Part 6: Solfege Teaching Guide
Foundation - Details
Now that solfege class has launched, the rest of the chapters in this guide will cover:
- Further details of each of the main areas of solfege, using the French School method
- Using this foundation to learn to improvise and compose
- How a few key concepts in piano practice dovetail with solfege
- How this foundation together with music related apps and technology lead to infinite possibilities
- Filling in some gaps to help solfege students prepare for a conservatory environment
The goal is for students to develop a consistent level of competency with respect to the fundamentals such that they are self-sufficient enough to continue broadening and deepening their understanding of music.
Ia. Singing / Solfegiating
In the nineteenth century, Anglophone countries like Britain changed si to ti so that each note started with a different syllable. This makes it possible to solfege the chromatic scale with raised pitches (sharps) by using do, di (for do sharp), re, ri, mi, fa, fi, sol, si, la, li, ti and do. The syllables for the flats are do, ti, te, la, le, sol, se, fa, mi, re, ra, do. Changing si to ti means there is no ambiguity with the chromatic syllables for sol and si. The French method entails singing do re mi, and re could be re, re#, or re♭ depending on the key. There are pros and cons to each system.
- Even young children can pick this up easily, there are only seven syllables to learn.
- Instructors can clearly hear every syllable (do re mi etc.)
- Do begins with a hard percussive consonant, and so does ti. But si is softer and more lyrical.
- There are times you may want a do♭, which is si. This system allows you to sing do (for do♭) even though the pitch is si.
Adding chromatic syllables facilitates greater awareness of the chromatic scale and the enharmonic equivalents.
Check the References section at the end of this guide for downloadable handouts for drilling students in the basics.
Basic singing techniques:
- Stand straight, like a puppet being pulled up on a string at the top of your head (not military stance with chest thrust out)
- Breathe from your stomach, not high up in your chest which can constrict your throat
- Yawn - do you feel how the space right behind your nose opens up? Singing should feel like this
Drill the notes with flash cards and the solfege book so they become automatic. Younger students may require separate one-on-one attention for this.
A tip for mastering intervals is associating intervals with well-known songs:
- Minor second - Jaws
- Major second - Happy Birthday
- Minor third - Greensleeves
- Major third - When the Saints Go Marching In
- Perfect fourth - Here Comes the Bride
- Tritone - Maria
- Perfect fifth - Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
- Minor sixth - The Entertainer
- Major sixth - My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean
- Minor seventh - Somewhere
- Major seventh - Take On Me
- Octave - Somewhere Over the Rainbow
At the end of solfege exercise 23, introduce the sharps and flats (using the French method, this is a lyrical jingle):
- Sharps: fa do sol re la mi si
- Flats: si mi la re sol do fa
Break the sequence up like a phone number so it is easier to learn and remember:
fa do sol - re la mi si
si mi la - re sol do fa
This jingle makes figuring out key signatures easy.
For major scales with sharp key signatures, take the last sharp and go up one note. Three sharps? fa do sol. Take sol, go up one note, the key is la major.
la si do# re mi fa# sol# la
For major scales with flat key signatures, go back one flat. Two flats? si mi. The key is si♭ major.
si♭ do re mi♭ fa sol la si♭
Practice engaging in musical mental play to hear these scales on pitch without a keyboard and without singing.
At exercise 67, introduce bass clef (exercise 147). Do a few exercises in bass clef, return to treble, and alternate back and forth. Tell students to take the note in treble clef and go up two notes, until reading bass clef becomes second nature.
Tips and tricks for more effective sightreading:
- Before the accompanist starts playing, look at the music - how many beats per measure? What is the key signature? Which notes will be sharp/flat? What are the first few pitches? What types of notes are they (e.g. quarter rest followed by quarter note, dotted quarter and eighth…) Mentally play this in your head.
- Once the accompanist starts playing, continue looking ahead. Looking ahead increases the chance of figuring out the music before you actually have to sing it. During page turns, those who look ahead already know what to sing and can turn the page and read what comes next, without stopping.
The Perfect Pitch Loophole
Those who have perfect pitch and memorize music quickly by ear may have trouble practicing sightreading. They will memorize all of the solfege exercises as soon as they hear them. For piano sightreading, going through a book of Mozart sonatinas quickly can help. Short simpler exercises from Le Carpentier (now out of print), Le Couppey, Burgmuller, and Czerny are good for sightreading practice.
Where students are advanced both in solfege and piano, tap them as solfege accompanists for more sightreading training.
Instructors and advanced students who compose can compose solfege exercises for the entire class to sightread cold.
1c. Conducting Time
Students make a fist with their right hand. If they’re standing, the left hand goes behind their back, otherwise if they’re sitting, the left hand holds their solfege book while they beat time with their right hand.
