Relative Solmization misunderstood

Relative solmization is not meaning that there is just another name for a note on paper. In first instance, solfa names are not alternative note names. The whole concept of relative solmization has not been developed from written music. Although it can be misused that way and it could be taught right away from the paper, but it is not its purpose. Unfortunately that is often one of the misunderstandings about relative solmization.


When in the 11th century Guido di Arezzo invented the method for sight-reading a notated melody by using hexachord names, his students already must have known the sounds of ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la and its relationships by practical singing. Even stronger, Guido explicitly claims that aural perception of the solmization names is a strong prerequisite for sight-reading:


“Do you not see how, in this melody, the six phrases begin each with a different note? If, trained as I have described, you know the beginning of each phrase so that you can at once and confidently begin any one you wish, you will be able to sing these notes in their proper qualities whenever you see them [...] to sing an unknown melody competently as soon as you see it written down, or, hearing an unwritten melody, to see quickly how to write it down well, this rule will be of the greatest use to you.”[1]

So first – before reading or writing – the students had to be trained. They had to know the melody and the words perfectly, which means – of course – by heart. Then their musical imagination must have been developed so strong that they could just find single notes by the according syllable. This must have been part of the training, before applying these syllables to the notation of another song to ‘refind’ the sounds which are already in their musical mind. So first we have to feed that musical mind with sounds, then we have to be aurally aware and conscious of what their sound relations are. Then we label the sounds and their relationships with solmization syllables, before we start reading and writing. Actually this means ear-training before sight-reading, or an approach from sound to symbol.

To put it in other words: we can only teach musical sight-reading and musical writing if we have first taught to use relative solmization without notation. This is very close to language learning: first we learn to speak and to understand, then we learn to read spoken words and how to write them down. Being able to sing melodies on solfa names, being able to ‘decode’ sounds into its relationship-names makes us understand what is sounding and what we sing. Relative solmization gives us, so to speak, the musical blueprint of a melody. And with that understanding we can learn to read and write musical (staff) notation[2].


The Kodály approach is using the ‘extended’ relative solmisation syllables that were developed through the ages after Guido. The ut is replaced by do to avoid the vocally unpleasant glottal stop[3]. In the hexachord system the half tone is always labelled mi-fa, which means that a major scale spanning an octave would be sung like this: ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la-mi-fa or ut-re-mi-fa-sol=ut-re-mi-fa. The hexachord system was completely built upon Gregorian chant repertoire, and Guido intended his method for teaching sight-reading that repertoire. Gregorian chant ruled church music up to the 16th century, and even secular vocal music of that period was stylistically closely connected to church music. When in the 17th century major and minor scales in a way replaced the ‘old’ church modes Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian and its plagal forms, there was a need to distinguish between the leading tone which leads to the tonic (the root) and the other half tone between the third and fourth tone of the scale. So a seventh name was added to the hexachord names, actually extending the system to a heptachord. The seventh name was first called si, probably derived from the beginning letters of the last two words of the hymn shown above:  ‘Sancte Ioanni’ = S and I = si. So the major scale up to the octave could be sung as do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do’. Then the ‘l’ of the sol was skipped, probably because of bad vocal production of the ‘l’-sound in the back of the mouth. Finally the si was replaced by ti to make it possible to raise the so chromatically into si without confusion. Thus the final form of the relative solfa-names is do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti. The half tones are now called mi-fa and ti-do and their tonal function is clearly distinguished[4].


A second misunderstanding about relative solmization is the assumption that the tonic is always called do. Principally any of the seven tones can be the tonic, it all depends on the given musical context where relative solmization is applied to. For example, the relative minor scale can be sung based on la: la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-so-la. This is the Aeolian scale, which appears in its unaltered form in many folk songs. In Western Music History we find a lot of repertoire with an (optional) leading tone, so the scale was extended by raising the so to si: la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-si-la. Melodic minor is sung by raising the fa to fi: la-ti-do-re-mi-fi-si-la. Of course these tones are options within the same piece of music and not separate scales. So next to the do, also the la can be (also harmonically) ‘defined’[5] as a tonic by using its leading tone si.


Concerning church modes[6], we can now use the heptatonic solmization syllables instead of hexachords[7] to have a unified set of syllables for singing repertoire from different periods from music history. The re is the tonic for Dorian with its leading tone di. To lower the Dorian sixth the ti has to be changed to ta. In a comparable way the Lydian fourth fa-ti is lowered to fa-ta if necessary. In Mixolydian the leading tone is sung by raising fa to fi.

