Using Solfa

Music written down using the solfa names shows sets of pitches or tones with fixed distances between them. Arranged in a pattern, and with the rhythm in crotchets and quavers above each name, they can show a simple tune. Set in this order, we have the seven tones of a major scale:

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do

‘Do’ is the key note or tonic. ‘So’ is a perfect fifth higher. Any tone can be Do, but once you have chosen, all the others tones for the solfa names must take fixed places like the fingers on a hand. The next Do higher is shown: Do’, the next one lower, by: Do, (a flick below), and the same goes for any other note.

To hear the solfa tones on a keyboard: choose C4 for Do, then the seven next white keys getting higher. One after the other, each takes a solfa name, until you get to Do/C5 again and the pattern repeats eight notes higher. You have played a scale of C major. Keeping the same order, but starting this time on the La below Do, you hear the natural minor scale (A minor, if Do is C).

Choose another note to be Do, E4, for example, and play the E major scale. The solfa names will be exactly the same, and the La below the new Do will again start the relative minor, this time C#. Practising with Solfa, you will be able to sing these scales in your head, and play the right notes on your instrument by comparing the sounds you make. Knowing the number of sharps in these keys is important for writing or reading music on a five-lined stave whether simple or complicated, but like knowing how to change the settings on your phone compared with actually using it to speak to someone, that knowledge is not about being able to sing or play a tune.

Learning to use solfa starts with with singing very simple songs using just So and Mi like this one (So – Mi is a minor third, eg. C – A or E – C#).

Next to learn is La, then Mi, Re and Do. These five tones make the pentatonic scale (the most ancient), which is at the heart of music the whole world over. The two songs on this site: ‘Little Bird’ and ‘Flour of England’ use the pentatonic scale starting on Do; ‘Grey Wolf Lullaby’ uses the same scale but starting with La.

There are excellent books and courses available from the British Kodály Academy and Celia Waterhouse teaching you in simple steps. With what is here though, after singing ‘Rain, Rain’, you could learn ‘Flour of England’, using the recording or the standard notation version. Then sing it to the solfa names in place of the words. When you know them from memory, sing the solfa names of ‘Little Bird’ before you play the tune and see if you get them right. With learning many songs, gradually using larger sets of tones, reading new ones comes more easily. If you like singing, this skill is a huge support towards singing from sight using standard notation.

To help memory with movement or teach a tune to others without needing sheet music every tone has a hand sign. This old illustration also has some colourful descriptions of each one’s character.

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