Guidonian and hexachordal system, which is the old, or kind of the original Renaissance system. Yeah, I think probably not worth chatting about too much at the moment.
Leah Sheldon: Save it for another day.
Greg Ristow: Yeah, I think so. Right? Yeah. But maybe we should just talk about, let's say I've not taught solfege to my students before. How do I start? How do I introduce solfege as a concept, solfege system? What are those first things I should do?
Leah Sheldon: It's a great question.
David Newman: Wow. I mean, I suppose the first thing you have to do is pick a system or systems and start using it. And then we're talking about sequencing and how you ... Any system that you choose, I suspect you're going to find colleagues and sequences already-
Greg Ristow: Can I just toss out a crazy idea that I totally stole from a friend who heard this at a conference? Imagine that our musical alphabet started from H and it was H, I, J, K, L, M, N, right?
David Newman: Yes.
Greg Ristow: So let's ... Can we sing in H major scale together? H, H, right?
All: H, I, J, K, L, M, N, H.
Greg Ristow: And if we came down from there, H.
Leah Sheldon: Oh no.
Greg Ristow: N. Right? You see? And we all cringed.
Leah Sheldon: Go ahead. You do it.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. No, I can't. I can't. Right? But I think about ... I like to think about that idea before I start introducing a solfege system to a group of students or a student, because to me, I can't remember a time when Do, Ti, La, Sol, Fa, Mi, Re, Do felt challenging. But if you're just beginning with-
Leah Sheldon: But it will.
Greg Ristow: Absolutely. Absolutely. It'll be completely confusing. So ...
Leah Sheldon: So you're saying don't dive in and start asking your students to sing full scales?
Greg Ristow: Maybe not, or maybe not without aids. I don't know about you all, but what I like to do first is either introduce a subset of the scale to them and build it up bit by bit. Maybe that's the first few notes of the scale, or to write the scale on the board vertically in solfege from bottom to top and then pointing finger go up and down so they can actually be reading it as they do it. I don't know, what are first exercises you all use?
David Newman: Mimicry. I'm going to sing it to you. You sing it back to me. And mimicking small subsets and then expanding the subsets that you asked them to mimic.
Greg Ristow: Yeah.
David Newman: And I have to say that my experience is that, well, all right, I'm dealing with college students who got into music school. So there's that. But students who aren't familiar with it gain familiarity quickly. But that may be absolutely biased by the level of student I'm teaching.
Leah Sheldon: Right. So if I reflect on my teaching, I also have six years experience teaching elementary music. And what you're getting into are a lot of the methodologies of Kodaly or Orff. And although there are a lot of differences between the two, what's the same is that you're starting with a small subset of pitches. So in terms of Kodaly, we're looking at starting with So and Mi, introducing La, then adding Do. But not rapidly. And we're also talking about much younger learners also. So you're spending a lot of time making sure they are able to understand those before you're moving on.
Leah Sheldon: And Orff, you're starting with Do, Re, Mi, just three pitches, and then eventually adding So. So same idea, mimicry, starting with small stuff. Of course, there are so many songs and so many books and so many activities. We couldn't even possibly begin to get into that now, but the idea is the same. Start small, and then add on when your students are ready.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. And starting small, I think there are kind of two basic ways to start small. There's the sort of introduce a note at a time kind of way, which we find in both the Orff and Kodaly approaches, methodologies where you say, okay, in Kodaly, we gradually build up to the pentatonic scale. Then eventually we add Fa and Ti. Then gradually you start adding chromatics.
Greg Ristow: And then I think the other approach to starting small, which is sometimes more useful if you're working with older students, because they already know what a scale is. They want a whole scale. Why are we only seeing the pentatonic? Another way of starting small is to start by saying, "Okay, we're going to start with just steps in the scale. And then we're going to gradually learn to leap around in the scale bit by bit." And you might do that by doing small leaps first, or you might do it by leaping within particular chords, especially if you're working in a context where you're teaching harmony as well. Right?
Greg Ristow: I mean, I think about even just a lot of the great ... So if we're thinking starting small in terms of building up intervallic content, then we might do things like taking patterns up and down the scale. Like we might just go, Do, Re, Do, Re, Mi, Re, Mi, Fa, Mi, where we're getting used to the idea that the order can go forwards and backwards. And that's a pretty important concept, right?
Greg Ristow: Think about how hard it was for us to try and sing the H major scale backwards. And then building up patterns that have leaps in Do, Re, Mi, Do, Mi, Re, Mi, Fa, Re, Fa, where we're starting to learn as well what little leaps within the scale sound like. And you can gradually build up and make up those patterns to do anything. Or even in the classic one for getting comfortable going down the scale, I think, is the Do, Do, Re, Do, Do, Re, Mi, Re, Do, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Mi, Re, Do which probably every choral director in America knows and has used at some point.
