Solmization | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Solmization. General term indicating the use of syllables instead of letter-names, numbers, or other designations for the seven tones of the diatonic scale. Two systems of solmization have dominated: that employing the 'fixed do' and that employing the 'movable doh.


Solmization. General term indicating the use of syllables instead of letter-names, numbers, or other designations for the seven tones of the diatonic scale. Two systems of solmization have dominated: that employing the 'fixed do' and that employing the 'movable doh.' The seven syllables in use in the two systems differ in spelling but have almost identical pronunciations. They are do (doh), re (ray), mi (me), fa (fah), sol (soh), la (lah), and si or ti (te). The syllable forms in parentheses are those used in the Tonic Sol-fa system. In the 'fixed do' system, usually referred to as solfège or solfeggio, 'do' always represents the pitch with the letter-name C, re is D, mi is E, etc. This principle applies regardless of tonality. While following the letter-name system the 'fixed do' plan utilizes vocal sounds which are highly suitable for singing.

In the 'movable doh' system (commonly known as Tonic Sol-fa), doh is assigned to the tonic centre of the phrase. Doh is the first degree or tonic of the scale, ray is the second or supertonic, me is the third or mediant, etc. The shifting pitch and staff position of doh emphasize the principle of tonality and provide greater flexibility of application, particularly in music of a tonal nature.

The modern systems of solmization are derived from the 11th-century work of Guido d'Arezzo, who used the initial syllables of the first six lines of a hymn to St John, attributed to Paulus Diaconus of the eighth century.

Ut queant laxis,
Re-sonare fibris
Mi-ra gestorum,
Fa-muli tuorum
Sol-ve polluti,
La-bii reatum,
Sancte Ioannes.

Each phrase of this hymn begins successively one note higher than the preceding one with the sounds of the hexachord, the syllables being Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, and La, and the original sounds being the hexachord C D E F G A. These syllables also were used for the hexachords on F (F G A B flat, C D) and G (G A B C D E). By the mid-17th century, the seventh tone, si (possibly taken from the last line of the hymn), completed the octave. Do replaced ut in most European countries when the Guidonian syllables began to assume a fixed position and ut became C.


Solfège, derived from the Italian solfeggio, is the comprehensive French term for the teaching of the elements of music, notation, and ear training. It embraces the 'fixed do' principle and is used mainly in the schools of France, Belgium, and Italy, in training systems derived from them, and at certain US professional training institutions. The solfège system would appear to be advantageous and more significant in the training of highly motivated professional musicians, especially instrumentalists, emphasizing as it does the fixed position of do and encouraging the achievement of an absolute pitch sense.

Tonic Sol-fa

Tonic sol-fa is a highly comprehensive and carefully graded system which was perfected by the Englishman John Curwen in the mid-19th century to assist in the development of singers' aural senses through the use of 'the modulator,' and of their ability to read notation first through 'the elementary notation' and finally 'the established notation,' ie, staff notation. Utilizing the movable doh, it is used most widely in England and the English-speaking countries, in Germany, where it is known as Tonika-Do, and in Hungary.

The central idea of Tonic Sol-fa instruction is that through an aural examination of each of the scale tones (first in context and then in isolation) and of their function in the formation of chords, the relationship of sounds within a given key may be established mentally and ready for instant recall. Later this feature is extended to include the interrelationship of one key to another, and modulation thus is clarified.

The 'elementary notation' makes use of the first letter of each of the syllables (doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, te) with chromatic alterations written out in full, the sharpened syllable names ending in 'e' and the flattened endings in 'a.' For example, a flattened 'ti' becomes 'ta'; a sharpened 'ray' becomes 're'.

Exact indications are given for notes of higher or lower octaves by means of super- or subscripts; d' is an octave higher than d; t, is a half-tone below d. Curwen changed the seventh tone name, si, to te, so that each syllable would begin with a different letter. Another important tonal relationship was recognized when the tonic of a relative minor scale was set as lah, following the course of its historical evolution and maintaining the same doh for relative major and minor modes, ie, major and minor scales with the same key signature. To assist the learner visually, Curwen evolved an ingenious system of hand-signs so that a different position of the hand represented each of the scale tones. These have proved particularly useful with children.

Canadian children have been educated in both solfège and Tonic Sol-fa, depending on the prevailing philosophy. Henry Francis Sefton taught the fixed-do system after his arrival from Ireland in 1858. Alexander T. Cringan, a graduate of the Tonic Sol-fa College in London, used the Tonic Sol-fa system with marked success after 1886. J -B Dubois established public solfege classes in Quebec 1898-1903, later continued by his son Jules.

The movable-doh system was used widely in Canadian schools, until the teaching of music was in many regions reduced or removed from the curricula. Instrumentalists have in most cases preferred to call notes by their letter names, particularly keyboard players who have chords as well as melodic lines to read. The noted Hungarian educator Zoltán Kodály has indicated his preference for the Tonic Sol-fa for the teaching of sight-singing, and the widespread interest shown during the 1970s and into the 1990's in adapting the Kodály principles for Canadian schools in both official languages has stimulated new activity in Tonic Sol-fa training.

Some solmization textbooks published in Canada are:

Labelle, Charles. Petit Traité de Solfège (Montreal 1892)

Champagne, Claude. Initiation pratique au solfège (Montreal 1938)

Solfège pratique (Montreal 1939)

Solfège scolaire (Montreal 1940)

Solfège et chant, cinquième année (Outremont 1943)

Solfège pédagogique (Montreal 1948)

Le Solfège à l'École (Ottawa 1951, Montreal 1960)

Solfège élémentaire, 4ème et 5ème année (Quebec City 1955)

Solfège manuscrit à changements gde clefs, 44 lecons pour voix moyennes (Montreal 1958)

Marie-Jocelyne, Sister. Solfège, 2 vols (Rosemont Que, 1960)