"Did Oscar Hammerstein get it wrong?" or "Is Solfeggio Worth Knowing"
- 1 February 2004
"Did Oscar Hammerstein get it wrong?" or
"Is Solfeggio Worth Knowing"
In "The Sound of Music", Julie Andrews sang:
"do ti la sol fa mi re do!"
[or was it "so", not "sol"; and, does that make any difference?]
If that was good enough for Oscar Hammerstein, why should it not be good
enough for everybody else?
OK, so I try to find out about té [should show e with an acute
accent], te and ta, finding (for instance) the nice site at
http://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/etg/sol.html, where I read:
"You will notice that when the note is raised, the vowel is changed to "i"
(ee) and when it is lowered, it becomes "e" (ay). The only exception is
scale degree 2, which becomes Ra when chromatically lowered. When a melody
modulates to a new key, the new tonic is called Do. The other notes of the
scale are renamed accordingly."
But I like the bumbersticker saying: "Challenge authority!", so I
ask, "*WHY* do I need to worry about calling these notes by different
names, merely because I have changed the direction in which I am singing
the scale?"; and, "Isn't 'ti' the same note as 'té', which has the same
pitch as 'li'?".
Silly me, I never understand their explications, when people
answer "No!" to that last question.
Then I hear people talking about "movable do", so I get interested
and find such a seemingly good reference as that at
But immediately I get distracted by yet another authoritarian
"In some common misrepresentations of this method,the seventh
syllable is given as 'si' instead of 'ti'. The latter is obviously a
better choice, since it does not reuse the consonant 's' ". Well, life to
me is not so obvious as all that, and I seem to recall that lots of people
in other places around the world -- for instance Europe -- do things quite
differently from what we parochial Americans think is the only correct way
to do things. OK, "colour" me radical; that neither makes me quaver or an
"When chromaticism is locally based, that is, without modulation, the
solmization syllables are:
ascending: do di re ri mi fa fi sol si la li ti do
descending: do ti ta la le sol fi fa mi ma re ra do"
[See, tol' you there was a "ta".]
Oh, he (Web-page writer Art Levine?) clarifies things immediately!:
. . . . .
A common misunderstanding of the "movable do" system is that the
tonic note is always called "do". This opinion, held by many poorly
informed critics of the system, is likely responsible for the erroneous
belief that "movable do" is not suited to "complex"music. In order to
unburden ourselves of this error, it should be made clear that, in the
"movable do"system, the names do not impose any hierarchy with respect to
scale degrees. In other words, the solfa names are nothing more than
reminders of the intervallic relationships between the various notes. To
put this another way, one need only generate the seven well known modes, as
Scale type Tonic note (Note "#1")
. . . . .
[You knew those modes well, right?]
. . . . .
What we see above is that, for one thing, the "natural minor"
scale, i.e. the official "relative minor", uses La as its tonic. Even for
individuals raised more or less exclusively on a diet of major-minor music,
it can require some mental discipline to hear "la"as the tonic note, and to
hear "do" as the minor third of that scale. Beyond these two, basic to
most students whose experience with the Western tradition is often confined
to music written post-1700, the remaining modes may require even more
substantial perceptual overhauls at the outset. For
instance, in the Phrygian [I thought that was something to hold beer or
referred, perhaps, to one of my former girlfriends] scale, "do" functions
as the flattened sixth degree, and so on. [Geez!]
Another reason why it must be considered a blunder to designate
the seventh note of the major scale as "si" rather than "ti" should now be
clear. The syllable "si" -- "sol" raised by a semitone -- occurs as the
raised leading note of the minor scale, not the major. This confusion of
nomenclature is again probably a result of the incorrect notion that, in
all scales, the tonic is "do". It is not, and never has been.
. . . . .
Well, *that* certainly cleared everything up for me! For you, too?
Levine goes on to detail problems with the "fixed do" system,
which he says " . . . is sufficiently ridden with inconsistencies that it
turns out to be no system at all". Then, turning to a discussion of
"Movable do", he says something almost intelligible!:
. . . . .
