Part 7: Solfege Teaching Guide

Adding to the Foundation

Solfege classes weren’t designed to teach music theory, so students who have a need will want to take music theory and other classes to build on their solfege foundation. Having said this, those who master the foundational aspects of the French School solfege methodology will have all of the tools needed to study any music-related subject and any musical genre - as a performer or composer.

Church Modes

These are also called Gregorian modes:

Dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, and ionian. 

While much of western music uses familiar major or minor scales, the other scales sound different. A dorian (D or re) scale is created by starting with re and playing all of the white keys up to re. A phrygian (E or mi) scale is created by starting with mi and playing all of the white keys up to mi.

You can transpose them. First evaluate a basic mode, e.g. dorian starting with re, and determine where the whole steps (w) and half steps (h) are between each of the notes.

re mi fa sol la si do re

w h w w w h w

To create a dorian scale starting with fa, replicate the pattern of whole and half steps for dorian, but starting with fa instead of re.

w h w w w h w

fa sol la♭ si♭ do re mi♭ fa

Even though these scales may be different, the accidentals still follow the rules:

fa do sol re la mi si

si mi la re sol do fa

Notice in F dorian the flats are still si♭ mi♭ la♭

Music that sounds Celtic tends to be in dorian, and music that sounds pastoral could very well be lydian.

Meter Lesson

Understanding straight time vs. compound time can be a challenge. French School alumnus Robert Taub once hosted a Juilliard doctoral forum about Beethoven’s composition sketchbooks, noting even Beethoven sometimes started a sketch with straight time and later switched to compound time, or vice versa.

For time signatures, e.g. 4/4 or 6/8, the top number indicates the number of beats per measure (using these examples, 4 or 6), and the bottom number refers to the type of note that has one beat (here, a quarter note or eighth note).

For straight time, the top number could be 2, 4, 5, 7 and the bottom number will be 4. Metronome markings for straight time will be quarter note = tempo (half note or different duration if the tempo ends up being too slow or fast). General rule of thumb: tempos range between 50 and 200. Anything slower than 50 is slower than a human heartbeat, making this difficult to track accurately.

The important elements to consider for both straight and compound time are: beat, division (primary breakdown), and subdivision.

For straight time:

  • Beat: quarter note
  • Division: 2, so eighth notes
  • Subdivision: 2, so sixteenth notes

For compound time, the top number could be 6, 9, 12, 15 - some division of 3.

  • Beat: dotted quarter note
  • Division: 3, so 3 eighth notes
  • Subdivision: 2, so (2 16th, 2 16th, 2 16th)

When do you use straight time vs. compound time? Music that is in 3/4 time could also be written in 6/8 time. Here are some guidelines:

1. If a new composition in straight time has a lot of triplets, this is an indication to convert to compound time - e.g. 12/8. 3/4 may become 9/8.

This is also part of a larger principle - the principle of least ink used. This tends to clean up sheet music, which is helpful to performers. Carillon Fantasies, a Juilliard exercise, is a good example of switching from straight to compound time (otherwise beyond the double bars, a lot of triplets would pop up). In this case, the tempo did change, but you can see the transition from quarter note = tempo to dotted quarter note = tempo.


2. To switch between straight time and compound time signatures where the tempo remains the same, notate the change from compound to straight time using dotted quarter = quarter note or vice versa.

3. A musical work can be written in 4/4 or 8/8 depending on what the music does. Use 4/4 straight time if the feel of the beat is 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. Use 8/8 if the feel is more 123 123 12 (or 123 456 78 123 456 78).

5/4 and 10/8 work in a similar way. If the beat is 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and, use 5/4. If the beat feels more like 123 123 1234, use 10/8.

One last brainteaser. What is 6/4? Is this straight or compound time?

Answer: This is still compound time because the top number is divisible by 3. However, because the denominator is 4 instead of 8, the beat is now a dotted half note, as opposed to a dotted quarter note. Added exercise: determine how the division and subdivision would break down for 6/4.

Beaming Notes

Always show the beat. This makes the music easier for performers to read, whether they are pianists or instrumentalists in an orchestra.

This is especially true when using professional music notation software like Sibelius, while composing works in unusual time signatures like 5/4. These tools don’t always beam the notes correctly. You can also beam over rests, like in another part of Carillon Fantasies below. For pianists, this makes it easier to see how the left and right hands coordinate. For orchestras, this allows the conductor to easily see how the different instrumental will work together.


Lead Sheets

Lead sheets are different from Western classical music notation in that they specify only the essential elements of a song. They can contain a melody line, lyrics, and chord symbols. Fake books contain a collection of lead sheets.

Having a classical piano background, I thought lead sheets were a watered down system of musical notation so that non-musicians who couldn’t read sheet music well could still learn to play popular tunes. Boy was I wrong.

Famous classical music not only has everything notated by the composer in terms of all of the notes and dynamics, it has a history of performances that lead to standardized expectations for how the music should be performed.

When only the essence that defines a song is specified, this leaves performers with many different options. Do we:

  • use chords? Broken chords?
  • use a sequence of notes? A different sequence of those notes? 
  • syncopate the rhythms? 
  • play the song in this key, or transpose it?

In other words, lead sheets are a great way to study music theory, improvisation on the fly, and arranging music. Specifying the essence of a popular tune means the music will still be recognizable by the audience, and yet the performer can make each rendition uniquely their own interpretation.

Lead sheets are prevalent among instrumentalists, vocalists, and in some genres of music like jazz.


ABRSM stands for the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music. This is an organization that has a national certification system to gauge where music students are in their progress. They can test proficiency in instruments, music theory, singing, jazz, etc. This started in England in the 1890s and is now available in 93 countries.

Eileen SauerComment