- 4 beats per measure with time signature C (also common time): shape is a cross, down, left (across the body), right (out), up
- 3 beats: triangle, down, right (out at 3 o’clock), up
- 2 beats: straight line, down, up
- C with line through: cut-time, also four beats but two down, two up
- 6 beats: three down, three up
- 5 beats: triangle (3), down up (2) alternating
C means 4/4 - four beats per measure, a quarter note gets one beat
3/4 - three beats per measure, a quarter note gets one beat
3/8 - three beats per measure, an eighth note gets one beat (exercise 71)
For the first Dannhäuser book, the time signatures are mostly basic. 6/8 doesn’t get introduced until almost the end.
Download the handouts mentioned in the References section as teaching aids.
Triplets are introduced in exercise 76. Ask students:
- Why do you need 3 for the triplet?
- What is the difference between a triplet and three eighth notes?
Because conducting 4/4 time shows the quarter note beats but not eighth note beats, teach students how to count those out loud at first, then in their head:
- Eighth notes: 1 and 2 and 3 and...
- Triplets: 1 and and 2 and and...
- Sixteenth notes: 1 and and and 2 and and and...
Also note that they have the same number of beats per measure, whether they are counted
1 2 3 4
or 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
Advanced: Go through the triplet / duplet pattern by having students tap out a triplet several times with their right hand, then a duplet several times with their left hand.
Teaching aids while tapping this pattern out include “hot cup of tea” or “together, right left right” (or left right left).
The triplet / duplet pattern is fascinating because it alternates between both hands being on the beat, and then alternating (right left right or left right left). If it were always off the beat, it would be chaos. And if it were always on the beat it would be completely stable. But because the pattern alternates between on the beat and off the beat, it feels as if it waddles like a penguin.
Debussy’s first Arabesque is a good triplet / duplet demonstration to show how the pattern works in music (play this slow first, then faster).
1d. Ear Training
This is how two piano ear training progresses over time. Keep in mind this will be harder for students who doesn’t take piano lessons.
Single notes, always start with middle do.
For all new students doing ear training for the first time, determine if they can discern between pitches going up versus going down. Start off sequentially (do, re, mi, re, mi, fa, sol).
Then jump an occasional note to see if students can discern between different simple intervals: do, re, fa, mi, sol, la, sol, mi, re…
If they are proficient with single notes, progress to short sequences. Don’t jump more than one note initially, and progress as they develop competence.
Do re mi. Re mi fa. Mi do re. Etc.
Test their ability to recognize intervals as two note chords and a sequence of notes (use both chords and a sequence of notes if they are having trouble hearing the chords). The class can also try to guess the interval for the sequence and/or chord.
Initially, stay with middle do as the base, until they recognize the intervals quickly. Keep in mind, students who play instruments that generate a single note (clarinet, saxophone) may have more trouble discerning chords during ear training. They should still learn to recognize intervals, however.
Start testing for perfect pitch
Determine if students can identify a note that is not automatically middle do. It could be re or mi. If they consistently say do, re, and mi correctly, branch to fa and sol, etc.
Top or bottom?
Continue testing intervals but now crawling up and down the keyboard. Start with a fifth - middle do and sol.
Then change only one note at a time - it could be the top or the bottom note. Prompt the students with: “top or bottom?” and have them figure out two things:
A. Did the top or bottom note change?
B. How did that note change? Did it go up or down on the keyboard?
Even for more advanced students initially, they’ll determine that the top or or bottom note changed, but they’ll have trouble figuring out if that note went up or down. Here is an example sequence of chords (remember to play the notes separately if students are having trouble figuring out what is going on):
Do sol, do la, re la, re sol, mi sol, mi si, mi do, mi re…
There are any number of children’s songs which are ideal and fun for ear training, by playing small phrase at a time:
- Alphabet song
- Itsy Bitsy Spider
- Old MacDonald Had a Farm
- Take Me Out to the Ballgame
- London Bridge
- Mary Had a Little Lamb
- Yankee Doodle
- You Are My Sunshine
- This Old Man
- Ten In A Bed
- Twinkle Twinkle
- Happy Birthday
- Rock-a-Bye Baby
- On Top of Spaghetti
- Three Blind Mice
- Frere Jacques (canon)
- How Much is that Doggy in the Window?
- She'll be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes
- The Surprise
Once students become advanced enough in these basics, add in first do sharp and re sharp until students become proficient. Then add the rest of the sharps. Revisit some of the above exercises like top or bottom, adding in chromatic notes.
Review the sharps and flats regularly, then see if they can figure out each scale.
Take each phrase of some of the popular songs above, and keep switching keys.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas:
do fa - fa sol fa mi re, re
mi la - la si la sol fa#, re
si mi - mi fa mi re do, la
mi♭ mi♭ fa, si♭, sol, la♭…
Extra credit: what key was each phrase in?
