How Solfege Makes You a Better Sightreader (And a Better Musician!)

This is the first entry in a multi-part series about how to use music theory as a performer. Links to future articles will be included here as they are published.

Two of the most common sayings in our brass studio, that are intrinsically linked, are “if you can say it, you can play it” and “if you can hear, it will be clear.” These are two sides of the same coin, and are a catchy way of addressing a fundamental truth about brass playing: being able to recognize and anticipate a pitch will improve your accuracy, intonation, and ease of playing.

When most people start playing the instrument, they buzz in the general direction of a note and let the instrument “slot” it for them, but being able to know where your note is and buzz directly on it instantly improves your tone, intonation, and accuracy. And this isn’t just true of brass instruments: anticipating pitch on a string or woodwind instrument goes a long way to making you a better player as well.

What is solfege?

When I was in elementary school, we learned some basic fundamentals of solfege, which is just the name for using the words “do re mi fa so la ti do” when singing a scale or a song. Unfortunately, due to the way the school curriculum is built, solfege isn’t really addressed any more once the student starts taking band, and most private (non-voice) teachers don’t have enough time with their students to teach it, since they’re working on the mechanical aspects of the instrument. I didn’t touch it again until university, in our aural perception classes. And it’s a shame, because I’ve found a solid knowledge of solfege, and specifically Movable Do, helps with sightreading, sight transposition, and general facility on the instrument.

Fixed Do vs Movable Do

There are two main kinds of solfege, which each have their uses. The first is Fixed Do, where the note “do” is always the note C. The second is Movable Do, where the note “do” is the root note of the key you are currently in. So, if you’re in G major, then G is “do” in movable do, and “so” in Fixed Do.

So which system is better? That’s a bit of a loaded question, as there are situations where each one has advantages over the other. As I prefer and teach in Movable Do, I’ll start by going over the advantages that Fixed Do has. There are two main situations in which you want to used Fixed Do. The first, logically, is when you are playing non-tonal music, or music without a key. If there’s no key centre, how can you assign “do” to the root of your key? Fixed Do is really the only logical system to use in non-tonal music. The other big argument in favour of Fixed Do is that some languages don’t use letter names, and strictly use solfege to refer to the notes. Languages like French, Russian, and Mandarin all use Fixed Do as the primary method of naming notes, so using Movable Do would cause unnecessary confusion and a lack of clarity.

Now, as an English speaker who plays 99% tonal music, Movable Do is the system that makes the most sense for me. Its biggest advantage is that the interval between any two syllables is always the same. In Fixed Do, you don’t change the syllable for accidentals, so the interval do-mi could be C-E, C-Eb, C#-E, C#-E#, C-E#, Cb-E, Cb-Eb, C#-Eb, or Cb-E#. That could be a major third, a minor third, an augmented third (“perfect fourth”), a diminished third (“major second”), or even a doubly augmented third (“tritone”)! And where I use solfege for ear training and not note-naming, that is TOO MANY OPTIONS. In movable do, interval do-mi is a major third, always, no question. So once you learn to sing the interval do-mi, you can always sing a major third. You don’t need to have a good singing voice, but it won’t take much practice before you can start to get it in tune.

There’s another subset of Movable Do, which is whether minor keys start on do, or start on la. Do-based Minor takes all the worst parts of Fixed Do and Movable Do and sticks them together, so I strongly advise against it. La-based Minor is the superior option here, meaning your minor scales will be read as la-ti-do-re-mi-fa(fi)-so(si)-la. Brackets indicate the raised 6th and 7th in melodic minor.

Movable Do for Sightreading

So now, back to sightreading. Once you have a piece of (tonal) music in front of you, and you’ve identified your key and starting pitch, your knowledge of solfege is what tells you how the piece will sound. I’m assuming the reader doesn’t have perfect pitch here, though even if you do, solfege is more concerned about the relationship between multiple pitches than each individual note, so it will still help. Even a non-trained-singer can sing a melody they haven’t seen before in tune if your grasp of solfege is strong.

A major struggle with beginning brass players is how there are multiple notes on the same fingering, and I often see young players end up one partial too high or too low, with no knowledge of what went wrong or how to fix it. If you know the syllable you’re aiming for, you can more quickly catch yourself when this happens, as you’ll always know where you should be in the key. So, how do we get to that point?

Practice Your Scales!

Ah, yes, scales. When you play your scale routine, try to think of the do-re-mi syllables behind the notes as you do it. Especially try to do it if you play variants, like scales in thirds, fourths, etc. You’re training your ear to hear and remember the sound of each syllable relative to the root, in any key you play. Same with arpeggios, though remember arpeggios don’t always start on do. A dominant seventh arpeggio should be though of as so-ti-re-fa, for example.

Movable Do for Phrasing

Once you know how each syllable SOUNDS, it’s time to learn what each syllable DOES. In classical music, chords can be blanket grouped into three main categories: tonic, subdominant, and dominant. Syllables that appear more often in chords in one category tend to carry the feel of that category as you’re playing. To broadly generalize, in major keys, do and mi are tonic notes, la is tonic or subdominant, fa is subdominant, re is subdominant or dominant, and so and ti are dominant. That’s a gross oversimplification, but even treating notes as such can help you anticipate and execute the arc of a phrase you’ve never seen before. Knowing that classical music generally moves from tonic, to subdominant, to dominant, and back to tonic sonorities will help you follow along with the shape of a phrase. Because being able to get the right notes on the first try is nice, but being able to get the right phrasing on the first try is the mark of a REAL strong sightreader.

In Conclusion

If you are learning music in a language that lets you easily introduce Movable Do into your studies, like English, it’s a helpful way for you to quickly learn intonation, recognize scale degrees, anticipate chord changes, and scope out the feel of a piece of music you’ve never seen before. I’ll go more into chords in a later entry, but for now, try to think the syllables as you practice your scales, and then try and include them when you practice your repertoire as well! Remember: the best way to improve at anything is to practice, and so while this makes sightreading easier, the MOST NECESSARY step is to actually practice sightreading: constantly seek out music you’ve never played before.

My suggestion for practicing sightreading is to find large collections of songs or etudes that are about two grades below your current level (roughly something that would take you less than a week to play “perfectly” in a lesson), and try to play it as well and as beautifully as possible on the very first try. Large collections mean you have something different to look at each time, and you can always start at the beginning again once you’ve made your way through and see if you’ve come up with any more insights in all your practicing.

If you like what you see, I’m always happy to talk more about learning music and what it takes to sound good! Don’t be afraid to reach out, and keep an eye on this blog as I add more entries on this topic. Happy practicing!

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