"Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing." William Byrd, Psalmes, Sonets & Songs (1588)
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What is “Solfa”?

Tonic solfa is a method of learning and reading music which began around 990 A.D. in Italy.  It was later refined and developed in England, and by Zoltan Kodaly, a Hungarian composer who was asked to develop a music curriculum for Hungarian schools. It uses the seven note names of a scale (do, re, mi, fa, so, la and ti), with a hand sign for each pitch.  This means that singers do not need to be able to read (either words or music) to be able to learn songs in solfa.  In French, solfa is solfege, and in Italian, solfeggio.

 Why Learn Solfa?

Solfa is a simple way for singers to learn pitch relationships, or the spaces between the notes of a scale.  No matter what the key of a song, its intervals or pitch relationships will remain constant relative to the starting note of the scale. By learning solfa, and practising “drills” or patterns, singers will easily sing “in tune”.  For younger students there is no need to be able to read to learn new songs quickly.

Solfa also helps students whose preferred learning methods are not only auditory or visual. The kinesthetic aspect of hand signing while singing helps students to physically understand the aspect of high and low pitch, and to relate certain intervals with their corresponding hand signs.

The Fixed Do and Movable Do Argument

In Europe, the ‘do’ of a scale is always the first note of the scale.  For instance, in the key of G major, the note G will be ‘do’, A will be be ‘re’, B will be ‘mi’, and so on.  This is termed Movable Do.  However, some musicians, and many colleges and universities in the States, always use the note C as ‘do’, which is Fixed Do. 

Being trained in Hungary, I use the movable ‘do’ system in my classes.  I feel it is more sensible to always call the first note of the scale ‘do’, the second ‘re’, etc, rather than have to be able to adapt the solfa scale every time we sing in a new key. (In our example of G major, the first note of the scale would be called ‘so’, the second ‘la’, etc.)  After less than two years of learning music in class using solfa, we no longer need to use solfa as a framework to learn new music, as the intervals and pitch relationships are so well established.

The History of Solfa

In the eleventh century, Guido d’Arezzo, an Italian musician and theorist, using squared notation developed a system of learning music.  This involved a commonly known hymn from the latter part of the eight century honouring St. John the Baptist.  The chant contains six sections each beginning with a new note in an ascending pattern: Ut quant laxis / Resonar fibris / Mira gestorum / Famull quorum / Solve polluti / Lavii reatum, Sancte Johannes.  So the notes of the scale were Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, and La.  Ut was replaced by “Do” in the early 1600’s, as Ut is not easy for vocalizing.  The seventh note “Ti” (in Europe “Si”) was introduced at the same time.  The lowest note of Guido’s scale is Ut in the gamma range, or, gamma-ut.  This became our word “gamut”, so that “running the gamut” originally meant practising one’s scales all the way through.

Guido’s musical system could produce a competent singer in one or two years, vs. the ten years traditionally. Sight reading was now possible. Shifting the clef so as to avoid adding more lines would conserve parchment.

Thanks to Professor Delahoyde of Washington State University for this history.


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