Greg Ristow: All these things to just ... Yeah, these things that as they become comfortable require almost no thought because the order of the notes has become so ingrained. We sort of defaulted to Moveable Do. But of course we could do all these on one, one, two, one, one, two, three, two, one, one, two, et cetera, right? Yeah.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. I think these are good. One of the things that I think about a lot is what are the actual skills that go into sight singing music, or aurally analyzing it or transcribing it, or playing it on an instrument by ear. They're largely two separate skills. Number one is, I've got to be able to translate what I'm hearing to a solfege system, or I've got to be able to translate to solfege system to what I'm hearing.
Greg Ristow: That's sort of the ear component of it. Was that Do, Re or Do, Mi? And then there's this mind component of, "Okay, I heard Do, Mi, and I'm in the key of D major. What notes are those? Ah, that's D/F#. Okay. Now I can play that on my instrument, write it down, whatever." But we have, we have the ear part and we have the mind part that are kind of two separate component skills to it.
Greg Ristow: One of the joys, I think, of Moveable Do a lot of the times is that you don't have to think too much about the actual pitch names as you're getting going with it, thinking more about like where you are on the staff. David, can you tell us about your brick sight singing?
David Newman: Right. So I will just go. We have cinder block walls at school, in the hallway. And I've gone out in the hallway and just said, "Okay, here's our staff. Just choose the height of a cinder block as being the height of a space on the staff. And so we're going to choose these five lines. This one is Do. You don't need to know what clef it is. You don't need to know what key you're in. All you need to know is what I'm calling Do. And then, for me, the great thing is that that reinforces not trying to translate, for example, for students whose first instinct is to look and see letter names. I can get them to bypass that a little bit and to look and see relationships to the tonics. So that they see where Do is. They know that So is going to be two spaces up or two lines up. And it's also going to be a space and a half down. I don't know how to say that. It lets me quickly show where things are within a given scale.
David Newman: And for me, that's also a very quick way to notate something, is to just know where Do is, put the other scale degrees in the right places.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. And this, we see this a lot in the Kodaly approach as well, that written notation in most Kodaly texts starts with just a two line staff where the top line is So, and the bottom line is Mi. And you just learn that So Mi is line, line, or one line, and you could have So just above the line, or just below the line. Right? And So Mi is line to line or space to space. And you're effectively learning the visual relationship of those distances on the staff without having to convert it to or from note names.
David Newman: Yeah.
Greg Ristow: So, it occurs to me, one thing we haven't talked about is ... perfect pitch.
Leah Sheldon: Oh, no.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. Oh no. Oh no is right because there's so many feelings about this.
David Newman: YouTube is-
Greg Ristow: David, looks like you were about to say-
David Newman: Well, I'm just, I'm saying YouTube is littered with people claiming that they can teach you perfect pitch. And as far as I know, virtually, every study says this can't be done. And once you're six years old or something.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. Yeah. I think the real expert on this is Elizabeth West Marvin who's on the Music Theory Faculty at the Eastman School of Music. And Betsy's worked closely with her colleagues at the University of Rochester in the Brain Sciences Department there to do just so many studies at this point on absolute pitch. Absolute pitch is the scientific name for perfect pitch. And basically there are three competing theories for why some people have absolute pitch and some people don't.
Greg Ristow: And the first theory, David, you kind of referred to is what's known as the critical period theory. So we know that as humans, if we don't learn a primary language, if we don't learn to speak before about age six, then it's pretty much impossible to actually learn to speak after that. We know that unfortunately from studies in particular of neglected children, and that in psychological terms is known as a critical period, that you've got to learn it before then or you can't learn it.
Greg Ristow: And there's a super high correlation between the age people start musical study and whether they have perfect pitch. Those who start before age six are much more likely to acquire it. And almost no one who starts after age six acquires it. So yeah, so that's the critical period theory.
Greg Ristow: The second theory is an unlearning theory, this idea that we all start with absolute pitch, but maybe we learn other ways to recognize music that teach us that absolute pitch is not important and so we gradually forget it. And you can see how that's similar to the critical period theory, right? It's a question of, are we adding a skill or are we forgetting a skill we had?
Greg Ristow: And then a third theory is that there is a genetic component to it. Because how do we explain musicians who did start training before age six and didn't acquire perfect pitch. Was that part of the nurture component or was there a nature component to it? The reality is we don't have full answers for these yet, but all three of those competing or overlapping theories basically agree that if you don't have it by about age six, you're not going to have it.
