From time to time as I am writing a melody on the board that I want my students to play or sing, they will notice that I am not looking at music, and that I am singing quietly to myself (though apparently loud enough for them to notice) as I write. They are fascinated by this, and often ask me one of two questions: why are you singing, or how do you know what the notes are? The answer to both questions is really the same: I am singing so that I will know what notes to write down. I am using my solfege to transcribe the music I am thinking of into notes on the board.
If my students can’t already do this, I cannot give them a quick answer that will enable them to do what I am doing without practice or work. But I can get them started, and give them a method for using the solfege most effectively. There is a strategy to taking musical dictation. Today, I’d like to share that strategy with you.
Composers of Western tonal music privilege two notes in virtually every melody: the tonic and the dominant. These are the first and fifth notes, respectively, of the major or minor scale upon which a melody is based. For the purposes of this discussion, I will exclude other tonalities, but the principles I will discuss are essentially the same for them too. Because the tonic and dominant are so important, hone in on those first. You must be able to audiate the dominant and tonic tone at any time while listening to the melody. Whenever you hear either of those two pitches, you must recognize them. Once you can audiate and recognize the tonic and dominant pitches, the mediant (third tone in the scale) can be found in relation to the other two, and because the three of them form the tonic chord. We will continue to identify other notes in relation to these.
When you hear the supertonic (second note of the scale) you recognize it because it is a major second above the tonic, which you are still able to audiate. When you hear the submediant (the sixth note of the scale) you recognize it because it is a minor (major scale) or major (minor scale) third below the upper tonic. Once can quickly sing up the scale from submediant to tonic, and then confirm that the starting note was the submediant. The subdominant (fourth note of the scale) is a second above the mediant or below the dominant. With the tonic and dominant in hand, all of the other tones can easily be found in relation to those two.
Let’s take a simple example to see how this works. Let’s use “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” You’ll need an audio recording of the melody. First, listen to the whole melody. After you have listened to the whole melody, sing the tonic pitch on the syllable “do.” Listen to it a second time. This time, stop the recording at random places and immediately sing the tonic. Once you can do that, listen to it again and when it is finished, sing the dominant, then sing the tonic again. Now, what note does the melody start on. It is not the tonic or the dominant, so what note is it? If you need to, sing up the scale from the tonic or down the scale from the dominant until you match the pitch with the first tone of the melody. You will find that the melody begins on the mediant.
You now know that the first note is the mediant and the third note is the tonic. What is the second note? You will notice that the second note is above the tonic but below the mediant, meaning it must be the supertonic. You have now filled in the first three notes and you know they are mi, re, do. Soon after you will hear three more notes on mi. Before the first of those three notes, there is that note again that is lower than mi, but higher than do. Because you know it is not the tonic and it is lower than mi, you should recognize it is re. If you continue on in this manner, you will soon have the entire piece transcribed. With more difficult melodies, the procedure is the same. Find the tonic, then dominant, then mediant notes first, and then fill in the others by relating them to the tonic, mediant or dominant.