The average music-lover-on-the-street will be familiar with
Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Do re mi song"("Do, a deer") from The Sound of
Music. In a very real sense, this tune is nothing more than a 20th-century
reflection of an idea initially fleshed out almost a millennium ago --1026,
according to most guesses. That is the date usually assigned to the letter
sent by Guido of Arezzo to Michael, in which he describes the teaching
success he has had by getting his students to learn a certain hymn to John
the Baptist ("Ut queant laxis"), in which each line begins with a
progressively higher scale degree. Using the song as a mental model, the
students learned to generate a system of memorization based on the syllable
occurring at the beginning of each line. Those syllables are underlined
here (see Liber Usualis ,p.1504) [Levine's underscores are replaced here
with "_" on both sides of the pertinent syllables]:
_Ut_ queant laxis, _Re_sonare fibris, _Mi_ra gestorum, _Fa_muli tuorum,
_Sol_vi polluti, _La_bii reatum
Guido's six-syllable method, ut re mi fa sol la, became the basis for
"hexachordal solmization", a method of singing according to overlapping
sets of six notes each, which was the sole system used in Europe for the
next five centuries, and which continued well beyond that date, even into
Mozart's time. ["Question authority"]
. . . . .
Now isn't THAT a merry tale! [And here I thought we were going to
talk about Julie Andrews! :-/ ]
I don't know about you, Dear Reader, but every time I try to find
out about this stuff, I get led down such merry paths of one distraction
after another that I never find the answers I have been so diligently
seeking. The situation reminds me of the captain of a ship, in days of
youre. His very life depended upon his being the only one aboard who could
use a sextant, else his companions no longer need him aboard; so why teach
others to use the sextant? Are our beloved teachers so jealously guarding
the simple knowledge that we seek? Or is the truth really all that
I own a copy of
Rameau, Jean-Philippe, 1722, . . . , 1971.
_Treatise on Harmony_. Philip Gossett, Editor;
Dover; New York; 444 pp., paperback.
which is one of the principle references on harmony. Strings are divided,
ratios of string lengths and of frequencies are discussed at length, and on
and on. I wonder whether I'll ever finish reading it. It puts me to
sleep. But one thing comes through strong: Simple ratios are very
important in good music. This begs the question:
If a te be not a li, then why not?
I am well aware that the tempered scale is anathema to
Barbershoppers, who pride themselves on singing in the Pythagorean mode or
in "Just Intonation". [Is there a real difference between the two? I may
have known for a moment, once-upon-a . . . . But, frankly, I have stopped
When I see grown people "arguing" over whether or not one must say
ta or li on the way down or up, I wonder what in the world I have gotten
myself into, and why any of that matters.
"Can't we all just get along?"
Do I need solfeggio in order to use and understand the Circle of
Fifths? Or is putting solfeggio on a Circle of Fifths an unnecessary
If I put solfeggio on a Circle of Fifths, must I, perforce, write
-- wherever I have a chromatic note such as
ta = te = tay = té ?=? li ??? --
something like "te/li", "li/te", "li=te", or something else? (The first
two of those incorrectly suggest a ratio which actually reduces to
unity.) Or is trying to relate solfeggio to a Circle of Fifths an
excercise so fraught with uncertainties as perforce to confuse issues more
than to clarify them?
And what has solfeggio to do with proper spelling of chords, anyway?
Sorry, friends. I have more questions than answers. But maybe I
might be permitted justly to intone what might be the most pertinent
question of all:
Is there in any of all this anything that real Barbershop Experts
can agree upon well enough to permit them to lay it all out on Web pages so
simply expressed that even those of us who are Rank Amateurs, but would
like to know the answers, might gain therefrom some real understanding?
Incidentally, Hammerstein avoided solfeggio chromatics, using only
the Western diatonic scale, in "do to la sol fa mi re do". Oh, yeah, I