The Phrygian mode has no structural alterations. A leading tone is impossible because of the diminished second (ri-fa) or augmented sixth (fa-ri) that would occur in a cadence. Of course its tonic is mi.


This change from hexachord to heptachord solmization shows the influence of musical style and language on the tools for music education. In the Baroque period there is a stronger accent on the relationship between relative major and minor scales. This changes in the Classical period when the relationship between parallel major and minor scales is getting stronger by extending these scales more and more with structural chromatic tones, while at the same time harmonic colour and its sound quality is getting gradually more emancipated. During the 19th century the difference between major and minor is more and more fading away and the tones of both scales form a toneset on the same root tone. The more structural the chromatic alterations become, the more emancipated the chromatic scale becomes. Together with enharmonic modulation the whole traditional tonal system had to collapse, as composers are always striving for writing modern, ‘unheard’ music. So to speak, if you can not avoid copying each others work, on purpose or not, composers can not compose any longer using the existing musical language. If the language is insufficient for genuine musical expression the language has to be changed. This leads right into the historically necessary and unavoidable step of emancipating the twelve tones from its traditional ‘tonal corset’: Twelve Tone music.


Of course this is a very brief summary of Western Music history, but it is important to understand that relative solmization also adapted to the repertoire from different periods.

The (Aeolian) minor scale can also be sung as a ‘colour change’ of the major scale: do-re-ma-fa-so-lo-ta-do. So if there is not a structural change to the minor scale but just a local colour change, it is possible to alter the major scale into a minor scale[8]. In this way the alterations are used like this:










































These alterations are the same if another tone than do would be the root. So on a minor scale the do could be raised to di for an incidental colour change to major.


The third misunderstandig is the idea that relative solmization is intending to be an alternative for note names on a staff. In Hungary, after intense training in relative solmization every child learns also to read in different keys, singing the melody on note names as well as on relative solmization names. The note names actually appear when an instrument is learned. The advantage of this approach is that the musical training is already on such a high level that learning an instrument goes much faster and with more musical intelligence[9].

[1] Strunk, Source Readings, 124-125

[2] This is in fact the difference between deciphering sounds from written notation and recognition of already perceived sound patterns. Being able to read language does not mean deciphering single letters or syllables and combining them to words. Research has shown that eye movement in reading is happening by making short and fast movements, interrupted by short stops. So reading language means to immediately see a complete word or a group of words. This should be the same with reading musical notation. So if children all over the world can learn to read and write language, why can’t we teach the same in music?

[3] The glottis, actually the vocal folds and the space between it, is closed so that a pronounced vowel then will start with a sudden accent. Because of the interruption of breath streaming it is called glottal ‘stop’.

[4] In the major scale mi-fa could be called ‘a’ leading-tone, whereas ti-do could be called ‘the’ leading tone.

[5] A tonic is not only necessarily defined by a leading tone, also rhythmic gesture and phrasing play a role.

[6] The heptatonic solmization for the church modes described in this paragraph has an alternative. The church modes can be distinguished in major-based (Lydian and Mixolydian) and minor-based (Dorian and Phrygian). So Lydian can be sung with do as a tonic, raising the fa to fi: do-re-mi-fi-so-la-ti-do’. Mixolydian would be sung as do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ta-do. Dorian can be sung as an alteration of the la-scale: la,-ti,-do-re-mi-fi-so-la. Phrygian would be a la-scale with lowered second tone: la,-ta,-do-re-mi-fa-so-la. Of course it is historically wrong to see the church modes as alterations of the major or minor scale because the church modes were there first and major and minor were derived from them. Anyway, this alternative solmization for the church modes is a common practice in Hungarian music education. In practice both ways are defendable.

[7] This does of course not mean that hexachord solmization is useless, quite the contrary. For Early Music students it is of course the system that is most authentic and should be part of their studies.

[8] A good example of this is the minor subdominant in a plagal cadence: [I-IV-V-I-] ii56 halfd.-I, where the la would be lowered to lo which makes it a colour chord.

[9]For example, intonation problems can be corrected by the student himself by listening and physical manipulation until the expected sound is heard. If the ear of the student is not developed enough to do so, teachers sometimes correct wrong intonation by physical guidance, or by simply asking for a higher of lower pitch. But the student himself has to hear when intonation is correct, not only the teacher.