Greg Ristow: Now, what some of Betsy Marvin's recent research has shown is that there are adults who are non-musicians, who have a kind of perfect pitch, which is sort of fascinating. She refers to a study that ... not one that she did, but where this was actually done in the '90s, where in the experiment there was a room full of popular music CDs, super famous CDs. And people were instructed to go and pick their two favorite CDs and then pick their favorite song from one of the CDs, hold that CD up to their chest, think about the song and then sing it. These are non-musicians. These are actually psychology majors in the study.
Greg Ristow: And a full 25% of them sang it in the key it was on the CD. An additional 50% of them sang it within a half step of where it was on the CD. So it's kind of an interesting question. There may be more going on there, but we've talked about all these solfege methods, and we're not talking about building perfect pitch, except maybe with the case of Fixed Do when started at a very young age. And there are pedagogies that are intentionally designed using Fixed Do to train perfect pitch when you're starting at like age two or three and so on.
Greg Ristow: What we're really talking about is building, understanding of where you are in a scale and a collection, and building out from that. Yeah.
Greg Ristow: It's also worth noting that perfect pitch sags with age. Around age 40, it sort of starts ... things starts sounding lower and lower, and people learn to adjust generally and that's fine, as long as they're actively performing and practicing music. But there may be a physical, an actual physical component to perfect pitch that causes that and there are various theories on that. So, yeah.
Leah Sheldon: Interesting.
David Newman: What's sad is that it's become this kind of mark of genius in the music community. But if you ask many professional musicians who have it, they'll all often tell you that it's not a blessing.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. And we're talking about hearing a pitch, a phenomenon versus hearing function. Just knowing the name, the frequency of a note, doesn't tell us all that much about what it's doing musically. But knowing where it is in the scale, what it is harmonically, that gives us all sorts of information about how it feels, how it moves, what it means, how to perform it.
Greg Ristow: I had a friend in grad school who was also ... We were both TAs for ear training at Eastman. And Ilan, Ilan Levin, perfect pitch. I remember chatting with him. And he said, "Yeah, I got here and I had to teach on scale degrees and I hated it for a year. And I had to practice all the homework myself. And then I found at the end of the year, I was suddenly hearing music in a different way. I hadn't realized that I hadn't been hearing all those relationships."
Greg Ristow: These are different ways of hearing for sure. And the good news is that functional hearing of where am I in the scale, that can be taught at any age, but that phenomenological absolute pitch way, really only up to age six at the latest. And kind of hotly debated, should you teach that? Is that worth teaching? Probably a question for another episode.
Greg Ristow: Well, I feel like that's been a good chat about solfege systems. Have we missed anything? Any final thoughts to add Leah or David?
Leah Sheldon: Just find something that you are comfortable with, that you're comfortable singing, teaching, hearing music in, and use that because the students will pick up on it if you're not comfortable with it, or if you're learning it as they are as well. The students are going to know. So be comfortable with it.
David Newman: Although I would also throw out that I have learned systems alongside my students, and I've just been really open with my own struggles, learning them. And that's been great too, because then they feel like you're in their camp, that you ...
Leah Sheldon: Oh, yeah.
David Newman: That you understand.
Leah Sheldon: Yeah, if you're open about it.
David Newman: I can tell you that my first year of Takadimi was that way.
Greg Ristow: Yeah. I still, I tell all my students. For instance, when I teach, at the summers I teach at Interlochen, and there we use Moveable Do. And I just tell my students, "You are going to hear me accidentally switch to Fixed Do at some point. It is just going to happen. I will be in the middle of singing something, and three notes are going to come out in Fixed Do. And it just ... " They're generally really understanding about that and they tend to laugh when it happens. Like, "Ah, you called that So La-
David Newman: It humanizes you.
Greg Ristow: Of course.
David Newman: It humanizes you. It's a great thing for students to realize-
Leah Sheldon: It does-
David Newman: ... that you are in fact human.
Greg Ristow: Right. We'd love to hear from everyone who's listening, like what would you like to know about? What would you like to know about in music theory, in music pedagogy, in music technology? Let us know. We have lots of ideas ourself, but of course want this podcast to be a place where we're talking about things that teachers of music want to hear about. Yeah.
Greg Ristow: Any final thoughts before we sign off? Awesome. Well, episode one, go gang. David, Leah, thanks. And yeah, we'll chat again soon.
David Newman: All right. Thanks. Good to see you.
Greg Ristow: Bye everyone.
Leah Sheldon: Bye.
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