Play with the seventh chord and add interesting rhythms:
One and two And three and Four and Five and have them play variations like:
do mi sol si (for the first bar, using the rhythm above)
do mi sol la (for the second bar, back to…)
do mi sol si (for the third bar)
do mi♭ sol si
And repeat the pattern. Then go up to re fa la do, use the rhythm, and from there have students begin improvising their own variations. If a friend plays the saxophone, they can now improvise an accompaniment for the saxophonist and have an informal jam session.
At this point some students are advanced enough to add in trills or grace notes. The more advanced students get, the longer the passages can get.
Students should be fairly proficient with three and four note chords before teachers can go R2D2 on them with completely atonal jumping around on the keyboard and dissonant chords.
In the early 20th century the US standardized A at 440 Hz, when previous tunings included 432 and 435 Hz. Given technology today, it’s easy for people to chose their own tuning. Different genres like house and techno can slide notes, or flatten the bass while simultaneously sharpening the melody. These are cool effects, and, this can impact students’ abilities to develop and maintain perfect pitch.
While ear training during solfege will help students develop the best ear that they can have, not everyone will develop perfect pitch (roughly half of our solfege class in the 70s either had perfect pitch or were no more than half step off in either direction). The end goal is to be able to write down something composed in your head. If what you composed was really in the key of fa, and it was notated in the key of mi, simply transpose the entire thing later.
Develop accuracy with the intervals. If there is a sequence of notes going up and the middle note is a do and that same note occurs on the way down, it should still be a do, the ear shouldn’t shift in the middle so that you now think it’s a do# or re, because this makes it more difficult if not impossible to capture sheet music accurately.
Solfegiating the notes correctly in fixed do doesn’t just mean sightreading the notes correctly, but when doing mental play, no slippage occurs either up or down when running through a particular song, in the way the general public has trouble with the Happy Birthday song:
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birth —
This is an octave jump, and no one gets it correctly for one of two reasons:
- the starting pitch was too high and most people can’t physically sing that higher note
- they can’t accurately gauge an octave interval
If students have had considerable ear training, and still perfect pitch in a fixed do system is not possible or accurate, at least have movable do down cold.
Those who have synesthesia experience cross-wired senses. For example, hearing the note re may be accompanied by the color blue. This is another form of “perfect pitch”.
Proprioception may provide yet another source of information when developing or maintaining perfect pitch, e.g. when singing. As a first soprano, when I sing the second sol higher than middle do, this is the first note where I am forced to open my sinuses and sing from higher up in my head as opposed to down in my throat.
The downside of relying on proprioception as a singer gauging the feel of vocal chords occurs if you have surgery, e.g. to remove a thyroid lobe or goiter. In my case, had I not had perfect pitch just from an audio-centric standpoint, a reliance on proprioception would have thrown my skills out the window. When doing ear training, consider using proprioception as an additional information vector, and a temporary stepping stone to attaining true perfect pitch.
1e. Music Dictation
Compose something on the spot for dictation based on what the class needs. Other ideas for dictation:
- Use a familiar song like Twinkle Twinkle (students have fun figuring out familiar tunes)
- Take solfege exercises in bass clef, and have students transpose to treble clef or vice versa
Have students transpose a familiar song like Twinkle Twinkle in several different keys.
Starting a Dictation Session
- Play a song, accenting the first beat of each measure.
- Have students conduct time and figure out how many beats per measure.
For early dictation sessions, pick / compose songs that:
- Start on the first beat
- Are in do major
- Use whole notes down to eighth notes, including dotted quarter notes
Work bar by bar. Play the notes for each bar and have students solfege the notes using their ear training. Have them put the note heads down on paper with the correct pitches.
Then have them conduct time to figure out the timing of each bar, then add the correct type of note. Use pencils so that they can erase and change noteheads (e.g. from quarter to half when they beat time and realize the duration is a half note).
Explain the importance of knowing the time signature and how many beats go into a bar. Have students work out some different options that could work for a 4/4 bar:
- 1 whole note (or 1 whole rest)
- 2 half notes (or 1 half note, 1 half rest, etc.)
- 1 half note, 2 quarter notes
- Dotted half note, quarter note
- 4 quarter notes
When students cover the sharps and flats, have them write them in their dictation book:
Questions in the form of brain teasers can be fun:
- Can a whole note fit into a 3/4 bar? If not, what can fit into a 3/4 bar?
- Here is a 4/4 bar with a half note. What kinds of notes or rests can you use to complete this bar?
For more advanced sessions:
- Introduce pickup bars and have students try to figure out on which beat the music starts. A pickup bar includes the notes that are played, not the rests in front.
- Chose different keys and have students determine what key the music is in, and what the key signature is
- Add sixteenth notes, triplets, and dotted eighth / sixteenth combinations
- Compose a shorter section of music, and have students come up with lyrics and learn to notate lyrics in music
While many people use music notation software like Sibelius and Finale (or even free software like MuseScore), music dictation classes must always start with learning to write music by hand.
When students are well-versed in handwritten music dictation, introduce them to free music notation software like MuseScore. This could be a stepping stone to Sibelius or Finale later if they become serious composers.