Solfege, Solfeggio, or Sol-fa, is the system of naming and singing notes with Do-Re-Mi rather than the English letters. It is my preferred language of teaching. I whole-heartedly believe it helps to develop “perfect pitch” – the ability to recognize notes without looking at the music or piano keyboard, especially in young students. I have perfect pitch, and while some believe it is a talent you are born with, I believe it can be trained, and have indeed successfully trained many young children.
All music sounds have names. The ability to connect those names to music pitches is the base of music literacy. This means that you can easily read music, “hear” any music in your mind by looking at a music score, and reproduce it by singing or playing, or you can catch any melody by ear, and write it down using music notation. I believe that the easiest way to acquire this skill is to use a learning method called Solfege – a very important part of any serious music education. Solfege, or Solfeggio, is based on the singing of a melody by using specific vowels, NOT English letters (C, D, E, F, G, A and B), but names Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti (Si), specially designed for singing, and accepted worldwide for music notation. The singing of note names helps any beginner to form the crucial skill of connecting a pitch of a note with its name, and tying his or her ear together with the voice and brain. The neglect to Solfege by most teachers may be attributed to the ignorance of the fact that our music perception involves our vocal apparatus as well as the auditory one – whenever we hear or play a melody, we also sing along with it inside of our mind.
When I attended the Dalcroze Institute at Juilliard School of Music in the summer of 2008, I was further convinced that Solfege is the most natural and musical way to learn and teach music. It is the heart of not only Dalcroze, but also the well-known Kodaly and Orff methodology. The problem with letters is that they come with their “speech” sounds, not actual note pitches. When one refers to a note as “C”, it is pronounced just as letter C, but when a student who is trained in Solfege sees the same note, he or she will naturally think of, if not sing, the exact musical pitch of that note.
Of course it is also important to learn the music letter names (just as the English language is the international universal langauge), and I do introduce them to students after they have mastered their “Do-Re-Mi”. In my opinion, even if a student never learns the letter names but has Solfege firmly engraved into their sense of pitch, he or she will not be disadvantaged at all in the learning and performance of music. The letter names are more convenient for Music Theory, as each note only requires one letter to write instead of two. My approach to Music Theory is that yes it is important, just as are reading and writing when learning a new language, but my first goal is always to teach students how to play and make music; I compare this to how they learn their mother tongue – they speak first before they read, write, and learn the grammar.
So do I use the letter names at all myself? The short answer is I only use the letter names when I need to communicate with others that are not fluent in Solfege. Whenever I see, sing (aloud or in my head) and play a note, my instinct is always the Solfege name.
For older students who learned their letter names instead of Solfege before they came to me, if they have not developed perfect pitch by age 7, do not worry – they can still become wonderful musicians! It is still important for them to “sing” the notes (with whatever name they are most comfortable with), at least inside of their mind while they are playing, so they can still develop a good sense of “relative pitch”.
While I was on the editorial committee for Sound Ideas – Music Education Journal published by University of Canterbury School of Music, New Zealand, I wrote an extensive article about how Solfege benefited my own study of music; I did not learn the English letter names until I was 14! That article was published twice, once by the Journal, and again by the Institute of Registered Music Teachers of New Zealand. Someday, when I have time, I will type it out and post it on this website!